I was twelve when my family shared a big gray house on Fire Island with the McKennas. The house was at the end of a series of narrow boardwalks, just over a small dune from the ocean, which was easily visible from our veranda. I believe the house also had a sundeck off of one of the upstairs bedrooms, because I have a vague memory of someone—my mother, I think—telling me not to disturb Mrs. McKenna, who liked to sunbathe “in the nude.” I had never heard that expression before and, at first, could not believe I had understood it correctly. Only the weird blend of excitement and disapproval in the voice of whoever was speaking convinced me that my interpretation was exactly right. I have no memory of the sundeck itself, however, nor of ever seeing Mrs. McKenna in anything more revealing than a one-piece bathing suit.
Doug McKenna was thirteen, and his cheeks were always red, as if he were burning with embarrassment beneath his freckles. He claimed to have “done it” with his sister, Deedee. “You don’t believe me?” he said the instant he had made this claim. “Why shouldn’t we do it? She’s too young to get pregnant, so what have we got to lose?” He and I were sitting under the boardwalk, in a bowl-shaped, sand-bottomed hollow we called “the cave.” I didn’t believe what Doug had told me, but I couldn’t help asking, “What was it like?”
“What do you think?” he said irritably. “It was fucking fantastic!”
It would be wrong to say that I liked Deedee, but for much of that summer I kept thinking we were on the verge of becoming friends. She was exactly my age. We had both just read T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, and were now reading other books by White: she, Mistress Masham’s Repose, and I, The Master. We promised to trade these books when we had each finished our own, and would often have long conversations about whether there had ever been a real King Arthur, and, if so, how closely he might have corresponded to White’s character. We also argued about whether anyone actually believed that might equaled right, with Deedee asserting that her brother did.
“Not really,” I insisted.
“Yes,” she said, nodding. “You don’t know him. He really does. Take my word.”
Deedee didn’t have Doug’s flushed cheeks, but her face was coppery with freckles. Her hair was coppery too, and dead-straight, cut off abruptly just below her jaw in a classic pageboy. She was broad-shouldered and teddy bear-waisted, but solid rather than fat. Her voice was slightly off-key, as if she were deaf, and her hands were always cold.
I was most attracted to Deedee by what I thought of as her seriousness. She seemed to loathe adults, and never spoke to either of her parents unless they asked her a question, which she would usually answer in grunts and monosyllables. She also never participated in dinner conversation, except to heave long sighs that her family studiously ignored. Often she would leave the table in the middle of a meal and go for a solitary walk along the beach. I could not help but imagine her as Guenevere wandering the “strand”—a new word for me—trying to resolve her love for both Arthur and Lancelot. More than once I was tempted to follow her, but knew that if I ever did, she would only give me a cold stare and tell me to go away.
And then, of course, I felt a certain aura of possibility whenever I was alone with Deedee. Never for a second did I believe Doug’s claim, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
This summer may well have been when I first noticed that my father and Mr. McKenna spoke differently. They had grown up together in the Irish ghetto of the East 90s, along the Third Avenue El. Except for the way my father pronounced “coffee” and “dog”—with an “aw” in the place of the “o”—he sounded like a newscaster, whereas Mr. McKenna had that classic high-pitched, New York Irish hoarseness. Imagine “youse guys” and “alls you gotta do” and you can probably hear the accent—though I don’t recall Mr. McKenna ever making grammatical mistakes. Thanks to the GI Bill, he and my father were both the first in their families to go to college; my grandparents had never gotten past sixth grade. My father went on to medical school and was a radiologist, while Mr. McKenna worked for RCA, but in distant parts of the world: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Philippines, Indonesia.
This was a good time for men like my father and Mr. McKenna. The Second World War was well behind them, they were making more money than they had ever imagined possible growing up, and, with John Kennedy in office (this being the summer of 1963), they felt as if the Irish had finally arrived in America. One afternoon they sat on the veranda, each sipping a drink, looking out across sparse dune grass at the zinc gray strip of the Atlantic. Mr. McKenna turned to my father and smiled. “Who would ever have thought a couple of Irish kids like us would end up in a place like this?” He gestured with chin and eyes toward the view. I don’t remember how my father responded. Maybe only with a laugh.
My parents always spoke of the McKennas—Dennis and June—as their dearest friends. But the truth is that I have no memory of my mother exchanging a single truly friendly word with Mrs. McKenna, and I can’t remember my father ever talking to her at all. She was short and twig-thin, and always wore huge sunglasses that made her look like a housefly. Her skin was that crinkly dark brown of white women who spend too much time in the sun.
That summer we children were obsessed with red licorice, which was sold out of a yellow shack with a lift-up hatch and a plywood counter on one side. To get to the shack, we had to walk a quarter-mile down two or three boardwalk paths, and then along a short stretch of sandy, paved road. For some reason Deedee and I were making this journey alone. Maybe Doug and my little brother had stayed at the house to watch baseball with our fathers. I hated watching sports, especially baseball, which I was never very good at.
