If Wally's mother stood at her kitchen window on tiptoe, cocking her head just a bit, she could see across the bulging Adam's apple of Bugle Cove and into Wally's living room. Such spying didn't even require binoculars on a moonless night when the room was well lit as Wally saw standing just behind her. He made a mental note that the Lotti Van der Gaag piece on the console, lit by shrieking bulbs, was much too visible—beckoning even. No one had been aware of the view from his parents' kitchen when they were building their summer house—back when there might have been a way to alter the blueprints. His mother had seemed safely tucked away in the beach cottage his father had built forty years earlier—certainly too far to trek the zigzagging roads that appeared to distance them.
She had made her revelation at an August dinner party as she ladled gazpacho into Stangl pottery bowls dating from the 1950s. "Guess what I discovered last night?" she brayed, blinking sea green eyes. Wally expected some dry yet slightly off-putting tale about that day's shopping expedition—a piece of news about some old biddy encountered at the Safeway. The phrase "guess what" had long sent the Strickland children (and later grandchildren) clambering under the dining table for lost forks, errant cats, or, most often, whispered conferences on how to derail Mom's stories. And in the last year, without the skilled diversionary tactics of Wally's father, her monologues had grown even more stultifying.
Barbara, his wife, had the nerve to laugh when Mom finally announced what it was she had seen in their living room. Mom had watched Wally scratch his balls (or "scratch himself" as she put it—followed by a downward glance). "I thought I had seen that for the last time when you were twelve," she added needlessly.
The Lochmans, an even older couple who'd appeared half asleep until then, looked puzzled at his mother's announcement, probably hearing less than half of it. The Craigs, older still but closer to their hostess, were clearly embarrassed—Joseph Craig half-rising from his chair, a salmon-colored napkin flapping from his starched, white collar. "Really now," he muttered under his breath. "We're at the dinner table."
"Oh, come on," Mom said, looking at their unappreciative faces. "You're supposed to find it amusing. Amusante," she repeated as if one of her guests required a translation into a foreign language. Since Dad's death, Mom had become increasingly quirky and her conversation a trifle risqué. Tonight, for instance, she wore a peasant skirt, a necklace fashioned from seeds and nuts, and red espadrilles with woven straps that twined her bare legs. She was the most fashionable female in the family—this at age eighty.
"Anyway . . . the thing is . . . you shouldn't be watching us, Mom," Wally reminded her. "It's wrong to take advantage of your location."
"Isn't that a little strong?" Barbara said, placing a calming hand on his knee. "Mom can only see into the living room, Wally. And if you insist on keeping it open and lit like a stage . . . . " her voice trailed off.
What can you expect, she'd been about to add, he'd bet. For Wally's entire adult life, he'd been trying to impress this dark-haired, dark-eyed woman of infinite grace, knowing she deserved better. That's when he rose and followed Mom to the window and saw the strange Van der Gaag figure, a bronze abstract that, in certain lights or under the influence of certain substances, seemed raucously female, making its presence known to every crook on the Cape. Suddenly the issue of his balls was small potatoes.
Their house on the Cape was made possible by the nervy acumen of a wiry, twenty-something stockbroker named Stewie Chase. Stewie made them a bundle in the mid-nineties and then, fortuitously, had a falling out with the Stricklands over his disinclination to remove their money from environmentally unfriendly firms, which left the Stricklands with their hands full of liquid assets at the moment the market began its slide.
"Why not build a place of your own?" Wally's old man, still alive then, suggested. "Real estate's a good investment in a bearish market."
"Maybe you're right," Wally finally agreed. "We've got to put the money somewhere." A piece of land was selected (close by the family cottage in Wellfleet at the old man's precognizant insistence), and a house quickly took the place of the cruelly slain pines and hauled-off rocks. Wally wasn't sure that either Barbara or he had really wanted a house on the Cape. But everyone else seemed enthusiastic. "We'll be up all the time," his daughter had promised. And because Wally had fond memories of summers spent on the Cape in childhood and visits to his parent's home with his own kids; and finally because he dreamed of having grandchildren of his own to lure up north in the future, he acquiesced.
