A Certain Summer
“WHAT do you mean, you’re worried about Helen?” Sally asked. It wasn’t even July Fourth and the gossip had already started. It was funny, she thought, that when many of the men were away at war, there had been so much less barbed chatter.
Sally Carter and Betty Spencer, who had been known as “Betty Boo-hoo” when she was a little girl, were sitting under Betty’s umbrella on the beach, watching the sandpipers pick and prance in the foam at the edge of the sea. “Of course, it’s awful not knowing if your husband is dead or alive, but that’s been true for years. Why now?”
“She must know he’s dead,” Betty said, with something in her voice. “That’s not what I’m worried about. It’s the men.”
“What men?” Sally asked.
“You can’t be serious. Helen would never go after anyone’s husband.”
“But they might go after her,” Betty said defensively. “My Malcolm, for example.” She lowered her voice. “He was practically a sex fiend before the war. Now, and don’t you dare repeat this”—she paused and, unable to say the words, held out her pointer finger, and bent it, so it looked limp. “He’s lost interest in me. We barely talk, except about the children. And sex? Never.”
“What does that have to do with Helen?”
“She’s beautiful. She’s alone. And maybe she’d welcome a little attention.”
“That’s a lot of C-R-A-P,” Sally snapped. “She’s still waiting for Arthur. You know they grew up together in St. Paul. They were inseparable from the time they were tiny. Arthur’s grandfather was ‘the Grain King’ and Helen’s was ‘the Empire Builder.’ One of them built the railroad, and the other used it to ship his wheat. And with Helen’s mother so sick, I think she spent more time at the Wadsworths’ than she did at home.”
“That’s the thing: she didn’t really have a mother, did she?”
“No. It was pretty awful. Mrs. Gladsome was in and out of institutions. Helen never knew when she’d be at home, and when she’d suddenly be gone. She told me about it when we were in boarding school. She and Arthur were always happiest in each other’s company. When we had a dance with St. Mark’s, he filled in every dance on her card with his name. We all knew those two were meant for each other. They were like brother and sister and best friends and lovers—but not till they were married, of course. Nothing could come between them.
“As for Malcolm and his limp finger, haven’t you noticed how the men who were in combat seem different, muffled or amplified, or something else I can’t quite explain? They try to
hide it, whatever ‘it’ is, but these houses are so close to each other, sometimes you can hear the man next door wake up screaming in the night. Who knows what they relive in their dreams?”
“I don’t want to imagine,” Betty said firmly.
“I do,” Sally said. “I want to know what Dan went through while he was away. As for Helen, she isn’t a husband stealer. If anyone made a pass at her, she’d make sure he didn’t do it again.”
“There’s another thing about Helen,” Betty said. “She didn’t grow up here.”
“Neither did you,” Sally said.
“Yes, but I had a strict mother and I always knew right from wrong. I remember hearing that the first sign of Helen’s mother’s illness was when she started sleeping with the gardener, and the chauffeur, and anyone’s husband she could get. That was before she was certifiable. And in the summers, Helen’s father took her to Europe, instead of coming to a place like this. Who’s to say she really cares about the rules?”
“I say so. You’re right that Helen had a horrible childhood,” Sally said. “It makes her want even more to have a stable family life. The last thing she’d do is get involved with a married man.
“As for not growing up here, if I remember right, your mother was a hat model when your father met her and introduced her to the Colony Club and Wauregan. And wasn’t your grandfather an Irish cop? This is America, Betty. You belong here, and so does Helen. She loves the island. Helen would never do anything to make trouble. She calls this her ‘safe place.’ If she could hear you, she might not be so sure.”
Sally caught her breath and stopped. Defending Helen had brought out the anger that surfaced when she was confronted
with unfairness, and made her feel light-headed and reckless. “I’m warning you,” she said. “If you even hint that Helen is husband bait, I will tell everyone in this place about the night you screwed the captain of the Australian tennis team under a tree at the Merion Cricket Club, and the next morning admitted you never found out his name. So much for ‘knowing right from wrong.’ ”
“Don’t test me,” Sally said. “I’m sorry you’re having problems with Malcolm, but that doesn’t have anything to do with Helen. It’s that damn war the men won’t talk about, as though being back at Wauregan can just erase the past few years.”
