The boy floated with the newts in the dark water of the pond. The points of the pines scorched the sky and a hawk slowly circled the sun. In the shallows, the two dogs were islands of red-gold snout, spine, tail; up in the great house, the women were drinking cold gin from teacups, the men resting naked in shuttered bedrooms under the wind that roared from box fans.
The boy had lain all afternoon in the pond, so long that he was sure the water had entered his brain through his ears and had washed all thought out. He was as dumb as the newts all around him with their fat bellies and splayed limbs. He would lie here suspended beyond the tense hot afternoon and into the dusk with fireflies, he would lie here into the night, into the dawn, into the rest of the summer and the fall with the surface of the pond scummed with red maple leaves and the winter with the cold slowing him until his heart beat once a day and the ice covered him gently as with a thickness of glass. It would be a good life, this life of newt. He would be held up by the dark brown water that lapped at him, that asked nothing at all of him.
Suddenly, out of the sky there fell a fist-size stone that gulped the water close to his head. Another, closer. He rolled upright.
His sister was at the end of the dock and the afternoon sun shone through her pale dress and pricked out her new bony body, shone her hair into a fireball around her head.
Oh, he thought; she has come back to him, his first friend, his Libby as she’d been before she went off to the family school and was earthquaked into this new strange creature of sharp bones and secrets, eating only apples, her eyes made enormous without glasses. The mean new Elizabeth would not throw stones as a joke, but his beloved gawky Libby would, and help him build forts in the woods and play Uno with flashlights and get him up early so they could run across the lawn still draped in morning fog and sear their feet with dew to giddy pain.
Chip, his sister was yelling. Come up. It’s time.
As he neared and lunged as though to grab her feet, however, he saw the reversion was a trick, Libby was gone for good, angular Elizabeth had long ago eaten her. She stepped away from his grabbing hands. Her mouth was slack, her shoulders loose, and in them he saw that she’d been stealing sips of gin from the women, even though she was only fifteen. She said, in their grandmother’s clipped voice, Tell that child to come up and wash himself thoroughly, and with soap, for I will not have pond stink at my Independence Day supper. She smiled, pleased with herself.
Shit show, she said, and showed her teeth and began to walk tenderly up the lawn because she was barefoot and there was a shimmering cloth of bees above the clovers in the grass.
The dogs pulled themselves wearily from the water, shook rainbows from their fur. His body felt exquisite in the heat after so long in the water, skinless and stripped to nerves. He led the dogs the distance up to the house and left them at the door to the center hall, though he was forbidden to use it when wet. For a moment, his dazzled eyes did not make out Bear standing there, frowning at the newspaper folded in his hands, but then his grandfather cleared his throat and Chip’s eyes adjusted and Bear gave him an ostentatious wink and the boy ran up one curve of the stairs and all the way to the children’s wing where his clothes lay like a second, overly starched Chip upon the bed. He could not bear to think of showering off the pond’s dark magic and so he put these awful clothes on next to his skin. When he looked down into the hall again, Bear had retreated, and so Chip slid down the bannister and leapt off before the finial with its carved pineapple came up fast and clocked him in the groin.
As he passed through the dining room, he saw the caterer with a sheet of light in her hands at the far end, which even as he watched became only a shining membrane of plastic wrap. Her shirt was sweated through and he saw her beige bra biting into the flesh of her back. He should have looked away, he understood this although he was only ten, but he stopped and stared. She turned around and frowned at him, flicking him away with her eyes, and he ran out to the terrace, straight into his dread.
There the women sat in their corners. His grandmother Slim, in her wicker chair spread all around her in a glorious peacock design, his mother, Julia, knotted in her chair with his sister, Elizabeth, perched on the arm beside her, Aunt Diana talking as always, a chunk of amber as large as a baby’s fist at her neck catching the sunlight and shining. The story was that Uncle Charley had rescued Diana from a yoga studio when he married her, which explained why she was always saying the kind of thing that she was saying now, Surely the desert is haunted, but in a very special way, you can feel the ghosts just rolling across it like tumbleweeds whenever the sun goes down and the moon rises and the wind dies out, that’s when they come out, the ancient ghosts that don’t care about anything so paltry as the human, something to do with magnetism, the veins of electricity in the bedrock or something, or the spirits of the stones themselves moving in their infinitely slow way. She laughed.