When Deedee and I came to the end of the boardwalks and were about to step out onto the paved road, a squat brown dog with bulging eyes came charging down the steps of the house on the corner and flung itself against a chain link fence. The dog didn’t so much bark as make a noise like the repeated ripping of burlap. I had been the one walking beside the fence, but as soon as I heard that weird bark and the rattle of paws against chain links, I darted behind Deedee. A second later—once I realized the dog could not escape— I resumed my original position between Deedee and the fence, but it was too late.
“You afraid of dogs?” she said.
“No,” I replied, but so softly she may not have heard me.
“Well, I’m not afraid of dogs.”
We didn’t speak for a while. Then she said, “You want to know why I’m not afraid?”
I didn’t respond.
“It’s because I shot a dog,” she said.
“No you didn’t.”
“Yes, I did. When we were living in the Philippines, there were wild dogs everywhere. People were always getting bitten. Kids especially. So any time my father saw a dog on our property, he would shoot it. There were so many of them that sometimes it was like a shooting gallery. Pow. Pow. Pow. There’d be like five dead dogs in our back yard.”
“What did you do with them?”
“We were right next to a river, so we just pushed them in. The fish ate them.”
We rounded a bend and came within sight of the yellow shack. “Almost there,” I said.
“One time my father was shooting dogs and I said, ‘Can I try?’ ‘Sure,’ he said and he gave me the gun. So, the next time a dog came along, I shot it.”
“You knew how to shoot a gun?” I had never even seen a real gun before.
“Oh, yeah. I shoot guns all the time.”
“Cool,” I said.
I was the one with the money, so, when we reached the shack, I ordered the licorice.
Deedee picked up a box of Red Hots. “You want those?” I asked.
She put them back on the rack. But I told the old man we would take them too, and he put them in the bag. As we turned to head back up the sandy street, I handed the Red Hots to Deedee.
“Thanks.” She ripped the top off the box, poured a small pile of the tiny red lozenges into the palm of her hand, and then another into mine.
Our mouths contentedly occupied, we were entirely silent most of the way home. But as we made the turn onto the final boardwalk path and came in sight of our house, Deedee said, “I lied.”
“The dogs. I never shot a dog.”
“Oh,” I said. Then I said, “I didn’t think so.”
We were both silent a bit longer. Then I asked, “Does your father really own a gun?”
“Oh, yeah! He’s got lots of guns. He’s even got a machine gun. And this tiny gun that he keeps in a little leather holster right underneath his arm. You can’t even see it when he’s got his suit jacket on.”
“Everybody has guns in the Philippines. It’s very dangerous there. You have to have a gun.”
When we got back to the house the little radio on the kitchen table was playing “Twistin’ the Night Away,” and Mr. McKenna and my mother were laughing, holding hands, and doing a sort of jitterbug in front of the sink. They stopped as soon as we walked in the door, though they kept on laughing for a bit.
Mr. McKenna’s eyes were very light blue and watery. His front teeth were big, and the one on the right was whiter than the other. “So what have you two been up to?” he said, and laughed some more.
My mother was standing behind him with the tip of her index finger on her lower lip.
My eyes are blue and my skin so pale that it is not much of an exaggeration to say I could burn in a flashlight beam. If I am on a beach, in direct sun for more than an hour, my thoughts begin to drift, sounds go tinny, and everything seems strange and far away. I no longer take any pleasure in this sun-induced surreality, mainly because I know it is always followed by nausea and a serious burn, but that summer it was a new discovery and I luxuriated in it.
Often I would lie on my back with the sun shining through my eyelids, so that I seemed to be floating in a cloud of electric orange. Then, when I opened my eyes, the world would have gone blue: Everyone’s skin was the color of cooked liver; my mother’s auburn hair would be mahogany-dark with purplish glints; the men’s stubbly cheeks charcoal gray and hard to see; and everyone would have scoops of impenetrable black beneath their squinting brows, in the midst of which their eyes were faint gleamings, less like solid objects than tiny star clusters. Nothing looked solid to me. The sea, the dunes, the people lounging under striped umbrellas—everything seemed particulate, charged, scintillating. I thought I could see atoms.
One afternoon, I fell asleep on the beach, and was awoken by my mother, no more than a yard away, speaking irritably, “Well I’m sure we’re all very sorry about your labyrinthitis!”
I was face-down on my towel, and so could see neither my mother, nor Mrs. McKenna, to whom she had been speaking, and who responded with equal irritation: “It’s just that no one remembers I can’t go in the ocean. I get seasick the instant my feet lift off the bottom!”
“Jesus Christ!” my mother said. “Didn’t I just say I was sorry!”
“Of course you did! I just forgot!”
After that, there was a fierce flipping of magazine pages followed by silence, the noise of the surf, and distant voices of children.
I contemplated the lavender and magenta glints on the skin of my left hand, which lay on the towel only inches from my eye. Apart from the rippling, indefinitely receding sand, my hand was the only object between my eye and the horizon, and so it seemed massive: a boulder or a butte.
I must have fallen asleep again, because the next thing I remember is Mr. McKenna calling out heartily to his wife as he approached along the beach, “Hello there, Princess! How’s the pea?” It was an old joke I had heard many times.