"You're supposed to relax," Barbara said when he continued to roam the house a few weeks after they'd moved in that first summer, flicking on the various TVs and radios, arranging, then rearranging their books and knickknacks. "Or use the time to finish your . . . book." She massaged his neck. "Don't you feel calmer already?" He didn't somehow. He felt adrift, in fact. What was he supposed to do all day? "I'll settle in soon," he promised, expecting his discontent to ease. But it didn't. Their four months at the Cape each summer, a decided perk of life in the academy, began to loom before him by January. Filling in the hours of each day on Cape Cod seemed like an impossible task. Four semi-completed chapters of what would be his third book still sat in boxes in the storage room. What was to have been his summer project that first year gathered mold. Somehow he had lost all interest in Daniel Marot's influence on eighteenth century Dutch architecture. On his last trip to The Hague, he suddenly found the flourishes on the Royal Library absurd, something the French had been telling the Dutch for three centuries. His notes, when he could bear to examine them, revealed an enthusiasm he now found sophomoric. He couldn't bear to touch them.
Wally had expected that Barbara and he would begin to travel more extensively by their mid-fifties. That had been the thinking twenty-five years ago: parent now and travel later. But Barbara had found her métier in the last few years and long trips were out of the question. Now it was Wally who whined outside her study door, who tried to seduce her with a lunch on the bay or tickets to the Playhouse. Why she wanted to design dreary websites for a bunch of difficult, inarticulate clients was a mystery. She had taken a course in web design without his notice one winter; oh, she had told him, of course, but he hadn't gleaned the true meaning of her efforts until it was too late. There was nothing he hated more than watching Barbara head out of the house with her sleek attaché under her arm. She was meant to have her arms full of flowers, or children. Of him.
"What's that you're doing?" he asked, looking over her shoulder.
"Do you really want to know?" He leaned over and caught a whiff of undeodorized perspiration. He hadn't known it was possible for her to sweat.
"No, that's okay,' he said hurriedly, eager to get away. She had been working on a website for an auto supplies company, for God's sake. All the icons on the screen—if that's what they were called—specified items for a car. How could this be better than trips to Europe or bird watching?
His mother, on the other hand, couldn't get enough of him. "Couldn't you stop over for lunch?" she trilled only this morning. "I have scads of food left over from a party last night." A chill went down his spine when he remembered the view from her kitchen. Had Barbara and he done anything that might prove embarrassing? He doubted it, but it was still disconcerting to imagine Mom and her cronies gathering at the window after dark, all of them on tiptoe since the last decade had cruelly sliced away at their spines. How could Mom bear to watch her fifty-five year old son scratch his balls? Moreover, how could she turn her discovery of it into party conversation?
"Did you get the leftovers right into the fridge, Mom?" She had been known to allow food to sit on the counter for hours. Childhood memories were spiked with bouts of food poisoning, politely referred to as "eating something that didn't agree with him."
"We had roasted vegetables and pecan-encrusted salmon," she said, treating his question as rhetorical. "And that bread you like from Tillie's—the kind with black olives and rosemary." It was a tempting invitation. Barbara and he had had grilled cheese sandwiches and canned tomato soup last night, the cheese, or cheese product as the plastic wrap advised him, not even properly melted. Spatula-shaped burn marks on the grocery store bread marred the presentation as well as the taste. The Barbara of yore would have thrown such a dinner down the disposal. But since he had made it, how could he complain? Mom's dinner sounded okay—great even—given what he got at home.
Lately he had become increasingly surreptitious about visiting Mom. He had gotten into this . . . well . . . really bad habit . . . of telling Barbara he was going to the beach instead of Mom's, a deception that meant he had to don a suit and load the car with an umbrella, towel, chair, cooler and reading material. More minutes were wasted greasing himself down with lotion. And then, on the way home, he had to actually turn up at the beach so he could report on its conditions, wet his suit, pick up a bit of the smell of sand and salt, improve his tan. "Went to Turtle Back beach today," he'd report, placing a fist-full of small black pebbles on Barbara's desk "Saw the McDoogle's bathing with the grandson." He had to stop himself before he launched into needlessly fulsome details. In these recitations, he sounded like someone from a 1940s novel, his speech lacking pronouns and articles—and full of dated, John Marquand-type words. Bathing, really!