His mother’s eyes had found Chip. She was commanding him to come near. He sat on her lap, though her leg bones were hot and trembling. She held him around the middle and pressed her face into his back. Slim’s roses were so lush on the trellises shadowing the veranda that the perfume was a thick invisible wall.
The dogs, having seen Chip come out, tried to climb up to him from the lawn but Slim grimaced at their wet fur and growled, Down, and they slunk back to the shade of the apple orchard beside the perennial gardens.
Well, isn’t it hot, Slim said, interrupting Diana, which wasn’t counted as rude because nobody ever listened to Diana, the whole family interrupted her, it was fine. Bear emerged with a frosty shaker in his hand and bent to refresh the ladies’ drinks. I’m getting soused! Diana said. Elizabeth held up her iced tea for a splash, and Bear chuckled and poured a little. Slim looked at Chip’s mother to see how she would protest, but their mother’s face was buried in Chip’s back, and so Elizabeth was allowed her gin, and Slim’s disapproval with her daughter, Chip’s mother, passed into the continuous unspoken, the family’s syntax of silence.
Now the caterer came out with an apron to cover her sweated-through shirt, and said, I’m finished, ma’am.
Thank you, Jolene, Slim said. She closed her eyes and tilted her face to a strip of sun; she did not believe in tipping.
And when the woman twisted her red hands in her apron, and did not move, and then as the seconds ticked on and the woman folded her mouth into a determined slit, Slim said, Oh, are you still here? Well. Surely your family misses you. Have a lovely Independence Day.
When the caterer left, Bear followed her out, because one of his family jobs was to stealthily fix what Slim in her imperiousness broke; he would tip well.
When Bear returned to the veranda, Uncle Charley was behind him; and Chip had to stifle a laugh, because they were both sunburned from the morning’s golf, both in pink shirts, his uncle was just a smaller, plumper, blonder version of his grandfather. But, then again, so was Chip, the youngest of these three Charleses. He wondered if each younger Charles always came out a little worse than the one before, going back all the way to the very first Charles who had come to Boston from England and made the family very very rich oh ages ago. He hoped not. Then he made a fervent wish inside himself that Uncle Charley and Aunt Diana would have the baby they were working so hard to make, and that it would be a boy and that they would name him Charles, and he would become the true Charles of the generation, so that Chip could be released from this string of diminishment, could become something separate from the rest. By the sadness in Aunt Diana’s face, the baby wouldn’t be coming soon.
Uncle Charley took the bourbon his father poured him, and took a gulp and coughed and said, Are we still waiting for Flippy?
Everyone knew: drinks were at five, and supper was at six, for eating too late in the day undermined the proper workings of the tripes, as Slim always said.
Why would he come? Elizabeth said. I’m sure he’s super pissed.
Chip’s mother twitched under him, and he felt her face move against his back, perhaps into a smile. Slim glinted dangerously at her granddaughter and swallowed the girl’s impertinence up with a laugh.
And so they waited, and into the waiting Diana spoke of high colonics and the concept of nirvana and Slim spoke approvingly of Nancy Reagan’s shoes and hair, and Bear genially told stories of his family’s eccentrics, the granduncle who married a Paris cancan dancer, the great-grandmother who ran away on her wedding day and was discovered in a house of disrepute in New Orleans, but who was returned to her life and had six children and became an exemplary philanthropist, putting her name on a concert hall in Boston. From the stereo system, the music poured low, Rachmaninoff, the afternoon settled, the shadows stretched and darkened on the lawn. In the little village down the hill early fireworks burst even though it was still too light to see them. The dogs came around to the kitchen door, and the housekeeper brought them in and fed them then released them back into the evening, then brought the family little bowls of hot nuts on a tray. And still Flip did not come.
