The Summer of Good Intentions
The salty Cape air blew in through the window, and Maggie listened to the steady thump of blinds hitting the windowsill. The spot next to her in bed was empty, the sheets dimpled. Mac must have already gotten up to fetch the paper and coffee at the Blueberry Bagel down the road. It was one of her favorite things about their annual month on the Cape: iced coffee waiting for her on the kitchen counter when she managed to pull herself out of bed. For eleven months of the year, she was the one in charge, responsible for waking the kids, making sure they were dressed before they climbed on the bus, packing their lunches, ferrying the twins to dance, soccer, drama, and entertaining baby Luke. Of course, Luke was no longer a baby. He’d be entering kindergarten in the fall.
But in July everything shifted. Mac was home, and at last, Maggie had some precious time to herself when she could sit in the sun or nurse a glass of wine after dinner, looking out over the ocean without a care. Or, at the very least, she could pretend she didn’t have a care. In July, Mac turned off his scanner, and the office knew better than to bother him unless a case turned up that only his expertise could unriddle. Maggie had understood it wouldn’t be easy being married to a Boston cop when she walked down the aisle fifteen years ago, but she wasn’t prepared for the constant worry of whether her husband would return home at the end of his shift. The worry had nearly driven her crazy during the first years of their marriage, but then the twins were born and a whole new host of concerns emerged. Her fears about Mac had faded to a low-grade hum that played in the background of her days. On the Cape, however, for this one precious month, the family had Mac all to themselves. Safe was all she could think. Happy was what she felt.
She rolled over and felt the heat drifting in like sheets on a breeze. The sun pooled on the wide plank floors of the master bedroom. The house was quiet. Either Mac had taken Luke, her usual first riser, to the coffee shop with him or Luke was still asleep like his sisters. They’d arrived last night—a jumble of bags, canvas totes, coolers, and inflatable water toys—as the sun was starting its descent in the sky. The drive, normally an hour and a half, had unspooled into nearly three with the vacation traffic. The kids’ iPads and I Spy had entertained them for the first hour, but eventually the children had whined with impatience. Maggie could hardly blame them.
They inched their way through the Hingham merge, where traffic always slowed, then past Marshfield and Duxbury. The giant wind turbine spun up ahead, a towering white knight in the evening sky. When at last they reached the Sagamore Bridge, she silently thanked the heavens. Greeting them, as it did each summer, was a sign from the Samaritans that asked in bold letters, ARE YOU DESPERATE? with a number to call posted underneath. It always gave her a perverse chuckle. How did they know, Maggie wondered, that carloads of parents were ready to jump off the bridge at this precise moment?
The shock of verdant green that met the eye as they topped the bridge surprised her each July. On either side of the canal, blue and purple hydrangeas dotted the roadside and swayed in the cool evening breeze, as if waving to them in greeting. In this final stretch, Maggie exhaled and finally allowed herself to enjoy the familiar mix of humanity around them. Rickety pickup trucks packed with lobster crates rode bumper-to-bumper with expensive convertibles on their way to catch the last ferry to the Vineyard or Nantucket. Plenty of SUVs, like theirs, were loaded to the top for a summer’s escape.
In some ways, the house on the Cape felt more like home to Maggie than their rambling Victorian on Boston’s South Shore. The summer house, where she and her sisters had been coming since they were little girls, held some of her most precious memories: fireworks on the beach, late-night s’mores, her first kiss, her first heartbreak, and the day she and Mac were married under a big white tent on the sand. Her dad had been down in May for a general check of the place, but a musty smell, coupled with something sweet, like air freshener, greeted them when they pushed open the front door. Maggie pulled back the heavy curtains and threw open the windows in the common area, then shooed the kids upstairs to do the same. She tugged the dusty sheets off the couches and hung them on the deck to air. Eventually the lights flickered on (though it was always a wild card as to whether the electric company had actually turned on the electricity on the date they’d requested) and the water began gurgling up through the pipes. Ah, summer, she thought. At last.
The Cape house was cozy, manageable. A common room filled with well-worn couches opened onto a deck with stairs that led directly down to the beach. An antique chest of drawers housed the board games played over the years—battered boxes of Yahtzee, Monopoly, Life, all with missing pieces. Upstairs was a modest master bedroom, a guest room with a double bed, and the kids’ room, with three bunk beds and barely passable rows in between. The kitchen, with its 1950s linoleum floor, was stuck in time, but Maggie thought it charming, especially the wallpaper with its happy yellow roses. From the kitchen, she could see the dining area, where a long wooden table served as both their supper table and late-night game console, scattered initials carved into it from when they were young. Coming here was like falling into the arms of a comfortable, familiar lover.
