The Whore''s Child and Other Stories by Richard Russo


  On the ferry, though, under a bright late summer sky, the breeze on the upper deck billowing their clothes, they both cheered up. Out on the open water there was, of course, no evidence of the recent hurricane, nor hint of autumn, much less of winter. Here, as the early September sun warmed their skin, the Snows compared notes on what they remembered, what they’d forgotten and what had changed in the nearly thirty years since their last visit to the island. “The main biggest difference,” the professor remarked, “is that we now have enough money to stay at an inn.” On that previous trip— poor as a young assistant professor and his new, even younger graduate-student wife could be—they’d rented the cheapest cottage they could find in Oak Bluffs and still had to leave three days early because they’d run out of money.

  In truth, Snow thought he’d forgotten all the details of that visit until many came rushing back to him: the way the cars were loaded, bumper-to-bumper, into the dark belly of the ferry; the gulls that sailed effortlessly along the upper deck, patiently awaiting a handout; the coin-operated viewfinders still mounted on both the port and starboard railings, promising to bring into focus the place you were going to, as well as the one you’d left behind.

  Halfway across, June pulled a pale yellow sweater over her head so she could feel the sun on her arms, and her husband felt his heart go into his throat—imagining for an instant that she’d forgotten herself, that she intended to sun herself in her brassiere there on the upper deck, and instinctively he reached out to prevent her.

  How foolish, he thought, remembering too late that she’d pulled the sweater on over a blouse as they left the house that morning. This of course meant that he’d also momentarily forgotten exactly who she was, this woman, his wife.

  But fate was kind and offered him an opportunity to save face. “I seem to be snagged,” June said, her voice muffled inside the sweater, its fabric having caught on a button, and there, even as she spoke, was his helpful hand, already extended, as if to suggest that he was capable of anticipating her every need.

  When they arrived at the Captain Clement House, the front entrance was locked, with an elegantly printed note affixed to the inside of the glass: Please Enter Through Garden. They went around back, passing through a trellised archway into a manicured green world miraculously untouched by the storm. The giant oak on the terrace outside had been stripped bare, but the garden, surrounded and protected on three sides, was unscathed. And perhaps because several dozen varieties of perennials were in defiant bloom, there were yellow bees everywhere. The Snows did not linger.

  “I’m so glad you’re here,” said the small, trim woman who greeted them inside, introducing herself as Mrs. Childress, the owner. She was of difficult-to-read middle age, with a not-quite-British accent and dark circles under her eyes. “For the moment you have the inn to yourselves. I’m rather concerned about the Robbins party. They’re sailing up from Newport and I was given to expect them several hours ago, but I’m sure they’ll be docking presently.” She gave an elegant, sweeping gesture in the direction of the garden, as if to suggest that the schooner in question might this very second be tying up just beyond the French doors. “We islanders are all prey to a certain foreboding these days,” she confided to June as the professor signed the guest register. “A remnant of the storm, no doubt. I’m sure they’ll arrive safely.”

  Snow agreed, remarking that nothing untoward ever happened to people from Newport who owned sailboats.

  “Well, I don’t know these particular people,” Mrs. Childress said, as if to suggest that therefore she had no idea whether they might be susceptible to sudden squalls at sea, “but they were quite delighted to learn we’d have a distinguished professor of American history in our midst. I warn you in advance that we’re all bracing for a weekend of scintillating conversation.”

  “Ah,” said Snow, whose discipline in fact was literature, “I’m retired, I’m afraid.”

  Mrs. Childress blinked, seemingly confused.

  “I no longer scintillate,” he explained, “though of course I used to.”

  The woman clapped her hands appreciatively and turned to June. “Isn’t he the droll one?”

  She then showed the Snows to a room on the third floor, from which they had an excellent view of the town and, in the distance, the harbor. Once she left, Snow followed his wife out onto the balcony, where he was relieved to find her smiling.