At last, at seven, Slim said, Well, my youngest has always been his own man. To supper we go. And they all followed her into the dining room, Diana wobbly in her heels from the gin.
There were tiny flags on the buffet, a whole poached salmon under cucumber scales, a bowl of fresh mayonnaise, a salad wilted from the wait, hard rolls, little pats of butter molded into stars on mostly melted ice. The housekeeper had folded the red-and-white-striped napkins into patriotic swans. The family filled their plates in silence and sat at the overlong table. Chip’s mother took nothing, and put her children on either side of her. Chip could feel her body trembling through the legs of her chair, over the floorboard, and up his own chair’s legs, into his body.
When everyone had taken a seat, Bear stood up and smiled genially at the head of the table and lifted his glass and cleared his throat, and here was the awful moment coming, Chip closed his eyes and took his mother’s damp tight fist in his hand, and this was when they all heard an engine roaring, the sound of wheels spinning too fast through gravel and music thudding inside a car, Flip’s car, at last; Uncle Flip had finally come.
How very like my boy, Slim said icily. To arrive only when we’d given up all hope for him.
They listened as the engine shut off, the car doors shut, the footsteps nearly running over the gravel, the great hall door opened and slammed, shaking the chandelier above the dining table into a wild tinkling. And here was Flip in the doorway, shouting, Hallooo, hallooooo. He was sweaty, his hair in stiff spikes and his eyes protuberant. Chip heard his sister hiss and say under her breath, Jesus, coke much?
Behind him, hesitantly, there appeared a woman. She was very tall, at least Bear’s height, and her enormous cascade of black curls fell to her abdomen. She was wearing a star-spangled miniskirt and a sequined red top, her face heavy with makeup, red lipstick, blue eyeshadow, but she was not at all pretty, with the bridge of her nose like a knot between her close-set eyes and a huge jaw that reminded Chip of a bulldog’s. She was older than Flip, closer to Chip’s mother’s age.
Hi, she said softly, and held up a six-pack of beer.
How lovely, Philip, you brought someone, Slim said and did not stand or reach out for the beer.
Family, I’d like to present my lovely friend I just met down at the pizza joint in the village, what’s your name again?
Pearl Spang, the woman said softly, and put the beer down on the buffet. I thought you said this was going to be a cookout, Philip.
Pearl Spang, what a wonderful name! Flip said.
You are welcome here, Pearl, Uncle Charley said in his new unctuous voice.
And how very festive you look, Slim said, and the corner of her mouth twitched.
Please, Pearl, eat eat eat, Flip said, gesturing at the buffet, and Pearl obediently turned to fill a plate. Flip pulled a chair out, spun it around so it faced backward, and straddled it. He looked at Chip’s mother, and she looked back, and between the brother and sister there ran such a dark electricity that Chip for the first time during this long, strange day felt scared.
Don’t let me interrupt you, Bear, Flip said. Looks like you were about to give a big old speech there.
Pearl Spang carried her full plate to the empty chair next to Chip, and sat, and her perfume, musky and warm, went up his nostrils, he could taste it, and he closed his eyes to smell it deeper. A curious thing happened in his body, something like a wave crashed through it. Beside his own untouched plate, for it was only good manners to refrain from eating until all the speeches had been spoken, he saw the bright nails and the broad hands rapidly spearing fish, lifting the bites, bringing the clean tines back down to the plate; he could hear Pearl chewing and feel her warmth emanating toward him, but he could not look at her face.
Bear hefted himself to his feet again, and raised his glass. I was about to say before you arrived, Flippy, how grateful I am to be gathered here today, on the birthday of our great nation, at our old estate, with my beloved family. And new friends, Bear said, winking at Pearl.