Mr. McKenna had a tiny head and big lips. He was also balding, with only a peninsula of brown hair running back from the crest of his forehead between two half ovals of freckly skin. But he had those pale blue eyes that were always so animated they seemed independent living beings.
Thanks, in part, to a seemingly endless series of jokes about a rabbi, a priest and a minister on an airplane, Mr. McKenna managed to talk two or three times as much as any of the other grown-ups. But he also told countless stories about growing up Irish in New York, most of which he introduced by turning to my father and saying, “Jimmy, do you remember when . . . ?”
One story was about the time Mr. McKenna and my father used a pipe to pry open a manhole. My father climbed down inside as soon as the cover was off, but instead of following, Mr. McKenna levered the cover back into place and wouldn’t let my father out again until he was literally howling in fear.
Another story concerned my father’s crush on Moira Cavanaugh, who wouldn’t even glance in his direction until Mr. McKenna convinced Dex Dingnan, a local gangster, to let my father ride down Third Avenue in the passenger seat of his red Packard convertible.
A lot of Mr. McKenna’s stories featured Dex Dingnan, who went on to serve with him in the O.S.S. during the war, and whom he kept running into in places like Beirut, Cairo and Damascus. One night over dinner, Mr. McKenna told us about the time Dex asked him to take a thousand dollars by subway to a “contact” in Riverdale, and Mr. McKenna brought my father along as his “bodyguard.” According to the story, my father was so desperate to see what it felt like to be rich that Mr. McKenna let him hold the bag—an ordinary leather briefcase—in his lap. At one point they switched from a local to an express train, and only as the doors were sliding shut did Mr. McKenna say to my father, “What did you do with the bag?”
“I gave it to you.”
“No you didn’t.”
“Yes, I did,” my father insisted. “I said, ‘You better carry this now.’ I gave it to you.”
“You left it on the goddamn train!” said Mr. McKenna.
“No, I didn’t.”
“Yes, you did! You goddamn left it on the train. If you didn’t leave it on the goddamn train, where is it then!”
This entire conversation occurred as the express was pulling out of the station, so it was, as Mr. McKenna put it, “all rather academic.”
He and my father were waiting on the platform of the next express stop when the local train squealed to a halt. They dashed through the opening doors, knocking aside more than one disembarking passenger. A policeman stood in the middle of the car with the briefcase propped against his belly while he unbuckled its leather straps.
“Of course, Jimmy here wanted to run,” Mr. McKenna told all of us at the table. “Didn’t you, Jimmy? He was so scared, I thought he was gong to soil himself! But I went straight up to the cop and said, ‘Oh, thank you officer! My buddy here is a medical student and that bag contains all of his surgical tools. He was just on his way up to the hospital to perform his first operation and he left them behind when he changed trains. He’s just been worried sick about them.’ I grabbed the bag right out of the cop’s hands, and all he said was, ‘Better be careful next time.’” Mr. McKenna winked at my father. “And that’s how Jimmy here got started in medicine, isn’t it Jimmy? You never had a thought of going to medical school, did you, until I introduced you to that cop as a future MD?”
No one but Mr. McKenna called my father Jimmy. My mother and a few of their closest friends sometimes called him Jim, but everyone else called him James, or Dr. Quinn. He spoke softly and always had very clean hands. When he got home from work, he would fix himself a martini and talk to my mother in the kitchen while she cooked. After dinner, he never joined the rest of us watching television, but sat by himself in his study reading medical journals, historical novels, and books by Irish writers: Sean O’Casey, James T. Farrell, and, of course, James Joyce. My mother would occasionally tell stories about how my father had been “a regular Bowery Boy” when she fell in love with him “way back in the Stone Age,” but she was never specific enough for me to understand how he might have been different then. As for my father, sometimes he would talk about doing homework out on the fire escape, or playing stickball up against the walls of the Rupert Brewery on 92nd Street, but mostly he made his Manhattan childhood sound indistinguishable from my brother’s and mine in suburban New Jersey. So Mr. McKenna’s stories always came as revelations to us, and made us wonder if our father had led some sort of double life.
What most puzzled me about my father, however, was that he never seemed bothered by Mr. McKenna’s stories. Every single one of them ended with my father boggle-eyed and stuttering, but he would just laugh along with Mr. McKenna and everyone else.
My mother was the one who seemed unsettled. Sometimes, as Mr. McKenna was launching into one of his stories, her eyes would shuttle back and forth between his face and my father’s, and her mouth would hang open, as if she didn’t know whether to smile or be horrified. In the end, she too would laugh, though never as enthusiastically as my father.
I’d also catch my mother looking at Mr. McKenna on other occasions— when he was just walking across the room, or engaged in a political discussion with my father—and then she would seem contentedly appreciative, or, sometimes, to be savoring a more private delight. Every time I saw her like that, I’d have to turn away.
We always ate dinner at the picnic table on the patio behind the house— at least when it wasn’t raining. The day my mother and Mrs. McKenna had their squabble about labyrinthitis, I came down to dinner so sunburned that my tee shirt seemed to rake my skin. I was nauseated too, and my brain seemed adrift in a fog of static. I felt stupid, and not entirely present.
