Chapter 1: Gussie Gussie
Gussie Feldman didn’t enjoy swimming but she did like to lie on the wet sand, in the shadow of Atlantic City’s Steel Pier, and wait for the tiniest ripple of a wave to wash over her. If she positioned herself just so, her body rose with the incoming tide, and for a brief moment, she felt weightless.
She was lying in just such a manner, staring up at the bright blue sky, when her aunt Florence’s face came into her field of vision. “I discovered a lovely note when I arrived home,” Florence said. “I want to give my compliments to the artist.”
Gussie grinned. She had devoted more than a quarter of an hour to writing the note, which she’d carefully positioned on the Oriental rug in the entryway of her grandparents’ apartment, where Florence would be sure to see it. With her colored pencils, she had written in big, purple letters, Dear Florence! And Anna. We are at the beach. Come have fun! Love, Gussie. At the last minute, she decided she had not used enough exclamation marks, so she added three more after Florence’s name but stopped short of allocating any to Anna. Maybe, if her grandparents’ houseguest noticed she hadn’t been awarded any, she’d decide to stay at the apartment.
“Do you want to be a mermaid?” Gussie asked Florence now, hoping to capitalize on her aunt’s good mood. Sometimes, if Gussie asked sweetly, Florence would cross her legs at the ankles and pretend the two of them were merpeople, out for a swim around the Tongan Islands, which Gussie had read about in her picture book Fairy Tales of the South Seas.
“For a few minutes. Then I’m going to go out for a swim.”
Florence lay down beside Gussie in the surf, and the two of them bumped against each other as the waves lapped at their ankles and hips and shoulders. When their skin touched, Gussie felt shy. It was always like this when her aunt returned home from college. It took time for Gussie to relearn Florence’s face and the amount of space she took up in a room and the funny way she talked to Gussie like she was both a beloved child and a trusted grown-up.
“What do you think of Anna?” Florence asked as she propped herself up on her elbows and gave Anna a wave. It was a hot day and the beach was crowded with people, but Gussie spotted her right away.
“I think it’s her fault I have to sleep on the sun porch.”
Florence let out a loud cackle. “Nonsense. I spent my entire childhood begging your Nana and Papa to clear out that sun porch. Mainly so I could get away from your mother.” She reached out and pinched Gussie in the ribs. “You’re a lucky girl.”
Gussie didn’t know about any of that. The sun porch was fine—no tinier, in actual fact, than her bedroom in her parents’ apartment. The room had a bank of windows that faced the ocean, and if she stood on her tiptoes, she could see beyond the pitched roofs of the homes that lined Virginia Avenue, all the way to the beach, where the blue-and-white umbrellas looked like tiny pinwheels. The view was nice but, on summer mornings, when the sun rose over the Atlantic Ocean and its long rays bored through the glass, the room became unbearably hot. In those moments, Gussie wished her grandparents had remained in their house on Atlantic Avenue for the summer.
“I wish we weren’t in the apartment,” she allowed herself to say out loud, since her grandparents were yards away in their beach chairs. In the summer months, Esther and Joseph rented out their house—just one block from the beach—to tourists and moved back into the apartment above the bakery, where, Esther reminded anyone who complained, the family had lived quite happily when Florence and her older sister, Fannie, were small.
“Do you know how many summers I spent wishing I weren’t in that apartment?” Florence asked.
“God, I have no idea,” she said, sending a small splash of water in Gussie’s general direction. “It was a rhetorical question.”
“What’s rhetorical mean?”
Florence looked up at the sky and thought for a moment. “Something you say because it sounds good but not because you actually expect an answer from anyone.”
“Then why say it?”
“Because it’s better than saying nothing at all?” She squeezed a handful of wet sand through her fingers. “But when you put it like that, it makes me wonder if we shouldn’t all just tell each other what we mean.”
Gussie scrunched up her nose and grabbed at her own fistful of sand. What Florence seemed to forget was that, since Gussie was only seven, no one ever told her anything—one way or the other. Everything she’d ever learned about anything she had learned by keeping quiet and paying attention.