And Mom, more cognizant than Barbara of late, had begun to wonder why he traveled everywhere in his swimsuit. "Is there something about a bathing suit that makes it more comfortable than a good old-fashioned pair of shorts," she asked recently, looking disapprovingly at the new Speedo Barb had picked up for him. Mom even offered to take him shopping to find "the kind of Bermudas your Dad liked" still available apparently in a men's store in Hyannis. "Or I might even have some packed away in the spare room," she offered. "Though you're not the size man your Dad was." Not in any way, he imagined her thinking. Dad had spent his summers on the Cape fishing, playing golf, building twig furniture and inventing ingenuous gadgets in his tool shed. His father apparently found it easy to leave his position in the English department of a small liberal arts college for a few months, settling on the Cape year round after retirement. He couldn't remember ever finding his father without a project underway. Dad had understood the perks of their profession and worked them. No, he wasn't the man his father was and never would be.
It wasn't as if Barbara would have cared that he spent the occasional—all right—most afternoons with Mom. He was actually a bit afraid to find out that she didn't give a damn. That she was glad—very glad—to have him occupied with his mommy. But to freely reduce himself to an even more pathetic position by admitting how he spent his afternoons galled him. No, it would have to remain his secret.
Yes Mom and he had become a good fit—discomfortingly so. She was more than willing to spend the day digging around in old barns filled with moldy antiques. She had come away with a nice piece of wrought iron railing only last week, hanging it with his help behind the guestroom bed. "Seth and Brenda won't even notice it when they visit, I bet," she told him. "They're not like us!" She fixed an approving eye on her son. Not like us. Who was, he sometimes wondered? Wally's purchases, or those items too large to escape Barbara's notice, were stored in a spare room in Mom's house, a room that was growing increasingly crowded. He had recently developed an affinity with blue and white ceramics that didn't complement Barbara's neutral palate at home. Mom and he never discussed his "room," and both held their breath every time Barbara cruised by. Though he had never asked Mom to keep their afternoons a secret, she intuited it and held her silence.
Mother and son also liked to poke around in used bookshops. Their right hands had reached simultaneously for a dog-eared copy of Franny and Zoey on a recent foray. "You read it first," his mother offered generously, pulling out a five. "Oh, I hope it holds up. Your father used to assign it every semester in the sixties." Often they were mistaken for a long-married couple, which pleased his mother no end. The first time it happened he had quickly cleared the misconception up. By the frequency of its occurence made his abandon such explanations.
Neither Wally nor his mother really cared for the beach. Mom's recurrent rash, which climbed her legs anytime she mixed salt with sand, had begun to climb his legs as well. "Will you look at that?" Barbara had said only last week, pointing to his shins. "I've always assumed your mother's rash was psychosomatic."
"Some sort of hysterical dermatitis?" Wally asked, looking at his legs in his full-length mirror. "So she could stay home and read trashy novels whenever Dad carted us all off to the beach?"
"Please! Middlebrow novels." Barbara's quick smile hovered somewhere between fondness and irritation. "You should get a pair of those beach shoes if you're going to swim so often. That rash looks serious."
"It's not just my feet," he pointed out. "I suppose I should just give in and stay away from the beach."
She frowned. "But you're such a beach chum!" She had stopped calling him a "beach bum" when he'd complained a few weeks ago, quickly inventing this even more ridiculous term. The fondness in her tone was peppered with a bit of derision, he thought.
"Do you think Mom's still watching?" he asked, after a pause. "You know—through the window?" He had hoped to hold on to Barb's increasingly rare attention through this foray to another topic, but she was out of earshot by then, hurrying back to the faint whir, the dimly lit screen, waiting on her desk. The conversation about his rash had been the longest in weeks.