When I came into the kitchen, my mother was chopping cabbage for coleslaw with a butcher knife. She had already finished a potato salad, which waited in a glass bowl on the counter. Through the window, I could see Mr. McKenna beside the brick barbecue, flipping hamburgers and hot dogs with furious concentration. My father wasn’t anywhere in sight, and I wondered if he’d gone to the store in town. But then he emerged from the pantry, a fistful of spoons in one hand and a fistful of forks in the other. “Here,” he said, handing them to me. “Set the table.” He held up my mother’s empty glass. “Ready?” She nodded. He went back into the pantry where the liquor was stored, and spent the remaining time before dinner refreshing everyone’s drinks, including his own, and making a big pitcher of gin and tonic.
Mrs. McKenna had not felt well after her return from the beach, and so had been upstairs taking a nap. She arrived—in sunglasses, as usual, even though the western horizon was already streaked gold and orange—just as my mother was installing her salads on the table, and Mr. McKenna was stacking the hamburgers and hot dogs, already in buns, on a giant platter.
“Feeling better, June?” my mother asked, as soon as she saw Mrs. McKenna atop the three cement steps outside the kitchen door. But Mrs. McKenna descended without answering. When my father handed her a squat glass of gin and tonic, she said, “Thanks, Jimmy,” then sat alone at the table and waited wordlessly for the rest of us to join her.
During dinner, my mother complimented Mrs. McKenna’s tan and asked about her vertigo. A little later they were discussing the difficulties of educating American children in Jakarta, where the McKennas were then living. My mother was wearing that bright-eyed expression I often saw on her face at parties. I wondered if Mrs. McKenna noticed it and, if so, what she made of it. I realized that I, myself, didn’t know what to make of it. The mother who wore that bright-eyed expression at parties was not someone I had spent much time with.
The heap of hamburgers and hot dogs disappeared from the serving platter. The salads were reduced to puddles of diluted mayonnaise. The sun descended, and the sky went black above the wavering flames of the mosquito torches.
Just as my mother placed a box of vanilla fudge ice cream and a stack of bowls at the children’s end of the table, Mr. McKenna asked, “Did I ever tell you guys about the night we celebrated our tenth anniversary in Manila?”
“God, Dennis, no!” Mrs. McKenna cried out. “Nobody wants to hear about that!”
“Sure they do!” her husband said. “It’s funny. And it’s beautiful too. Seriously, it’s a touching story. You guys want to hear it, right?” He grinned at my mother and father, his face shiny and bright red.
“No one wants to hear that story,” Mrs. McKenna said. “Only you would think it was funny.”
“So what do you think?” her husband said, once again addressing my parents. “Do you want to hear it?”
For a long moment, my parents seemed frozen with grins on their faces. Then my mother said, “Maybe it would be better to wait for another time.”
“Nonsense! I don’t know what Junie’s talking about. It’s a beautiful story! You’ll see!”
“If you tell that story, I’m leaving!” said his wife.
“You’ll do nothing of the kind,” Mr. McKenna said firmly.
She didn’t reply, nor did she move from her seat between my father and Doug when Mr. McKenna began his tale. The whole time he was speaking, she stared impassively into her drink.
The story concerned the sudden bout of diarrhea that Mrs. McKenna had suffered in the middle of their anniversary dinner at what Mr. McKenna designated “Manila’s finest restaurant.” She fled the table so quickly she forgot to put down her fork, but, even so, didn’t make it to the bathroom in time. Mr. McKenna had a suspicion as to why his wife had fled the table so suddenly, but, having decided long ago that husbands ought to never concern themselves with the minutiae of their wives’ physical nature, he picked at his meal for some twenty minutes before finally going to look for her. Finding her sobbing behind the women’s room door, he told her to clean herself up as best she could while he went home for a change of clothes.
The McKennas lived only a few blocks from the restaurant, so Mr. McKenna was hardly gone fifteen minutes. But when he returned, his wife had vanished and their table had been reset. As he stood, bag of clothing in hand, beside the vacated table, the maitre d’ came over to explain that his wife was in the big house behind the kitchen, having a drink with the restaurant’s owner.
“So the house turns out to be a goddamn mansion,” Mr. McKenna told us. “The doorbell makes this gigantic gonnnggg! And this servant in a tux leads me into a living room filled with chandeliers and gold mirrors. And there’s Junie, fresh from a bath, wearing a kimono, and seated like a princess on a red velvet chair, while some young guy with a guitar is serenading her! Danilo, the restaurant’s owner, serves us all glasses of lambanog—this incredible coconut flower wine, which also happens to be the best cure for Filipino dysentery. Anyhow, we were his guests for most of the night, and we’ve been the best of friends ever since!”
“That is all complete and utter bullshit,” Mrs. McKenna declared in a loud, off-key voice.
“Princess,” her husband said, as if disappointed in her.
“Now it’s my turn,” she said. “You’ve told your story, now I’m going to tell mine. You’re not the only one who knows embarrassing stories around here.” Just as her husband had, she turned to my parents. “So do you guys want to hear it?”