She’d had a slight scare, though, when she flicked on the downstairs bathroom light last night and discovered the bottom window transom broken, a few pieces of glass punched out. A swirl of dark dots lay splattered across the white tile floor like chicken pox. She bent down to touch them, then pulled her hand away. Was it blood? Dried blood?
“Honey? Can you come here?” she called out. Had someone broken in? Were they still in the house? Her thoughts raced to the kids upstairs. Mac arrived to investigate.
He checked the window, the blood on the floor. Peeked in the medicine cabinet, still flush with Tylenol and cold medicine. “I don’t think we had an intruder,” he said, reading her mind. She appreciated his use of the past tense. Had. “If we did, there would be more glass on the inside.” He tried opening the window, but the sash was jammed. “When did you say your dad was down again?”
“In May?” She grabbed her cell phone and punched in Arthur’s number. At first, her dad had pretended not to know what she was talking about. “What? A window? Where?” But after Maggie described the damage, he grew frustrated. “Why didn’t you say the bathroom window? Yes, yes, that was me. Broke the damn thing trying to open it. Forgot to call Jay.” Jay was the family’s handyman on the Cape.
“Okay, I’m just glad someone didn’t break in. We’ll get it fixed. Are you all right? It looks like you might have cut yourself.”
“Of course,” Arthur said curtly. “Pricked my hand on the glass. No big deal.”
But the conversation had nagged at her last night.
“Don’t you think it’s weird about my dad and the window?” she asked Mac in bed. He was nearly asleep, weary from the long drive and a few double shifts the week before.
“Weird?” he mumbled from his pillow.
“Like he didn’t want to admit he broke it.”
“Maybe he was embarrassed. Or maybe he forgot. He’s not getting any younger, you know.”
But it wasn’t like her dad to let something like a broken window go. That he’d let it sit unattended for two months was almost unthinkable. Maybe, she reasoned, he felt silly when it happened and then guilty about not getting it fixed. She decided to let it slide. This was her month not to worry! Besides, she felt guilty herself for not checking on the house all spring. She could hardly jump on Arthur for having done just that.
She stretched her body down to her toes and fingertips, arms out at the sides. Today they would put in the dock. The pieces to it lay under a tarp in the backyard, and every year on the first day of vacation, they assembled the various sections that hooked together like enormous Lego blocks. Jess and her family would be arriving later this afternoon, and between the four adults—Mac, Maggie, Jess, and Tim—they’d manage during low tide to lay out piece by piece the modest dock that provided a jumping-off point for the kids all month. For Maggie, putting in the dock marked the official start of summer.
She thought back to when she and her sisters were kids, how she and Jess would race to be the first ones in the water as soon as the car pulled into the driveway (they’d insist on wearing their bathing suits for the ride down). She could almost smell the scent of lavender in their freshly dried beach towels. Honestly, where had the time gone? Her parents had been so happy then. And life so much simpler. Now everything was endlessly complicated. Virgie lived on a different coast. Jess was drowning in her responsibilities as a high school principal. The sisters hardly got a chance to see each other outside of their one idyllic month on the Cape. And Arthur and Gloria had been divorced going on a year and a half now.
Yes, life was more complicated, Maggie thought. And probably in no small part because she was a mother herself now. But July was her month to relax. Que sera, sera. It was one of her mother’s favorite sayings at the beach house, so much so that the words hung on a plaque in the front hallway. Right next to ABSOLUTELY NO WHINING! VIOLATORS WILL BE CHARGED 5 CENTS.
Maggie kicked her feet under the sheets. This summer would be just like old times. She could feel it. She would make sure of it.
Only a handful of things waited on her to-do list to ready the house for her sisters: a quick dusting downstairs, fresh sheets on the beds, and a run to the corner market to pick up a few items (they’d already packed the car full with staples, like cereal and chips). For supper tonight, they should have something that would appropriately mark the start of vacation. Perhaps a fresh sea bass or some haddock.
She slipped into her shorts and a white T-shirt (her uniform during the summer) and a pair of pink flip-flops. Every summer, each child got a new beach pail stuffed with a towel and flip-flops. This, too, had become part of the Herington tradition (a summer without new flip-flops would hardly count as summer at all!). The one year she’d neglected to buy them in advance, Maggie and the girls had raced out to the nearest shop and paid three times the price she typically shelled out at Target. She hadn’t forgotten the flip-flops since.