Take her mother’s confinement, for instance. She first learned her mother, Fannie, was expecting another baby because she’d overheard her say something to Mrs. Kingman when they had stopped by her shop for a pair of stockings. She guessed the pregnancy was risky because she’d heard her grandfather warn her mother to be careful on several different occasions in recent months. And she knew Dr. Rosenthal had recommended strict bed rest at Atlantic City Hospital because her mother had repeated his prescription to Esther when she’d returned from a recent doctor’s appointment.
There had been a good bit of debate between Gussie’s mother and grandmother over what to do with Gussie while her mother was on bed rest. Remaining with her father, Isaac, had turned out to be out of the question. Gussie knew this because she had overheard Esther tell Fannie so in precisely those words. “Gussie remaining at your apartment is out of the question.”
Gussie was sure her father would balk when he learned that her mother intended to send her to live with her grandparents for the summer but, as her mother’s confinement neared, not a word was said about the plan, one way or the other. The day before Fannie was to be admitted to Atlantic City Hospital, she packed Gussie’s summer clothes and bathing suit, some of her books, her jacks, and coloring pencils away in an old suitcase. The bag sat in the apartment’s narrow hallway, a boulder that Isaac had to step over to get to the kitchen. When Gussie could no longer stand his silence on the subject, she begged, “Father, can’t I stay with you? Here?”
“Gus-Gus,” Isaac said, as if he were going to give her a straightforward response, “what in the world would we get into, knocking around by ourselves?”
Gussie had begun to wonder if her entire life might be rhetorical—no answers for any of it—when Florence pulled her back to the present, “Remember, knees and heels together. If you’re a mermaid you can only move your feet. I mean, fins.”
Gussie pushed off the sandy bottom and scooted through the waves, using her arms to steer and kicking her tail fiercely. Always, she was careful to keep her chin above water. “How do I look?” she called over her shoulder, but Florence wasn’t watching her, wasn’t even looking in her direction. Instead, she sat in the breaking waves, studying the shore.
Gussie circled back, waved a hand in front of Florence’s face. “Let’s pretend you’re the mermaid in the glass tank at Steel Pier, and I’ll swim from Australia to save you.”
“Why do I need to be saved?” said Florence, who still looked very far away. “Don’t I like my life at the Pier?”
“You want to be free to swim about in the ocean, silly.”
Florence turned to face Gussie then, giving her niece her full attention. “Yes, you’re quite right. I nearly forgot.”
When Florence and Gussie returned to the chairs Joseph and Esther had rented, they found Anna sitting on a blanket, alone.
“Your parents went for a walk,” Anna said to Florence, completely ignoring Gussie.
Florence motioned for a small, pleated bag, within arm’s reach of Anna, and Anna passed it to her. As Florence rooted through it, a red bathing cap escaped. Gussie reached for it and handed it to Florence, who waved it away, one hairpin already in hand and three more in her teeth. While Florence pulled her short, brown hair away from her face, Gussie held the rubber cap in her lap, admiring it. Her aunt always had the prettiest things. Tiny stamped divots ran across the cap’s surface in neat rows. Each one reminded Gussie of a starburst.
“Are bathing caps required at this beach?” Anna asked.
Florence mumbled something through her pursed lips but it was unintelligible on account of the pins, so Gussie answered for her. “Not anymore.”
Anna exasperated Gussie but for no real reason. She was quiet and a little hard to understand but she was also perfectly nice, and even pretty—with dark brown hair, green eyes, and pale skin that was unlikely to get any darker if Anna continued to wear drab cotton dresses to the beach.
“My hair just gets in my eyes when I swim,” Florence said after removing the last pin from her mouth.
“Very good,” said Anna, but the word good came out sounding more like gut. Anna’s English was close to perfect but her accent was heavy, and sometimes her words came out slowly, as if her sentences were a string of taffy. Often, Gussie didn’t have the patience to wait on them. Gussie’s mother had told her to be kind—that she should try to imagine what it must be like for Anna to be in a new place, so far from her parents, but Gussie wasn’t inclined to be sympathetic.
Gussie heard a high-pitched whistle followed by a “heigh-ho!” and turned to watch Stuart Williams leap from the Boardwalk onto the hot sand.