Once again my parents were silent, but this time neither was grinning.
“It’s not very touching, though,” said Mrs. McKenna. “But it is . . . Well, I’m just going to tell it anyway. It’s not an old story, either. From this past year, in fact. It’s about Dennis’s last visit to Saigon.”
“June,” Mr. McKenna said in a low voice.
His wife continued as if she hadn’t heard him. “It was just before Christmas. And he was—you know, on company business.” She said the word “company” as if she couldn’t bear the way it tasted.
Mr. McKenna repeated his wife’s name, then said, “That’s enough.”
“What?” she said. “I’m not going to say anything. What can I say? I can’t say anything at all! That’s how it is, right? I don’t know anything, so I can’t say anything. I’m just going to tell my story and you’re going to have to lump it.” She gave him a quick, fierce grin, then turned to my parents. “So anyway, he’s just going for a couple of days, but he takes out this suitcase. This giant suitcase. Practically a trunk. And he fills it up with all these bottles of perfume. All of them carefully wrapped in tissue paper and . . . What-do-you-call-it? That shredded wood stuff. Like straw. Tropical Night Blossom. That’s what the perfume is called. Do you believe it! What an unbelievably stupid name! Tropical Night Blossom!”
“Just stop right now, June. You’re making an ass of yourself.”
“So, anyway—Oh, I almost forgot! This is the most important thing! How could I forget this! The most important thing is that your friend Dennis won’t have anything but silk touching his private parts. Did you know that? Did you know that Dennis won’t wear anything but silk underwear?”
Now it was my mother who spoke: “June!” She darted her eyes in the direction of my little brother, who was six years old.
“You just shut up!” Mrs. McKenna slapped the edge of the table with her fingertips. “You listened to his story. Now it’s my turn.” She glared at my mother for a long moment, then seemed to lose confidence in the righteousness of her outrage. “Anyway . . . silk underwear . . . That was a habit he picked up in the Middle East. One of his Arab affectations.”
“Stop, June,” said Mr. McKenna.
“So this suitcase weighs about one hundred pounds. The one with all the perfume. And . . . Where was I? . . . Shit . . . Oh, yes. So this is supposed to be business. Business! Hah! That’s a nice word for it. You don’t even want to know what kind of business he really does . . . So anyway . . . Silk underwear . . . So—”
Suddenly Mrs. McKenna lowered her head, and seemed to be speaking to a microphone attached to her chest. “Oh shit! Oh shit! Shit, shit, shit!”
“June, please,” said her husband.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck!”
“Stop it, June!” said Mr. McKenna.
“It’s this vertigo,” she said. “I can’t remember anything anymore. It’s this vertigo. It makes me all confused.”
“I don’t think it’s the vertigo,” my mother said somberly.
Mrs. McKenna finally looked up and fixed her gaze on my mother, her whole body visibly trembling. Then, in a sort of explosion, she roared and shot to her feet, jolting the table up onto two legs. Bottles toppled. There was a crashing of glass. Cold fluid wet my lap.
“I’m getting out of here!” she said. “I’m sick of you people! I hate you all! I’m sick and tired of your sick, disgusting hypocrisy! I don’t ever want to see any of you again!”
She shoved back the bench with such force that my father had to leap to his feet to keep from falling. Without his weight to steady the bench, it toppled over backwards, spilling Doug and my little brother onto the concrete.
There was a moment of silence, during which Mrs. McKenna’s feet whispered in the sand beside the house, then thudded resonantly along the boardwalk to the beach.
My little brother began to cry, but when my father lifted him to his feet, he shrugged free and protested, “Leave me alone! I’m not a baby!”
“Watch out!” My mother reached across the table and grabbed the back of his shirt. He was barefoot, as were all the children, and there were gleaming glass shards all over the patio.
“Why don’t you kids go inside and watch television,” Mr. McKenna told us in a weary, pseudo-cheery voice.
When none of us moved, he said, “Go on. The grown-ups will do the clearing up tonight.”
“Go on,” said my father.
“Be careful,” said my mother.
We tiptoed around the glittery heaps, and filed up the back steps into the house, Deedee and I trailing behind our siblings.
In the kitchen I touched her elbow. “Don’t you think someone should go check on your mother?”
“She’s all right,” she said.
“No she’s not. She’s drunk. Something could happen.” Saying that Mrs. McKenna was drunk made me feel suddenly grown up, even if I couldn’t quite believe what I was saying was true.
Deedee and I were alone in the kitchen now. In the front room, the TV went on with a crackle and a hiss.
“You go check on her, then,” said Deedee.
“I can’t!” The idea horrified me.
“She’s not my mother.”
Deedee sighed, lowered her eyes to the kitchen table, and picked up the potato peeler that was lying there. She put it down.
“Your father should do it,” I said.
“No way!” she said. “He is so P.O.-ed at her. Did you see that look in his eye? Never in a million years!”
“Still.” Now I picked up the peeler. “Somebody should do something. Who knows what might happen?”
“You come with me,” she said.