  Back home in Ithaca, they had made gentle fun of the language of the inn’s brochure, in which “resplendent” appeared three times. But Snow had insisted it was perfect for them, suspecting that despite their easy mockery, June secretly had her heart set on just such a place as the Captain Clement precisely for its “meticulously preserved, graceful formalities,” its “artful blending of American and English, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century antiques,” its “finishing touches of crystal and porcelain appointments,” its “romantic ambience and elegant grandeur.”

  And after all, it was thanks to him that their return to the island, so often discussed, had kept getting postponed for well over a decade. Twice they’d canceled their reservations to accommodate some academic conference— most recently just last Christmas when Snow let himself be talked into his least favorite conference so he could sit on the committee interviewing shortlist candidates for his own position. He should have known better, of course, though he never would’ve imagined his colleagues might hire, over his strenuous objections, a young fool whose academic specialty wasn’t even literature at all, but rather, as he proudly proclaimed, “culture.” In the interview he used all the latest critical jargon, and assured the puzzled committee that his research was strictly “cutting edge.” A month later, when the boy visited the campus— he seemed no more than twenty, though his vita stated thirty—he’d shown no deference to the department’s senior scholars and exhibited a smirking contempt for Snow’s own books. That so many of the professor’s colleagues remained so enthralled suggested to Snow that perhaps they secretly shared his dubious opinion of his life’s work. This realization was so bitter that he’d behaved badly, wondering at the question-and-answer session following the young man’s presentation (on “Gender Otherness and Othering”) whether students could apply his courses toward their foreign-language requirement.

  But the boy was hired and Snow retired, willingly enough when all was said and done. The young fool would get his. In no time he’d be a tenured, fully vested old fool, by which time Snow himself would be contentedly cold and dead. Until then, however, he had to face June, who certainly understood that with retirement Snow had no excuses left. The Captain Clement beckoned, and he assured her that they’d enjoy traversing “floorboards worn to a glowing patina by two centuries of perpetual footsteps.”

  The morning after their arrival, the Snows slept in and went down for a late breakfast in the small dining room. Already seated were the two couples they’d met the afternoon before at tea, the people whose arrival from Newport had been awaited so anxiously by Mrs. Childress. They had mingled rather uncomfortably for an hour or so, the gathering supervised by their host, who seemed intent on holding it together by sheer force of will and a tray of sticky pastries. Later, at a restaurant close by, when the Snows casually mentioned where they were staying, they’d learned something about the Childress woman’s anxiety from a loose-talking bartender. The Childresses had bought the Captain Clement only three years before, evidently paying well over two million dollars. “You got any idea how many rooms you gotta rent to pay that back?” the bartender had asked, arching an eyebrow significantly. No sooner had they closed on the deal than the bottom fell out of the island’s real estate market—not to mention their marriage—and now the woman was good and stuck. The hurricane ruining the last month of the summer season would be the final nail in her coffin. The bartender had explained all this confidently and without visible empathy.

  Indeed, the Captain Clement had an air of abandonment, the Newport foursome being the only other guests. Major Robbins,
who owned the yacht, was retired military, and Snow couldn’t decide whether he was naturally loud or compensating for deafness. Having been misinformed about the professor’s area of study, Robbins had quickly cornered him and announced that he himself was something of a Civil War buff, proceeding to regale Snow with the tactical details of some obscure battle. Snow, loath to offend, first feigned interest, then distraction and finally—when the major said, “Now here’s where it gets complicated”—intellectual exhaustion. Robbins was not alone in appearing disappointed when the Snows made their excuses and escaped through the garden, the major’s party watching their retreat with the weary expression of people who’d been promised, then cheated of, a lengthy reprieve.

  This morning, at breakfast, Robbins’s companions looked haggard, as though a single night’s sleep had not been sufficient for them to face this new day, though the major himself looked fresh and ready for anything. All four were dressed in beach attire and Snow noted with relief that they had finished eating and were unlikely to invite the Snows to join them. June, who professed to have enjoyed their company, was veering sociably toward their table until Snow touched her elbow and guided her to a table on the other side of the dining room. “Try the Mexican eggs,” Major Robbins bellowed.