She stood at the bathroom sink and splashed cool water on her face, relieved to see the water gush from the old spigot. Last night, when the water had trickled out, she’d worried that the pump from the well wasn’t working properly. But any kinks seemed to have resolved themselves overnight. She traveled down the hall and poked her head into the kids’ room. Their duffel bags lay unopened on the floor, their clothes from yesterday strewn across the room like tossed cards. Luke was gone, but the girls still slept sprawled on top of blue cotton quilts. Only eleven, they looked so angelic when they were sleeping, their long corn-silk hair splayed across their pillows. Some days, Lexie (the girl who would surely push Maggie to the edge) already acted like a teenager, full of snide comebacks and rolling eyes. Last night she’d announced that the Cape was “boring” and insisted on asking why they couldn’t do something different. As if every child were lucky enough to have a summer house to visit!
Maggie headed downstairs just as Mac and Luke burst through the front door.
“Mommy, we saw a raccoon!” Luke cried.
“You did?” Maggie grabbed the iced coffees from Mac and gave him a kiss. She cast a wary glance his way, as if to say, Raccoons? Already? They were a nuisance, varmints as far as she was concerned. They would have to be sure to keep the trash covered this year.
“He was pretty big,” Mac confirmed as he set the bagels and newspaper on the kitchen counter. “About the size of a bear, wouldn’t you say, buddy?”
Luke opened his mouth, about to object, then caught his dad’s drift. “Maybe not a bear, but at least a pig. Definitely a big pig.”
“Uh-oh.” Maggie laughed. Luke had become strangely obsessed with pigs in the last year. He drew parades of pigs, had a collection of stuffed pigs, knew all sorts of random facts about them. For example, the world’s largest pig weighed six hundred pounds. Maggie prayed it was just a phase. He tugged on her shorts. “Mama, can we go swimming now?”
“In a little bit, hon. Let’s wait for the girls to wake up, okay?” She sipped her coffee and skimmed the headlines. “I need to run to Sal’s to pick up a few things anyway.”
When Luke started to protest, Mac interrupted his whining. “C’mon, buddy. We haven’t even had breakfast yet. Let’s go sit on the deck and eat our bagels.” With a wink, he coaxed Luke outside.
Maggie finished her coffee, grabbed her wallet and backpack, and headed out to the shed. A rusty padlock hung on its latch. She twirled the numbers, the code memorized by heart, and pulled open the door, searching for the rickety three-speed that she rode each summer. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust before spying the Schwinn in back. Carefully, she navigated a path around a wagon, a line of terra-cotta pots, a Hula Hoop. A plastic baby swimming pool rested against the bike. Only last summer, Luke had liked to splash around in it when the ocean waves grew too strong. Would he still use it this summer, or had he gotten too big? she wondered. She moved the pool over so that it listed against a wall, then brushed the cobwebs off the bike’s handlebars. Slowly, she inched the bike out of the shed, careful not to knock loose the wicker basket, and added a few puffs of air to the tires before hopping on.
Her dad used to ride this very Schwinn when Maggie was little. And, at the thought of Arthur, her stomach tightened again. Was it possible that the last time they’d seen him was over Christmas at their house in Windsor? She shook her head as if to clear a foggy memory. But no, that was right. They hadn’t seen her dad for six months. She knew Virgie called Arthur every Sunday, but Maggie had let even her phone conversations with him slide. They were uncomfortable, odd little exchanges where she struggled to fill the space with stories about the kids. She always hung up feeling deflated and disappointed, as if she should be a more interesting daughter and Arthur a more engaged grandfather.
And now, this most recent conversation had gotten her mind spinning.
Arthur had sounded, well, off. She couldn’t think of better way to describe it. As if he couldn’t imagine why she’d be calling him in the first place or what on earth she was talking about when she mentioned the window. Perhaps she’d woken him or caught him in the shower? Whatever the reason, it was unsettling. She’d feel better, she told herself, once he was here and she could lay eyes on him.