No sooner had Deedee and I stepped off the boardwalk on the ocean side of the dunes, than we saw a dark mound on the sand, not far from where we had arrayed our towels and umbrellas earlier in the day. A half-moon had risen and, although it was mostly obscured by clouds, it shed enough light for us to recognize Mrs. McKenna’s silhouette even before we reached her side.
“Ma?” Deedee said softly. She bent and shook her mother’s shoulder.
“Mom?” she said more loudly. “Mom?”
I was amazed that Mrs. McKenna’s shoulder just flopped back and forth when Deedee shook it, as if it were a clump of laundry. How could a human body be so limp, so devoid of resistance or volition? I stared at her chest, but could detect no rising and falling, nor could I hear her breathing over the sound of the waves.
Deedee gave her mother’s shoulder one more shove, this time with the ball of her bare foot. “Stupid,” she said under her breath, and walked away.
Catching up with her, I asked, “Don’t you think we should do something?”
Deedee spoke without looking around. “She’s just passed out. She does that all the time.”
She walked about fifteen yards, then dropped heavily to the sand, picked up a shell lying near her knee, and flung it into the water.
I sat beside her.
I didn’t quite know what it meant when someone “passed out.” What had happened to Mrs. McKenna looked nothing like the graceful swoons of television actresses. “Will she be all right?”
“She’ll wake up eventually. She might vomit or piss herself. If she does that, we’ll just take her down to the water before we go back home.”
I looked at Deedee a long moment, not knowing how I should respond. What most distressed me was how familiar her mother’s behavior clearly was to her. In the end, all I could do was exhale heavily: “Man!”
The clouds dispersed and the moon’s luminescence became strong enough to have an odd optical effect on the approaching waves, making them seem to be simultaneously racing backward and hurtling toward the shore.
Deedee kept picking up shells and flinging them at the water. Finally she sighed and asked, “Are your parents getting divorced?”
“No!” I declared loudly, and then, after a moment, more softly: “Are yours?”
“How do you know?”
“They talk about it all the time.”
“What do they say?”
“You know . . . Just: ‘I want a divorce!’ ‘I’m going to divorce you!’ What else are they going to say?”
“I mean, do they tell you why?”
“My mother hates my father’s job.”
“That doesn’t sound like a good reason. Can’t your father just change jobs?”
Deedee shrugged without answering.
“I think your father’s job is cool,” I said.
“Because you get to live in all these cool places.”
“I hate them.”
“How can you hate them?”
“They’re disgusting! Every place we live is just disgusting. It’s always too hot. There’s always garbage in the streets. Everywhere you go, it smells like a toilet. The worst place was Leopoldville.”
“Leopoldville! Where’s that?”
“Leopoldville,” she said, as if the name were explanation enough. Then she said, “Everybody’s colored there. It’s in Africa. And it’s the poorest place I ever lived. Practically all the children had sores on their faces, and big stomachs from being full of worms. And you always saw people walking down the street with these gigantic legs from elephantiasis. And one time this king came, and we were riding right behind him—”
“I didn’t know there were kings in Africa,” I said.
“No. He was a white king. I don’t know what he was the king of. Maybe he was the King of England. Anyhow, the king is standing up in this car driving through the street, and this colored guy comes up and steals the sword right off the king’s belt. And he’s dancing with it. He’s swinging it all around, like he’s going to cut somebody, like he just can’t wait to lop somebody’s head off.”
“Didn’t anybody do anything?”
“It was too fast. It was like: Boom! Out of nowhere there’s this guy dancing with the king’s sword. And we were in the car right behind the king, so in a second this guy was as close to me as you are, and I could see in his eyes he was just waiting for an excuse, to just—you know: Wham! Someone’s head will be rolling on the street! Wham! Someone gets his arm cut off. That was the most frightened I’ve ever been in my life. I was terrified! Terrified!”
“Did he do it? Cut someone’s head off, I mean.”
“No. All he did was dance around. Maybe somebody took the sword away. There were police everywhere. On motorcycles. Standing in the street. Somebody must have taken the sword away, I guess. But it all happened so fast.”
“That’s incredible!” I shook my head. “Whoa!”