When the men were mired in muddy trenches, on bombing runs, and in deadly battles, their dreams of the colony were as vivid as Technicolor movies with big-screen happy endings. It might be unrealistic to hope that a small insular summer place could restore what the war had stolen, but battlefront life and death were so surreal it was hard to recall even an ordinary peacetime day. The warriors’ anticipation of the perfect families waiting for them in an ideal community were like the fantasies people at home shared during rationing. For years, they would discuss the delicacies they would enjoy when they could buy anything they wanted, only to find, after a few postwar feasts, that for the most part, even good food was just food.
Sally stood up and brushed the sand off her legs, while her rickety beach chair folded in on itself. “Dratted things,” she said. “You’d think now the war’s over the club could buy some new ones. I’ve got to go. I’m on my way to Helen’s, as a matter of fact. In case you’re wondering, I won’t tell her what you said. This place is too small to start feuds.”
“I didn’t mean . . .” Betty began, but Sally was out of earshot by the time she could figure out what to say next. She reminded herself of all the times she had thought how wonderful it was that the granddaughter of a Boston policeman could end up listed in the Social Register, with her children in the best schools, and thought that Sally was quite right: “This is America.” Still, Helen was the daughter of a crazy nymphomaniac mother. Didn’t those things run in families?
• • •
Sally and Helen settled on the sea-facing side of Helen’s porch, where a breeze gently combed through their hair, lifting it off their necks in the morning heat. Sally would never have considered discussing her problems with “Betty-boo,” but Helen was her closest friend, and she, too, was having trouble at home. In a voice choked with humiliation, she confided that her husband, Dan, the president of the Wauregan Association, had made an offhand comment about what had happened when Paris was liberated and he went there on leave from the Navy. “ ‘The Parisians went wild,’ he said. ‘It looked like every woman in the city was ready to lift her skirts for an American soldier.’ ”
“Uch,” Helen said. “That’s a little vulgar.”
“So then he said he saw this prostitute who had hair exactly the same red as mine. He told me it was the hair that made him do it.”
Helen snorted. “I hate to laugh, but what a lame excuse! Why did he have to tell you? He didn’t come back with a disease?”
“No, thank goodness,” Sally said. “He came back shut down
and angry, and he won’t tell me what happened when he was away. Occasionally, he’ll burp up a little tidbit, but mainly it’s just the bare facts. I know his ship was attacked and sunk, and most of the sailors were lost, but when he told me about it, he said. ‘You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen the sea on fire.’ He was talking about a kind of hell, but his voice was soft, as though he were describing a Turner sunset. He has horrible nightmares, then claims he can’t remember them. He won’t say what it was like to be there—and then he tells me that!” she said. “About some woman.”
Helen gave Sally a sympathetic blue-green look from behind her tortoiseshell glasses. There was so much she, too, wanted to know about the war.
Sally went on to tell her that Dan had followed his confession of casual infidelity by remarking that her hair was like the red light in a brothel window. He said he was sure that while he was away, it had attracted plenty of attention from the soldiers and sailors and airmen she “fed” at the canteen in Times Square, “making those condescending little quotation marks in the air,” Sally said angrily. “He was never like this before.” Her voice dropped, until it was almost a whisper. “What could have happened?”
Helen was not entirely surprised. During the war, she and Jack and Kathleen had moved to New York for the duration. The house in St. Paul was meant for a big family and a complete staff, and with only the three of them in residence it felt hollow and cold. She had always wanted to live in Manhattan, and she used the Wadsworth family apartment, enrolled Jack in the best boys’ school, and volunteered for the Red Cross. After an intensive nursing course, she signed on for night duty, so she
would only be gone when Jack was in bed and Kathleen was in the apartment.
She was assigned to the docks where wounded soldiers were unloaded from the hospital ships. The scene had a disturbingly surreal quality. It took place in the blacked-out city, with hooded flashlights illuminating the men who had been laid out in rows of stretchers. The disembarkation began at ten-thirty. The official story was that the soldiers were off-loaded at night to avoid traffic, so they could be transported to the appropriate facilities as quickly as possible, but that was a cover-up. The government didn’t want civilians to see the extent of the damage, for the same reason that at the start of the conflict, newspapers and newsreels were forbidden to show pictures of dead soldiers. The Red Cross nurses were required to sign a confidentiality agreement, swearing that they would not discuss what they were doing.