Wally's children had promised to come to the Cape "practically every weekend" when they built the place. Ha! Distressingly, they had also shown little inclination to provide him with the grandchildren of his dreams. They were far too satisfied with their life in the City, with their serial monogamy, with their four-hundred square foot apartments in the East Village, with their vegan lifestyles, with their insistence on travel by public transportation. Barbara and his vaguely liberal inclinations had been transmogrified into a cast-iron credo by his offspring. He had known almost at once that their years at Oberlin College had been a mistake.They had secured excellent educations and good, humanitarian values, but became harsh critics of everything he said or did. He was quite sure they regarded his work as an art historian as trivial if not reactionary. Only the dearth of Marxists ideals in the 21st century moderated their stance.
Both children came to the Cape for a week's vacation sometime over the summer and for the very occasional weekend. "It's not like we don't have nice beaches on Long Island or in Jersey, Dad," both reminded him. He had provoked this response after a scolding email sent to both of them, ending with a reminder of her mother's imminent fifty-second birthday. "Maybe we can plan a small party."
His daughter, Georgina, age twenty-seven, and he weren't exactly oil and water, but were something close to it. Tall, blonde and beautiful, she was some mysterious substance that appeared to mix with water, only to separate later without notice. "All right. I'll be up on Friday night," she finally agreed. "It's not going to rain, is it?" Her tone implied he might be concealing this information.
"Nothing but blue skies," he promised glibly. He could hear the sound of crinkling paper as she consulted her bus schedule. She insisted on taking a bus up since she didn't drive and was too frugal to take Amtrak. His attempts in the past to provide her with a ticket had met with unmitigated scorn. "You'd be quite surprised to hear how much money I make, Dad," she sniffed. "My travel by bus is not born merely of frugality." She was strict all right; he couldn't wait to see some future child tangle with her. Ah, but there probably would be none.
"Will you be bringing . . . anyone?" he asked, skirting the issue of her on again off again relationship with a Brooklyn fireman. Buster, wasn't it? She mumbled something he couldn't make out, hanging up before he could ask for clarification. Their son, Rick, age twenty-eight, even more elusive and judgmental than Georgina, was attending a environmental conference on the west coast so it would be just the three women and himself—and possibly the fireman.
If Barbara were the only one to consider, something outdoors on a beach would be the ticket. They had done that sort of thing in years past and it was always a success. There was a small, private beach just down the road and they could cook something fun for dinner, maybe using their shellfish license to dig oysters and clams at low tide, then roasting them along with corn—right on the beach. And plenty of wine! He could set up a table and chairs so they wouldn't have to sit on a blanket. Barb would enjoy such an evening; Mom, with her allergies, rashes and stiff knees, would not; Georgina would disappear early—either with or without her beau. The thought of cutting his fingers shucking oysters put him off a bit, too. Building a fire that none of the women would scoff at also seemed chancy. All of them had been Girl Scouts, yet none stepped forward to help, assuming the sole male would build the better fire. What kind of feminism was this?
For her part, Mom would prefer to make the dinner herself, thus saving everyone money and accruing brownie points with Barbara for making her daughter-in-law a special birthday dinner. Except she'd prepare Wally's favorite dinner, claiming to believe it to be Barbara's too. An elderly couple would drop over unexpectedly, Mom expressing whispered surprise they'd taken her offhand invitation seriously. Mom and the other couple would spend the evening talking about their youth, discussing diseases, mourning the loss of Wally's father. Barbara would drift into one of her web page reveries, and Georgina would disappear early—either with or without her beau. Afterwards one or all of them (excluding Mom) would be sick most of the night.
Georgina, lastly, liked evenings at the local, experimental theater, followed by a late supper at a loud jazz club outside of town. None of the three older Stricklands would be able to hear each other. Mom would complain about the food prices; Barbara would seem distracted; Georgina would spot someone she knew while they were still having drinks and disappear for a lengthy time. The play would be inexplicable, with lots of four-letter words, furniture-tossing, and ersatz accents. Later two or more of them would fight over the meaning of the play, or the quality of the production, or the value of jazz. If he pretended to enjoy both events, someone would accuse him of 1) lying 2) being a philistine 3) taking someone else's side.