“I was scared the whole time I was in Leopoldville. It was the scariest place on earth to me. Right from the very first day. I’m serious. Our parents had to go to some kind of party practically the minute we arrived, and they told the cook to babysit us. She can barely speak English, but she tells us she’s going to give us cooking lessons. ‘Numba one is chicken,’ she says. So she picks up this giant knife and takes us out back, where chickens are running everyplace. She scoops up this one chicken while she’s walking across the yard, and puts it down on its belly on this big sawed-off stump. With one hand she holds the chicken’s head still, and with the other she draws this straight line with her knife, right from the point of the chicken’s beak to the far side of the stump. And after that, it’s like she hypnotized the chicken. As soon as she draws that line, the chicken lies there all still, with its neck stretched out. She lets it go and it just keeps lying there. Doesn’t move an inch. So she gives the knife to my brother. ‘Numba one,’ she says, and then she makes this chopping motion. ‘Chicken.’ It’s like she hypnotized my brother too. He just takes the knife. And he’s standing there. And I can see that he’s got this expression on his face like he’s going to vomit. But he doesn’t. The cook says, ‘Numba one!’ And he lifts the knife over his head and then he just does it. Wham! The chicken’s head shoots off in one direction, and the body falls off the stump in the other. Then my brother looks at me with this big grin on his face. ‘That was so cool!’ he says. ‘That was easy!’ So then it’s my turn, and the cook gives me the knife. And I vomit right away. Even before she puts the chicken down on the stump. But I have to do it. Because Doug did it. And I have to do everything that he does, or he’ll think he’s better than me. So I close my eyes, and I just . . . do it. Only this time everything’s different. The chicken doesn’t just fall off the stump dead. It starts running all around in circles. With no head on! Blood squirting out of its neck! And the weird thing is, it runs right around the stump and then it goes straight for Doug! And—you know, he screams! Then he’s running too. And the chicken’s running after him, and he’s screaming and screaming! And that chicken’s following him everywhere he goes!”
Deedee started making a squeaking noise through her nose. At first I thought she was imitating Doug screaming, but then she said, “That was so funny!” and I realized she was laughing. “That was the funniest thing I ever saw in my life! Doug being chased by this headless chicken!” Then she laughed so hard she couldn’t even talk. But after a while I realized that she wasn’t laughing anymore; she was crying.
I didn’t know what to do. I just sat there. And waited.
That night I could feel myself rising and falling on the waves, even as I was lying on my bed. I could also hear the sound of the real waves right outside my window. Sometimes the two rhythms coincided and would dominate my thoughts with an almost feverish intensity. More often they diverged, and seemed to compete for my attention, creating a third rhythm—as my awareness would swing from one to the other—that only heightened my nausea, and made me feel more thoroughly sunstruck.
Sometime around three or four in the morning, I dreamed that the waves were striking the side of the house, spilling through the Venetian blinds on my window and running across my floor—only I was no longer lying on my bed; I was stretched on the boards of a Wild West sidewalk, with one of my feet dangling off the edge into the flowing water. The water wasn’t foamy, however, or rushing in sheets like the ocean. It was absolutely transparent, and braided, like water flowing in a stream, or down a toilet. And gradually, in the midst of my dream, I came to understand that I needed to pee.
I was still so deep in my dream when I got out of bed that I had no idea which of the closed doors along the hallway belonged to the bathroom. I was sleepwalking, I guess—for the one and only time in my life, as far as I know. I opened door after door and was profoundly confused as to whether I should walk into any of the dark rooms and pull down the waist of my pajama bottoms.
The only room I remember actually walking into was my parents’ bedroom. My mother was alone in the bed, motionless and deeply asleep. I know this now, but at the time her body seemed only a complex pattern of moonlight and deep shadow that I had trouble seeing as three-dimensional. I knew there was something significant about this pattern, however, and I stood beside the bed for a long time, waiting for the true nature of all those black and white fragments to coalesce inside my mind. But it never did. I gave up and left.
The bathroom, when I finally found it, was not dark at all, but radiant with moonlight and intermittently illuminated by lighthouse beams that swung across the sky like the fantastically long, snow-blue arms of a giant.
I didn’t notice the closed toilet lid until warm fluid splattered my knees. I managed to lift the lid, and even to flush, but when I went back out into the dark corridor, I still had only the vaguest idea of where I was or what I should do. A faint glow was filtering up the stairwell from the first floor, along with the sounds of what seemed to be a bear padding about the kitchen, breathing heavily and moaning.
I found Mr. McKenna holding open the door to the patio steps, his arm pale gray in the moonlight. He was talking in a low voice, and I heard my father’s voice from some considerable distance outside the door, but I couldn’t make out what either man was saying.
As I walked up behind Mr. McKenna, I saw my father’s bare shins and feet. He seemed to be lying face-up on the sand beyond the patio and holding his legs in the air, bent at the knees, as if he had fallen backward while sitting upright in a chair and stayed frozen in position. Also, he was making strange, high-pitched noises that—as with Deedee—could have been laughter or crying. I leaned closer, trying to get a better look, but all at once Mr. McKenna turned and kissed me in the middle of my forehead.
“Everything’s okay, Deedleebop,” he said. “Go back up to bed.”
The feeling of Mr. McKenna’s soft, dry lips so shocked me that I finally woke and was completely alert. But I didn’t protest. I didn’t say anything at all, just backed down the hallway.
There was a darker smudge amidst the darkness on the landing, halfway up the stairs. It was Deedee. I could tell by her silence, and by the way she held her shoulders. She didn’t budge as I stepped up beside her. The landing was small, and I was so close that I could hear her breathing and make out the odor of the warm bed she had just left. She didn’t say a word.
“Your father thought I was you,” I told her. “He kissed me on the head.”
She made a small grunt.
“They’re drunk,“ I said.
I wondered what exactly she was sorry for, but didn’t ask.
“I can’t sleep,” she said.
“Are they keeping you awake?”
“The lighthouse. It’s shining in my eyes.”