Yes, it would be good for everyone to fall back into their summer routines: the kids swimming till their eyes stung from the salt water while the adults shared a cocktail or two on the deck. Maybe this would be the year Luke dove off the dock (he’d gotten so close last summer!). And maybe the twins would master the backflip. In the top kitchen drawer of the summer house, Maggie kept a spiral notebook for recording just such milestones and funny quotes from the kids, updating it each July. The first summer the twins rode their bikes without training wheels! Lexie swam out to the jetty and back. Luke walked across the kitchen all by himself! She’d always meant to transfer the scribbles to an electronic file, but there was something pleasing about seeing first her handwriting and then the girls’, their tilted capital letters giving way to more precise lowercase, then loopy cursive. On the front, Sophie had scrawled, The Book of Summer.
Maggie was looking forward to catching up with her sisters, maybe playing a few rounds of poker or gin rummy. And thank goodness Arthur and Gloria were coming for separate weeks this year. After a tense summer last July when everyone tiptoed around them both, the wounds of the divorce still raw, Maggie had made certain that her parents were slotted for different weeks this time. Maggie McNeil at your service! she had thought, as she toggled back and forth between them on the phone. Let me pencil in your reservation!
She followed the soft curves of the bike path, the sun warming the back of her neck. Sweeping ferns lined either side, and every so often a honeysuckle or a cape rose poked its head out. Maggie threw her hands in the air like a child and shouted, “Heeeello, summer!” No one was around. She could be carefree and thirteen again. How she’d imagined this feeling a thousand times, nurtured it as if it were her own exquisite orchid, in the depths of winter. The thought of the Cape house was the only thing that made Boston winters bearable, with loads of laundry to do and the kids climbing the walls. Just wait, she’d tell herself. Before you know it, you’ll all be back at the summer house.
Eventually, the dirt path turned to pavement and wound past the charming post office (white with blue trim), the town library, an ice cream shop, a handful of quaint shops, and at last, Sal’s Market. Maggie leaned her bike against a post. Like everything else in town, Sal’s looked more or less the same and still sported its cherry red door and gray cedar shingles.
When she swung open the screen door, four tidy rows of supplies greeted her along with the smell of basil and an assortment of freshly picked produce, including fat, gorgeous blueberries and strawberries the size of walnuts. She gathered up a wire basket, threw in two pints of berries and a clutch of basil, and began combing the aisles for the items on her list. She pulled a carton of farm eggs and milk from the refrigerated section, then headed to the deli and fish counter. A small line had formed and Maggie took her place behind a woman in a faded pink sundress and floppy straw hat. Probably a year-rounder, she thought wistfully. When it was her turn, she stepped up and grinned at Sal, who was busily wiping the counter. A white deli hat sat perched on top of his sandy curls, and his butcher’s apron already reflected a swift morning’s business. When he glanced up and saw her, his face beamed.
“Maggie, girl! Welcome back! I was wondering if you all would get in this week.”
She tugged a stray piece of hair behind her ear. She loved that Sal never failed to make her feel like a pretty teenager all over again. “Thanks, Sal. It’s good to be back. You know we wouldn’t miss July down here if we could help it.”
“I always know it’s summertime when the Herington girls are back. The whole gang with you?”
“You bet.” Maggie eyed the specials on the blackboard behind him: STRIPED BASS; BLUEFISH; SCUP; TUNA; HADDOCK; HALIBUT; COD.
“Well, you’ll have to bring those gorgeous girls by the store. And Luke! How old is he now?”
“Just turned five,” Maggie confirmed. “Kindergarten in September.”
“Wow.” Sal’s face softened. “They grow up fast, don’t they?” Maggie nodded. “Are your sisters headed in, too?” She grinned. She knew that Sal had a soft spot for Virgie.
“Yep. Jess should be here today with her family. Virgie gets in on Wednesday.”
Did Sal’s face light up just a tad or was it Maggie’s imagination? He cleared his throat. “That’s terrific. So, what can I get you today?”
“How’s the striped bass?”
“Delectable, as always.” He reached to pull a few fillets from a tray. “How many would you like?”
Maggie did the quick arithmetic in her head for her family and Jess’s. “A baker’s dozen? And a pound of ham and turkey each, please.”
“You got it.” He tugged off a sheet of waxy paper and tossed the fillets on it, then sliced the deli meat and wrapped it all in a tidy bundle. “Enjoy.” He handed it over. “Say hi to everyone for me.”
“Thanks. Will do, Sal.” She made her way over to the checkout counter, taking a quick inventory of her basket to make sure nothing would be too heavy to lug back on the bike, and paid. She was stuffing the groceries into her basket outside when a familiar voice called out: “Maggie, is that you?”
Maggie turned and smiled. “Gretchen! How are you? I almost didn’t recognize you.”