Bear said how glad he was that the family showed its solidarity by coming. It could not have been easy to wake up to the news, and Bear was angry, really quite quite quite angry that the Globe had published it a week before he had put the final plans in place, but you can’t trust a journalist farther than you can throw one, ha ha, and quite obviously Bear and Slim were committed to equality between all three of their children, they would certainly balance the scales and make sure Philip and Julia were given equal portions of the family fortune in the will to make up for the imbalance, and none of this should be seen as a referendum on who is the favored child or who is loved more, or any such nonsense as that. Of course not. Oh, no, this was simply business. Bear and Slim had had many long years of discussions, a great deal of heartache, you better believe it, but in the end they felt it was right that Charles become C.E.O. of the bank, which, of course, bears his name.
To all of my brilliant children, Bear intoned, raising a glass, but today is Charles’s day, so to Charles today. Only Slim and Diana raised theirs, smiling. Uncle Charley was flushed, his eyes gleaming with pleasure.
Pearl’s plate was already half empty; on the other side, his mother’s breathing had become ragged. Her nails pressed into Chip’s hand and burned but he didn’t withdraw.
Truly, Uncle Flip said in his unnaturally high and fast voice, what an unbelievably Waspy thing to do, how passive-aggressive can you get, telling two out of three children they’ve been disinherited in the business pages of the Boston Globe.
Oh, don’t be so dramatic, Flip, Slim said. Nobody is disinherited.
Ah, dramatic, Flip said, what a perfect word, it’s true there’s little more dramatic than waking up to find that your older brother who knows nothing at all about banks has been given everything. Charley, who, and forgive me, I don’t mean to be rude, but it’s the truth, is by far the least qualified of the three of us. A sports agent. You put a motherfucking sports agent in charge of a three-hundred-year-old bank.
The skill set is transferable, Charley said in a tight voice.
While I, Flip said, speaking over his brother, am the only one with an M.B.A. and have been at the bank for five years and know it like the back of my hand. But fuck me, when poor Julia has been at the bank for twenty years, Julia, who came up through the mail room as a high schooler, which, I’ll remind you, Bear never made Charley and me do, of course, when Julia, who worked her way to V.P. on her own merit, sacrificing her own sweat and tears and missing her kids’ childhoods and losing even her marriage to the bank, Julia, who is the oldest and the smartest and the one who deserves it the most, gets nothing. Nothing for Julia! Zilch! Zero! Nothing but the morning paper telling her that her intelligence and work mean literally nothing to this family because she had the misfortune of being born with a cunt. And because Charley, forgive me, but the family fucking idiot, is the one with the name.
Ad hominem. Extremely unfair, Charley said.
Let’s all take a few cleansing breaths, Aunt Diana whispered.
It is exactly this behavior that disqualified you, Philip, Slim said. You are simply too flamboyant, it’s a matter of our clients’ comfort, that they can see themselves in the captain of the ship. You and Julia are frankly impossible. Among the three of you, only Charley could possibly make them feel secure.
Just imagine what our clients’ wives would think if their husbands went off to play golf with Julia every weekend. And you don’t even play golf, Flippy, Bear said.
Besides, Slim said. Your . . . Well, your tastes, Philip. We’ve never said anything. Live and let live, this is our motto. But imagine the scandal if it got out.
Flip blinked slowly. Slim’s frown faded and a softness came into her face as she looked at him, her youngest child, the one who looked the most like her. At last Flip said, You know? You’ve known?
Oh, please, Slim said, I am your mother. Since you were born.
I mean, you had a life-size poster of Paul Newman on your closet door when you were twelve, Uncle Charley said, chuckling.
My goodness, Diana said into the new and ringing silence. If it matters at all to you, Flip, I never even suspected.
Beside Chip, Pearl Spang bent over, and the ends of her long black curly hair brushed Chip’s thigh, and she removed her high heels with both hands, and stood, barefoot, then backed away from the table, snagging the six-pack of beer as she passed the buffet, and stepped through the doors to the veranda and there was swallowed up by the twilight.
I think I’m going crazy, Uncle Flip said at last, tugging at the shocked ends of his hair. This is insane. I’m going insane.
This whole family is fucking crazy, Elizabeth said, slurring her words.