As soon as I had seen Deedee on the landing, I had thought that we should sneak down to the beach—maybe stay there until the sun came up. I kept wanting to tell her my idea, but the words wouldn’t come out.
She turned and climbed back up the stairs. I followed.
Just as I mounted the last step, a blue lighthouse beam shot through the bathroom door and swept along one wall of the hallway, gleaming in Deedee’s eyes. Then it was dark, and I couldn’t see her anymore.
After a moment, she made a small clicking noise with her lips, but didn’t say anything.
I wondered if she wanted me to kiss her. All I would have had to do was lean forward a bit, and our lips would have been touching. But I had never kissed a girl before, and the idea that I might do so now was beyond anything I could imagine.
“My parents are such jerks,” she said.
“No they’re not.”
The lighthouse beam swept down the hallway once again, and gleamed in Deedee’s eyes, but I couldn’t tell if she was looking at me. When it was dark again, I felt my cheeks going red. What I had said about her parents was so stupid. They were jerks. Deedee knew I thought they were jerks. Why hadn’t I just said what I really believed?
Something soft and cool grazed the back of my hand.
I couldn’t see Deedee, but I felt her move away, and heard the whisper of her bare feet as she walked toward my end of the hallway.
Then we were inside my room, and she closed the door.
“This is the best room in the house,” she said.
The moonlight sifting through the blinds turned her nightgown into a luminous cloud. That was all I could see of her as she moved across the room, and I couldn’t help but think that underneath her nightgown she was wearing nothing but her panties—possibly not even those.
She sat down on the edge of my bed, facing the window. “The lighthouse doesn’t shine in here, does it?”
“I don’t know.” I was surprised by the breathy quiver in my voice. “No, it doesn’t.”
Now I was sitting on the bed too. There was no way I was ever going to be able to kiss her, I didn’t even like her—not really. But then, without having decided to do so, I looked at her, and lunged. A second later, I was sitting up straight again, my fingers to my mouth, touching the places where my lips had brushed Deedee’s. I had breathed her breath.
For a long moment, we both sat looking at the window, listening to the rumble and hiss of the waves. Then Deedee sighed, and we were kissing again. This time I didn’t yank my head back, but rocked it side to side, as I had seen actors do in movies. I kept my eyes closed. And every now and then I made a small moan that I thought of as signifying pleasure.
Her tongue slid into my mouth, then mine slid into hers. “This is French kissing,” I thought. “I’m French kissing a girl!” I imagined telling my friends. They wouldn’t believe me, of course, but that would only make it better, because I would know that I actually had done things that were inconceivable to them.
My arms were around Deedee. I kept shifting my position so that I could feel her breasts on my chest. I loved how they were so compressible and yet so resilient, and how, with all their cloudlike softness, they also possessed volume and weight. I wanted to touch them, but worried I would make her angry. Again and again, I drew my fingertips along her ribs, but always stopped underneath her arms. And when I felt Deedee’s hand slide down to that spot where my pelvis and thigh began to become my groin, I had to pull away.
“Maybe we should stop,” I said. “Somebody might come in.”
I sat up, my feet on the floor, elbows on my knees. Deedee sat beside me, her shoulder touching mine. I was embarrassed.
“Okay,” she said, not sounding the least bit upset—seeming relieved, in fact. “What about if we just lie here for a while?” She was looking at me, but I couldn’t see her expression in the dark. “You want to?”
Before I could answer, she lay down on the bed and slid over to the wall. “Come on,” she said, patting the mattress.
I didn’t want to lie on my back, because then she would see my erection. So I faced her, with my legs drawn up just enough to make it unlikely that she would accidentally brush my penis. My forehead touched her temple on the pillow. Strands of her hair tickled my nose and cheeks.
“This is nice,” I said.
We lay like that for a long time, not moving, not touching, listening to the waves. I wondered if Deedee and I ought to sneak out to the beach after all. She would have to be out of my room before the others woke up anyway, and if we came back from the beach together at breakfast time, no one would think anything of it. I imagined us sitting side by side at the kitchen table, trading significant glances. The idea that we now had a secret to share made me happy. I got up onto my elbow and looked down at her face, faintly visible in that dusty blue light that precedes dawn.
She was smiling. “You want to do it again?”
I gave her a couple of nibbling kisses, then pushed my tongue into her mouth. As her tongue went into my mouth, she grabbed my pajama shirt in her fist. But then she pulled her head back, looked me in the eye, and slid her hand down between my legs. My whole body tensed. I didn’t know what to do.
“I thought so!” She laughed. “I knew you would be like that!” She rolled onto her side and pushed herself against me. “If you want,” she whispered, “you can put it in me.”
I couldn’t believe I had heard her right. I felt a rushing inside my head.
“Go on,” she said. “I’ll help you.”
She slipped her hand under the waist of my pajamas and began to stroke my penis.
“I don’t think we should do this,” I told her.
“Why not?” Her lips were just beside my ear. Her soft voice was echoing. “You’ll like it. It feels so good.”
Stephen O’Connor is the author of two collections of short fiction, Here Comes Another Lesson and Rescue.