  “I will,” Snow promised, holding June’s chair for her, a gesture that seemed appropriate here at the Captain Clement.

  Mrs. Childress, who had been in the kitchen, came out to greet them and to inquire how they’d slept. Snow had slept badly, but insisted otherwise.

  “What a shame we can’t offer you breakfast in the garden,” the Childress woman said, sounding almost stricken. “But the bees have claimed it, I fear.”

  From where they sat, the Snows could see that the garden was indeed set up for dining, pristine white tables scattered among the potted plants and hedges. They could also see bees swarming beyond the French doors.

  “Are they the price of such lovely flowers?” June wondered.

  “Alas, no,” Mrs. Childress said, her faintly British accent kicking in again. “It’s the storm. The bees are disoriented, or so we’re told. They think it’s spring.”

  Major Robbins noisily pushed back his chair. “The beach!” he cried, as if commencing a dangerous amphibious assault, though his troops looked potentially mutinous. The major’s wife, the first to venture outside, let out a whoop as the bees closed in and then she bolted for the white trellised arch, arms flying about her head, her companions close behind, also beating the air wildly.

  The Snows’ waitress was a pretty girl named Jennifer whose tan was dark and remarkably even, Snow noticed when she bent to pick up a fork she’d managed to knock to the floor. He wondered whether it was the girl’s clumsiness or her immodesty, given the scoop-necked uniform that caused Mrs. Childress to roll her eyes at June before disappearing into the kitchen.

  “South Shore has the best beaches,” the girl explained in response to Snow’s question about where they might spend the afternoon. “Really awesome bodysurfing.”

  As the girl said this, he thought he saw a trace of doubt flicker across her heretofore untroubled features, perhaps registering her realization that bodysurfing might not be what these particular guests had in mind.

  “Oak Bluffs is nice too,” she added hastily. “That’s got a lagoon.”

  Another flicker of doubt—had she insulted them?— and a weak smile, as if to concede she wasn’t the person to ask. She didn’t know what older people did, or where they did it, or why.

  Her plight was so touching that Snow decided to help her off the hook. “Which is the beach with the cliffs?” he asked, suddenly recalling it from their previous trip.

  “Gay Head, you mean?” the girl said, surprised. “That’s clothing optional.”

  “Oh,” June said with a wry smile. “Well that’s out then.”

  “Right,” the girl said sympathetically, though Snow couldn’t tell if she was reluctant to shed her clothing in public now or if she was looking ahead thirty years. Actually, if they stayed right around the area where the trail joined the beach, they’d be fine. It was only farther down the beach, beneath the bluff, where the nudists gathered. They liked to cover their bodies with moist clay from the cliffs—“it’s primo skin conditioner”—and then let it dry in the sun. “And don’t worry about the name. Some people think it’s a gay beach, but it’s not,” she concluded, as if she felt it her duty to allay their fears on this score at least. “They probably ought to call it something else.”

  “Perhaps they could call it Primo Beach,” June said wryly when the girl stepped away.

  While she was in the bathroom changing into the new bathing suit she’d bought on impulse the day before while they were waiting for the ferry, Snow called his old colleague, David Loudener, whom they’d planned to visit in Manhattan on their way back to Ithaca. David was one of very few people who knew the details of what had happened when June suffered her breakdown. In fact, he’d been with Snow when the police had called to say she’d been found at a nearby shopping mall, staring into the empty display window of a vacant store, and together they’d gathered her up and taken her home. Apparently, the only consequence of her brief disappearance was that she’d given her wedding ring to a stranger.

  This was years ago, but “How’s June doing?” was David’s first question, and Snow imagined he heard concern, perhaps even fear, in his old friend’s voice. Snow again was reminded of his suspicion at the time that David blamed him, at least in part, for what had befallen his wife. “You’re going to have to be careful of her,” he’d told Snow after she was released from the hospital, and something in his friend’s voice suggested that he doubted that caring for June was a task he was suited for.

  “We’re both fine,” Snow now said, aware that June was probably able to hear the conversation through the bathroom door. “Anxious to see you and Elaine.” And once again he took down the complicated directions he’d need to follow into Manhattan.