Gretchen had been coming to the Cape for summers nearly as long as Maggie and her sisters. She and her husband had two kids, and occasionally the families would get together for a beach day and cookout. Maggie noticed that her friend had gone blond this summer.
Gretchen ran her hand through her hair self-consciously. “I know. A bit of a shock, right? But I needed something to get me through middle age.” Maggie laughed as she leaned in to give her friend a hug. “It looks great. How are the kids?”
“Good,” said Gretchen. “Really good. Except for the times when I want to strangle them, of course. Jasper is eight going on four, and Anna is fifteen going on twenty.”
Maggie hopped on her bike. “I know what you mean. Lexie and Sophie are in those fun ‘tween’ years.” Gretchen groaned sympathetically. “We’ll have to get together. How long are you here for?”
“Three weeks,” answered Gretchen. “We head back for the kids’ camp in August.”
“Give me a call on my cell.” Maggie waved over her shoulder. “We don’t have a landline at the house anymore.”
“What?” Gretchen called after her in mock surprise. “You finally got rid of that vintage rotary phone?” Maggie grinned. Gretchen’s summer house was nothing like hers. A colonial with five bedrooms and three baths, it was a restored sea captain’s mansion that they’d bought when the market was down. There was nothing “camp-like” about it, but Maggie knew that was how her friend liked it. If she couldn’t find luxury living along the beach, Gretchen wouldn’t have deigned to come to the Cape in the first place.
Sparrows chirped in the old oaks and pines that flecked the town square. Maggie inhaled as she rode along, a mix of salt and pine stinging her nose, and felt curiously free. Only a few summers ago she’d fretted she would never escape the days of diapers and binkies and then potty training with Luke. And that cumbersome car seat! It drove her crazy, how Luke would howl about the seat belt cutting into his chest. Until one day, she glanced in the rearview mirror and saw all three kids buckled into their seats, the diagonal strap crisscrossing Luke’s shoulder, and Luke uncomplaining. A small miracle! There were so many milestones like these, Maggie thought. They seemingly happened overnight after she’d waited forever for them to occur.
She pulled up to the house and parked the bike. When she stepped inside, all was quiet, the girls still asleep. She set the groceries on the counter and wandered onto the deck, shielding her eyes from the sun with her hand. There. About a quarter mile down the beach, she could make out the profiles of Mac and Luke. She let herself out the gate and went down the steps to the boardwalk, the sea grass tickling her calves as she pulled off her flip-flops. At the shore line, the icy cold water lapped at her toes, but she knew from years of summers that it would grow warmer as the day went on. She was about to call out to them, but something stopped her.
On the horizon, white fleecy clouds hung in a sky that was colored a perfect robin’s-egg blue. The bright sun danced on the water. Above her, gulls dipped and soared, calling out to one another. Maggie inhaled the salty air and dug her toes deeper into the sand. She was searching for the right word to describe the shimmering world before her. Then it came to her: hallowed. This was hallowed ground, the place that gave her the most peace, her own private retreat.
Each summer, she resolved to toss out her to-do lists, lengthy spools that ran through her mind like ticker tape most days of the year. After years of self-recrimination, she’d resigned herself to the fact that she liked things to be just so. Type A, Mac called her. But in a way that I love, he reassured. But was it really so bad? So what if there were individual cubbies for the kids in the mudroom? So what if the kitchen in Windsor had a whiteboard with the children’s activities detailed in color-coded marker? And her linen shelves were methodically labeled: GIRLS’ SHEETS, LUKE’S SHEETS, M&D SHEETS, PILLOWCASES, EXTRA BLANKETS??
She kept things organized. She kept the family running. They needed her.
But on the Cape, there was no need for such charts. Because everything was already as it was supposed to be. Que sera, sera. And if anything were amiss, if Arthur, for instance, was acting a little odd, well, it would be righted at Pilgrim Lane. That was what the summer house was for. Standing on the beach, she was also struck with the realization that this was the place (the summer house, of course!?) to tell Mac what she’d been dreaming about the last few months, an idea she desperately hoped he’d be open to. Time would tell.
Slowly she lifted her right leg up, toe pointing toward her knee, and swept her arms above her head. Her Tree Pose. She pressed her fingertips together and inhaled, willing her body to remain balanced on one foot. Yes, she thought. She could feel some of the tension slipping away, feel her heart opening to the possibilities of summer.
Until, that is, Lexie shouted from the deck, “Mom! Sophie took my towel!” Followed by a wail, which Maggie was quite certain came from Sophie.