Each night, when the ships disgorged their human cargo, doctors walked along the lines, assessing each man’s injuries and deciding where he should be sent for treatment. Helen was responsible for making certain that the men in her area were taken to the right ambulances, and recording who went where. Some of the soldiers were so badly injured she found it hard to look at them. The blackened burn victims were the worst. After them, the cases she found most disturbing were the men who had to be strapped into their stretchers because they could suddenly turn violent, or who stared, unblinking and silent, and didn’t answer when she bent over to welcome them and ask their names.
She remembered when her mother had stopped talking and lay in her bed in the sanitarium, never turning her eyes
away from the glamorous portrait of her younger self. Helen’s father had brought the picture to be hung opposite her bed, as though to remind her of who she was, or once had been. When that didn’t work, he switched it for a painting of the family and Helen’s mother’s much-loved dog. Helen was so young when the painting was made that she could almost understand that her mother would not recognize her as the child in the white dress, sitting on the floor of their library, holding a little Papillon on her lap. But surely, she thought, she might have had some response to the image of “Blizzard,” with her perked ears and the white butterfly stripe bisecting her forehead. She had brought that dog to her marriage, along with her ladies’ maid. Helen had thought that the maid, always known as “Mam’selle,” had been more important to her mistress than the little girl sitting close to her mother’s satin ball slippers. Even if it was unthinkable to include a servant in a family portrait, Mam’selle was there, a ghostly pentimento, with a protective, possessive hand on her mistress’s shoulder.
After the war, with Arthur still gone, Helen stayed in Manhattan. Jack was happy at his school, and for Helen, as a woman on her own, life was more stimulating than in St. Paul. She continued to work for the Red Cross at a veterans’ hospital that attempted to rehabilitate men who suffered from what had openly been called “shell shock” in the last war, but now was only acknowledged in the most extreme cases. No matter how terrified and confused the veterans she worked with were, they evidently believed it was unmanly to talk about their experiences. Whether they feared that unleashing their emotions would throw them further off balance, or were simply behaving the way they had been brought up to act, in a society where
“boys don’t cry,” the results were the same: silence and bravado, until finally, in the soldiers who were most likely to be cured, there came a loss of control, the lightning, and thunder, and hailstones that broke the unbearable heat of memory.
“Listen,” Helen told Sally. “The men we’re trying to help? They’re so traumatized, they’re in a hospital, but it’s hard to get even them to say more than ‘I only did what anyone would do.’ When you find out what they’ve been through—and you have to, or they’ll never get better—you can hardly believe it. I try to be like the doctors, who don’t let it upset them, but I can’t be that detached. Once they start talking, sometimes I want to put my fingers in my ears, and say, ‘Stop! Don’t tell me.’ ”
“How about the heroes?” Sally added. “With medals for bravery? You’d think someone would say, ‘Bart Littlefield won the Distinguished Service Cross for—what is it? ‘gallantly risking his life under the most dangerous circumstances’?—and then tell us what the ‘circumstances’ were. But they act like it would be barroom bragging. The only higher award than the Distinguished Service Cross is the Medal of Honor, usually awarded to the family by the president, because for the most part, you have to die to get it. Remember what Bart said when someone congratulated him? ‘I was just lucky.’ ”
“I don’t think it’s so much that they’re shutting us out, as afraid that speaking about the unspeakable will bring home everything they want to leave behind,” Helen said.
“Still, some of them are really nuts,” Sally said. “Did you know that since the war, John Williams can’t eat anything with bones in it? Marjorie says he won’t tell her why. But bones? What could that be about?”
“Don’t even think about it. Does he eat things that used to have bones, like hamburgers?”
“I don’t know, but Marjorie says even fish bones are taboo. Poor John. Can you imagine what he must have seen?”