He liked going out to an elegant restaurant; they did it seldom enough. A real blowout—no expenses spared. No one else would like this. Mom would worry about the money spent; Barbara would hate the stuffy people in fancy clothes who frequented such places; Georgina would see the three of them as a bunch of old farts and disappear early . . . .
He dug out his license on Friday, concluding it was Barbara's day after all.
"Want to come along?" he asked at breakfast. "It looks like a nice day for it." She had already opened his present, a necklace from one of the town's premiere galleries and a subscription to a new cooking magazine. She had put the necklace on over her pajamas, which made it look cheap. Actually, it had cost quite a lot.
"I have to finish the job I'm working on. If I don't," she said, her voice rising as she anticipated his objection, "I won't be able to enjoy myself tonight." She drained her coffee mug and stood up. "Why not ask Mom to go along?"
"You know how she feels about beaches."
"Oh, she can wear some long pants and her beach shoes! You know, Wally, you should really spend more time with her even if it means giving up the beach some days. I worry about her. Did you see . . . . "
"I know it's tradition for me to plan your birthday celebration," he interrupted, "but if you have any ideas about the evening . . . . Something you'd prefer to do."
Sometimes he grew concerned that almost nothing could raise her ire or interest. When had she grown so passive? Or when had he first noticed it?
She shook her head. "It'll be fun. Call Mom though."
He nodded his agreement and called her. Once she had gotten past her disappointment in not being allowed to make, "Barbara, my favorite person in the world's birthday dinner," she agreed to come with him. "You can measure the little buggers," Wally promised. "You don't have to go near the water."
He picked her up just before low tide. She was swathed from head to toe in a gauzy cotton robe. A beekeeper's hat covered her head. "Now don't look at me like that," she ordered. "Better to look ridiculous in this getup for an hour than to itch and ooze for a month." The day had grown cloudy, but there was a large group hunting clams and oysters. "You're going to get a stiff neck," his mother shouted after him as he set off down the beach. Everyone in earshot straightened up with that remark. More than an hour passed before he had even collected a scant group of oysters, and then his mother's laissez faire measurements did not impress the warden, who threw half the oysters back.
"That fellow got a lot of pleasure out of that," Mom commented as they walked away. "Just like librarians. Don't want anybody to have their precious books."
The clams weren't biting at all—if that's how you phrased it. "No mother lodes out there," a man wearing blue wading boots informed him. His digging tools rattled from a carpenter's belt at his waist. If this joker couldn't find any clams, what hope did Wally have?
"I'll have to make dinner after all," his mother crowed. "Quick, we'll stop at the market." She was peeling off white gauze like a mummy.
"Mom, it's too late for that. I promised Bar . . . "
"Look at the sky, Wallace. It's going to rain any minute."
"Okay, so the beach is out. But we can still go to a nice restaurant. Maybe something in P'town."
"Georgina will be tired after her bus ride. Do you really want to make her trek up to Provincetown when she has a grandmother only too happy to feed her? And how would it look to Boothby?" Boothby?
Georgina and Butch (as it turned out) got in as expected ("See how reliable a bus is, Dad?") and by eight o'clock they were seated at his mother's old cherry table. The meal was an odd assortment of the old Family Feud category: "things that come in jars." So it was herring, olives, pickled onions, beets and smoked oysters rounded out by a supermarket roasted chicken, corn on the cob from a styrofoam tray, and a Safeway cake with a circus train in yellow frosting making its way across the chocolate base. Choo-choo, the frosting said, instead of Happy Birthday. Only his mother seemed cheery and festive, having gotten her way. He watched sourly as Georgina passed up everything but the beets and corn. Butch, on the other hand, dug in eagerly.