“Have you abandoned your post?” her aunt shouted at him as he raced toward them and grabbed Florence up in a hug. Anna and Gussie stood to greet him, too.
Gussie thought Stuart was very handsome. He didn’t look anything like the men in her family, or any of the men at the synagogue, for that matter. He had clear, blue eyes and short, blond hair, and in the summer months, his skin tanned to a golden brown. He wore the same blue suit that all the Atlantic City Beach Patrol lifeguards wore—a wool one-piece with a white belt and the letters ACBP stitched across his chest.
“Dan said you were here, so I had to come see the siren of the sea for myself.” He rubbed the top of Gussie’s head with his fist and extended a hand toward Anna. “I’m Stuart.”
“Stuart, this is Anna from Germany,” said Florence. “She’s staying with my parents for the summer. Until she goes to college.”
“Good to meet you, Anna from Germany,” he said with a smile. “Where are you going to school?”
“New Jersey State Teachers College.”
“Ah, in picturesque Trenton.”
“He’s a wisecrack. Don’t pay him any attention,” said Florence to Anna, conspiratorially. “Trenton’s fine.”
Stuart’s eyes were shiny and bright. “When’d you get back?” he said, returning his attention to Florence.
Florence put a finger to her lips, as if she were doing a complicated arithmetic problem. “Three or four days ago?”
“And this is the first I’m seeing you? I’m outraged.”
“I went looking for you at the States Avenue stand but they said you’d been booted down the beach.”
He wagged his head in the direction of The Covington. “Long story. And one that’s probably best told from the stern of a boat.”
“Stuart coaches the Ambassador Swim Club in the off-season,” Florence said to Anna. “Spent four years ordering me around.”
“A lot of good it did,” said Stuart.
“He’s a monster,” Florence said to Anna, which Gussie knew was not actually true. It bothered her when grown-ups said the opposite of what they meant.
“So, you’re really going to do it?” he asked Florence when everyone’s smiles had faded from their faces.
“How’s the training been going?”
“Fine, good. I’m in the pool all the time, so it’s been good to get back in the ocean.”
Gussie wondered if Anna even knew about Florence’s plan. She was about to say something when Anna asked, “Is there a competition?”
“Just with myself,” Florence said with a laugh.
“She’s going to swim the English Channel,” said Stuart.
Florence corrected him, “Attempt to swim the English Channel.”
“Don’t pretend to be modest,” he said. “We can all see right through you.”
Florence reached over, touched Anna’s arm, and whispered, in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, “Don’t listen to him,” and to Gussie’s great surprise, Anna laughed. The noise was so foreign, Gussie didn’t know quite what to make of it. Anna had arrived in Atlantic City in March—Joseph had driven up to Jersey City to collect her from the ferry terminal—and, in all that time, Gussie had never seen her eyes so much as twinkle.
Florence turned serious. “Stuart’s actually been a big help.”
“Might not want to give me too much credit until you make it across.”
“How long does it take to swim the whole thing?” Anna asked.
“Trudy Ederle did it in a little over fourteen hours. I’m hoping to do it in under twelve.”
“That’s a long time in the water,” said Anna.
Gussie was desperate to contribute to the conversation. “Florence says your tongue swells up like a balloon.”
“Is that true?” said Anna.
Florence shrugged her shoulders. “Unfortunately, yes.”
“She’ll be great,” said Stuart. “By the time I’m through with her this summer, she might as well fly across.”
“Do you start in England or France?” Anna asked.
“France,” said Florence. “Cape Gris-Nez. The tide’s a little more forgiving if you swim toward Dover.”
“So, will you go to France, too?” Anna asked Stuart.
Stuart looked as if he were about to say something but Florence cut him off. “Over my father’s dead body. Both he and Mother think it would be completely improper.”
“Once she gets to France, she’s got Bill Burgess. He’s world class. She won’t need me.”
“Not true,” said Florence.
Something about the easy way Florence, Stuart, and even Anna talked made Gussie yearn to be a grown-up. As she watched them, she practiced resting a hand on her hip and using the other to make big, important gestures. Stuart crossed his arms at his chest, and she tried that, too, but it didn’t feel as natural. Eventually, when he noticed she was mimicking him, he winked at her and she tied her arms in knots behind her back.