“No,” Helen said. “It must have been horrible. How awful to think of Marjorie cooking rice and spaghetti and boning chicken breasts, all the time wondering what made her husband suffer so badly.”
“It’s odd how the war took people differently. Look at Ted and Libby; do you ever remember another man commuting during the week? An hour and a half each way? He’s here almost every night,” Sally said.
“I know. I love watching them. Libby told me that all during the war Ted believed if he could get back to her and the kids, and Wauregan was still the same, he’d know he had been fighting for the right reasons. Not just to stop evil, but to preserve good.”
Sally nodded. “I saw them one afternoon when I was walking along the beach. They were in the surf and he was holding her like a baby and swinging her in the waves. They looked about eighteen years old.”
Helen smiled. Ted was shaped like a fireplug and Libby was tiny and so light that she ran like a deer.
“It’s not an accident that Dan’s the head of the Wauregan Association,” Sally said. “I think he wanted the job because he thought this place had a magic that would cure him.”
“It does,” Helen said. “It just takes longer for some people than others.”
She wondered, as she often had, whether, if Arthur came home, he would be so wounded that he would shut her out
when she asked what it had been like in France. She was certain he would not have turned mean like Dan.
Despite their private struggles, Wauregan couples remained coupled, and tried to keep up appearances. Stories seeped out about men who seemed like troubled strangers to their wives and stumbled as they tried to reestablish relationships with their children, but most of the husbands and wives cared enough about each other that they were determined to regain their footing. Others thrashed along, some because they believed divorce was a disgrace; others because the men couldn’t afford to support two households. And there were the Wauregan Rules. If a family split up, and their house was sold, neither parent would be allowed to rent a place there. Losing the island summers would be another kind of divorce. A man or a woman might find another spouse, but nothing could replace Wauregan.
• • •
Whatever went on behind closed doors, in the ways that showed, the colony’s treasured sense of continuity prevailed. The children, especially, went about their summer lives as they always had.
For those who were old enough, the most engrossing activity was sailing on the gusty bay. The community had its own fleet of fat-bellied Beetle Cats, the same boats their fathers and mothers had sailed when the vessels were brought onto the island in 1921, the year they were first made. They were small and sturdy and rarely tipped over, although, as one member of the Yacht Club Committee remarked, “I don’t know why we don’t lose at least one child every year.” Often enough, a boy or girl
forgot to duck when the boat went about, and got whacked on the head; or tumbled overboard if the vessel heeled in a strong wind.
That summer, on the day they arrived, Jack told Helen he wanted to get his father’s old boat, Red Wing, into the water again. Helen and Kathleen were in the kitchen when he announced his intentions, then wheeled around and left. They heard the stairs squeak as he loped back up to his room, as though he had gotten something off his chest.
“Do you think he wants the boat to be ready to sail when Arthur returns, or he’s given up, and he’s fixing it for himself?” Helen asked Kathleen. “Arthur told him it would be his when he turned fourteen.”
“Ah, Mrs. W, who knows what the boy is thinking? I’ll start worrying when he doesn’t eat everything on his plate and ask for seconds.”
“Mmm-hmm,” Helen said. “Sometimes not knowing makes me want to act like Jack. Just mad. When a woman whose husband came back from the war complains that she feels like she’s married to a stranger, I’m tempted to say, ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t even know if I have a husband.’ ”
Kathleen pursed her lips, trying to keep the words in, then her habitual self-containment cracked. “Don’t you think I want to know what happened to Mr. Arthur?” she said. “Didn’t I bring that boy up? I know him. If he was alive, he would have done anything—killed and stolen if he had to—to get back to you and Jack. Mr. Arthur is gone for good. It’s time for you to stop fooling yourself, and letting Jack believe his father will step off that ferry one fine day.”
“No,” Helen said. “Arthur was working with a Resistance
group. Even if Frank doesn’t know what happened, someone must.”
“What if they do? It seems like no one’s telling. Maybe you should find a new man,” Kathleen said.
“I don’t want another man. I want Arthur,” Helen said crankily. Then she strode out of the kitchen and let the door swing shut behind her. She was sick of being soaked with sorrow, and ashamed of being angry at her absent husband, who almost certainly had no control over what had happened, or had been done to him.