  “This is way too young, isn’t it,” June said when she emerged from the bathroom, modeling the new white swimsuit.

  Snow couldn’t tell whether this was true or if it was his wife’s posture that proclaimed, almost defiantly, her determination to act her age. June was still trim— athletic-looking, in fact—but clearly she was not about to cut herself any slack. In a sunny mood when she’d gone into the bathroom, she now appeared discouraged and uncertain. “You look wonderful,” he assured her. “Come here.”

  She ignored this invitation. “It’s cut too high in the leg,” she said, tracing the line of the suit with her index fingers.

  “It’s the way they’re wearing them,” Snow said, though now that she’d drawn his attention to it, he saw what she meant.

  “It’s the way twenty-year-olds are wearing them,” she said. “Twenty-year-olds with primo bodies.”

  “You look lovely, June,” he said.

  “You’d let me go out in public looking like a fool, wouldn’t you,” she said.

  “Dear God.”

  “At least I had sense enough to buy this,” she said, slipping a mesh cover-up over the suit.

  As they drove up-island, the devastation of the hurricane became even more pronounced. Obviously, cleanup had been prioritized, and the less populated side of the island was still awaiting attention. Along the winding road, branches and other windblown debris still littered the roadway, though larger downed limbs had been dragged onto the shoulder. The air was thick with yellow bees, which pinged angrily off their windshield.

  But further on the landscape opened up, rewarding them every quarter mile or so with a glimpse of blue ocean, until finally the road climbed and narrowed and there was blue sky and ocean on both sides. June’s spirits seemed to lift as the car climbed the final stretch toward the lighthouse perched on a cliff. Halfway down the boardwalk path to the beach, they stopped so June could pull off the cotton cover-up, and she surrendered a grudging smile. “There,” she said. “Are you happy now?”
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  “I was happy,” he protested. “I am happy.”

  “Feel that breeze,” she said.

  By the time they got to the beach, Snow realized he was out of shape and allowed June to carry the beach chairs while he shouldered the bag that contained their towels and suntan lotion, his wallet, her purse. She didn’t even point out that she’d cautioned him against taking these particular chairs—bulky and old-fashioned, with heavy wooden frames—instead of the lighter aluminum ones. These had looked flimsy and chintzy to Snow, who’d thought they should recline in good sturdy beach chairs and sleep in an elegant inn.

  At the end of the boardwalk, the beach was relatively crowded with bathers, but by trekking a bit farther they could have a stretch of sand more or less to themselves. “By all means,” June agreed. “In this suit I want to be as far away from people as I can get.”

  It looked to be about three hundred yards to the rocky point, with the red clay cliffs rising gently along the way. They’d gone not quite a third of the way when June dropped their chairs in the sand and said, “This is as far as I go, buddy boy. Look up and you’ll see why.”

  Snow, more tired than he cared to admit, had been slogging through the sand with his head down. “What?” he said.

  Further up the beach, directly beneath the tallest cliffs, was another smaller cluster of bathers, which caused him to wonder if there’d been a different path that led more directly down to the beach.

  “Those people are naked,” his wife said.

  Snow squinted, salty perspiration stinging his eyes. “Are you certain?” While recognizably human, the figures down the beach were too far away to be, as his replacement might put it, “gender specific.”

  “You need glasses,” June told him, setting up her chair.

  He dropped their bag in the sand. “I need binoculars.”

  Overheated, they went for a swim. The September water was still wonderfully warm, and Snow, who as a young man had loved to swim, dove into the surf and swam out beyond the breaking waves where he did a leisurely crawl before letting the surf bear him back in. June was not the sort of woman who plunged right into anything, much less the Atlantic, and he was not surprised to see that she was still feeling her way out. She had always been a graceful woman, and now, in her midfifties, still had a way of meeting the swells that seemed to him the very essence of womanhood. The waves never broke over her, never knocked her back. Rather, at the last moment, she rose with the water, right up to the crest, and then went gently down again. How long, he tried to recall, since they had made love?

 
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