Stuart looked at his wrist but must have realized he wasn’t wearing a watch. “I’ve got to get back. Meet me at the Kentucky Avenue stand tomorrow morning at six?” he said to Florence. “I’ll tail you in the boat for a couple of hours.”
Florence didn’t say anything, just lifted her chin, which Gussie interpreted as a yes.
“It was nice to meet you,” Anna said to Stuart as he prepared to depart.
Gussie went to say her own good-bye but Stuart had already begun to jog back toward the Boardwalk.
“He seems nice,” Anna said to Florence once he was well out of earshot. “And also completely in love with you.”
“Stuart?” said Florence, as if she’d never entertained the possibility. “God, no. Now, where did I put my cap?”
Gussie, who’d had it the whole time, handed it to her begrudgingly.
“Do you mind watching Gussie until my parents get back?” Florence said to Anna as she stretched the rubber taut and yanked the cap over her hair.
Gussie couldn’t help feeling annoyed. It had been her idea to go to the beach, and now she was stuck with Anna, who was unlikely to pretend to be a mermaid or much of anything else if she couldn’t even be bothered to change into a proper bathing suit.
“You’re swimming tomorrow morning. With Stuart.” Gussie pleaded with Florence, in a last-ditch effort to redeem the afternoon. But her aunt wasn’t hearing her. She just tucked the last wisps of her hair underneath the bathing cap, blew her a kiss, and headed off in the direction of the ocean.
Gussie watched as Florence waded into the water, past her knees and then her hips. She dove into the crest of a wave, and by the time Gussie could see her again, she was swimming. Florence reminded Gussie of the dolphins they sometimes spotted offshore, so graceful they barely looked like they were moving. She watched her for several more minutes, as she grew smaller and smaller. Eventually, all Gussie could make out against the horizon was Florence’s red bathing cap, and then nothing at all.
Gussie was back in the water, eyes trained on the sky, when she heard three short whistles. She got her feet under her in time to watch one of the lifeguards in the stand nearest them run toward Garden Pier. There, two other lifeguards heaved a rescue boat into the waves.
“Gussie,” Anna called. “Get out. Now.”
It took a moment for Gussie to shake the water out of her ears. Had she heard her correctly? The beach seemed unnaturally quiet, as if she were watching a film with no sound.
She looked up the beach and watched as her grandparents ambled toward them.
“Where’s Florence?” Esther asked in a loud enough voice to be heard over the sound of the breaking waves.
Anna responded. “She went for a swim.”
“Maybe an hour ago.”
Gussie watched as her grandmother took in Anna and Gussie, then the small cluster of people who had gathered farther down the beach, then the boat hastening toward the horizon. Without warning, Esther took off down the beach at a run, Joseph following close behind. Gussie had never seen either of her grandparents run anywhere before, and she was surprised at how proficient they looked doing it.
She waded ashore, and Anna wrapped her in a towel, then led her in the direction of Garden Pier, too. By the time they reached Esther and Joseph, the rescue boat was so far from shore, it was difficult to make out what was happening. Gussie shielded her eyes with her hand, trying to see more clearly. It looked as if the vessel had stopped, and one or both of the lifeguards had jumped overboard.
“Is it her?” Esther whispered to Joseph in a voice loud enough for Gussie to hear.
“Who?” Gussie asked, but no one, including Anna, responded.
After several long minutes, the rescue boat began to grow larger again. Gussie could make out only one lifeguard rowing toward the shore. Where had the other one gone? It wasn’t until the boat grew much closer that she saw the second lifeguard, bent over something in the bottom of the boat.
The boat plowed onto the wet sand, about a dozen yards from where the small crowd had gathered. Its oars clattered against the oarlocks and landed in the sand, and the men worked quickly to lift what could only have been a person from the bottom of the boat.
That’s when Gussie saw it—the flash of color—and she looked at Anna to see if she’d seen it, too. Anna’s hand moved to her mouth. The lifeguards lifted the body, pale and motionless, out of the boat and onto the sand but all Gussie could bear to look at was the red cap on her aunt’s head. She covered her ears with her hands as the air filled with the sound of her grandmother’s wails.