By nine-thirty, Georgina and her fireman had made their excuses. Only a boatload of wine could save the evening, but Wally had only brought one bottle, forgetting to stop at the wine store in his rush. "What do you have in there?" he asked peering over Mom's shoulder in the kitchen. "There must be something in there for the shank of the evening." She yanked out a bottle of sweet vermouth and a red wine that had been opened days, if not weeks, earlier. "Here you go," she said, handing it over. He took a swig, spitting it out at once. "Vinegar!"
"Wally," she said suddenly, nudging him hard, "did you tell Georgina about the view from here?"
"What?" he asked, wiping his mouth. He looked up just in time to see his naked daughter in his living room, mimicking the pose in the Lotti Van der Gaag piece. Now it was clear to him what Van der Gaag was expressing. Desire. Wantonness The track lighting illuminated Georgina to greater effect than the smaller, more inert figurine on the console. What the hell! It was as if she were on stage!
Mother and son watched together mutely for a few seconds, transfixed by the vision. But when Butch, the fireman rose like a specter behind Georgina, Wally yanked his mother's blinds closed. He pulled the cord so hard, in fact, that the whole contraption came out of the wall, bringing a sizeable chunk of plaster along with it and nearly catching his mother in the head. "For God's sake, Wally" she yelled, moving to the side, "I warned you about that view days ago."
"We have to put something up at that window tomorrow," he told Barbara over his shoulder. "I had no idea." The three of them watched frozen as Georgina did a little waltz around the room. She wasn't nearly as anorexic as Wally had thought, certainly more than capable of bearing a child. Maybe she already was pregnant, he thought, eyeing the start of a pouch. "Barbara . . . " he began when Butch, who disappeared for a second, returning with his fireman's hat on his head.
"Ow," the three said in unison as Butch stubbed his toe and fell, bumping the slate top of the coffee table with his knee. Wally shook his head. "That view doesn't exist after tonight. I'll build a steel wall if I have to."
"Well, I hope you both know I never saw anything like that," his mother assured them.
"Half the time, I go to bed before dark."
"You're not missing anything." They both said it together, sounding somewhat regretful.
"It's just as well we're due to go back to the city next week," Wally told Barbara in the car on the short drive back to their house. He drove slowly in the fervent hope that Georgina and Butch would have retired for the night by the time they arrived.
"Why's that?" Her voice was distant, aloof. She was probably puzzling over her newest web site.
"I don't know." He paused. "I guess I never feel quite at home up here. It always seems like an overly long vacation. Unreal." He could already picture himself back in the City. Trooping into his office at the University on an idle Saturday. Taking in a movie at the Forum. Showing up for a new exhibit on the first day. No sand between his toes there. He might even form a reading group with his colleagues. He might even take up bridge. He felt energetic for the first time since May. He felt bad about deserting Mom, but it couldn't be helped.
"You know what I was thinking," Barbara said, adjusting the mirror to examine her mouth and reapplying some lipstick. "I was thinking we should take a vacation from our vacation. Maybe go up to Nova Scotia for a few days before we head back."
He was ecstatic. "What a great idea! This place has lost some of its luster as a vacation place . . . Maybe we should consider selling it?"
She frowned. "I didn't mean I wanted to sell it; in fact, I had a very different idea." She paused. "I was going to suggest that we ask your Mother to move in with us. I think she's growing too old to live alone." She touched his arm. "Really I was more than a little afraid to eat some of the things on the table tonight. And she seems more excitable every day."
"Well, it was last minute . . . . And we expected to find more oysters." He paused. "Really she saved the day."
"Yes, but I caught her scrapping mold off those pickled onions. Oh, and its a million little things. How can we leave her alone anymore? So after we return from Canada, let's ask her to sell the place and live with us."
"She lives here all year round, you know," Wally said, fear filling his chest cavity by the minute. "It's not just a summer place for her."
"I know it'll be a change. But our place in the City is more than big enough for three." She looked at him carefully. "Maybe you don't have much in common with Mom now, but I'm sure you'll find loads of things to do together in the City. You'll probably wonder how you ever got along without her." She paused. "We'll both wonder."
He looked closely to see if she was being ironic. When it appeared that she wasn't, he told her, "You're probably right."