Language, Elizabeth, Uncle Charley said; and, with this, Elizabeth took the hard roll from her plate, and threw it at him so quickly that it bounced off his sunburned forehead, though the pat of butter in the shape of a star stuck on his skin and slowly began to slide down.
Then, into the shocked silence, Elizabeth said, We’re going, Mama, and pulled their mother up out of her chair, then out the door into the hall, and Chip ran after, grabbing their mother’s pocketbook from the closet, and then they, too, had passed through the vast doors into the breathing heat of evening, the navy sky with the hanging moon, the frog song rising from the pond, the distant crackle of fireworks down the mountain. Elizabeth put their mother into the passenger seat, and, though she was only fifteen, and rather drunk, she started the car and drove it, bucking and squealing, down the gravel circle, down the drive, and out onto the dirt road where the eyes of night creatures peered greenly out of the thickening dark.
Elizabeth stopped the car in the pull-off before the road that ran down the mountain into the village, leaned her head against the steering wheel, and sobbed dryly.
I hate them, Elizabeth said at last.
I know, honey, their mother said. Me, too.
Chip looked at his mother, who seemed strong now, and calm. Her chin was jutted and dangerous. She looked a great deal like Slim.
Eventually, his mother and sister switched seats, and their mother put the car in gear again, and they glided out into the road.
When they were moving, something horrifying rose up from very deep in Chip’s body, something he tried to push down again, and he couldn’t help himself; he put his hands over his mouth, but the laughter was stronger than he was, it came out of him choking and awful.
Elizabeth turned and frowned at him, then the old Libby smile came over her face. Uncle Charley, she said. The butter slipping down. And then she too started to laugh.
Now even their mother was laughing. I’m starving, she said at last when she calmed. We’ll stop and get a slice of pizza in town. But this made the kids laugh even harder.
Pizza. Pearl Spang, Elizabeth gasped. That fucking six-pack.
And this way down they went on the road twisting through the forest, and a firework burst up from the lake every so often and lit the tops of the trees in pink and orange and green and gold. Chip wiped his face on his sleeve. Out in the thickness of the woods, on the hiking trail that connected Maine to Georgia, which ran beside the road here, he caught a glimpse of a shadow moving quickly, a flare of red sequins in the headlights, but then the car moved on and all was dark and hidden in the woods again.
Chip’s mother never returned to the bank; with lethal silence, she started up her own firm, taking a dozen of the bank’s more progressive clients with her. She put everything she had into it and had to sell the lovely white house on Beacon Hill, and Chip and she moved into a little condominium with beige carpets in the North End. Uncle Flip went west to Hollywood to be a producer, Elizabeth back to boarding school, which Slim and Bear still paid for, although neither Elizabeth nor Chip’s mother was speaking to them. Only Chip fielded the phone calls, awkward, monosyllabic, for fear his mother would overhear and be hurt. But she was hardly ever around, and, on weekdays, Chip walked to school, walked back, did his homework with the television on, reheated what the house cleaner left for his supper, put himself to bed. On weekend mornings, he waited on the hall floor outside his mother’s room until she came out in her mint-green kimono, mascara smeared under her eyes.
It was with a sense of relief all around that Chip went off to the family boarding school as a freshman. Elizabeth was a senior, her bony face gentling whenever she saw her brother. Her smile blazed up into his solitude and warmed him.
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Time sped up, blurred. Bluestone chapel in the mornings, blue blazer, blue ink in the exam books, lonely blue mornings full of fog. His mother’s letters arrived on Tuesdays, the phone calls with Slim and Bear were scheduled on Sunday nights on the hall phone for exactly four minutes, mostly taken up with news of intramural lacrosse though Chip wasn’t very good, being plump and slow and uncoördinated, and in return Slim and Bear told him what animals they had seen on their hikes in the desert where they had moved, coyotes, roadrunners, javelinas. The summer was split between the family estate with the pond the forest the hikes up the mountains, cocktail hour, a figure in the far fields, walking swiftly, a dog leaping at its feet, the housekeeper’s hot nuts, and the woozy hot days in Boston, the empty condominium. Then one week just before school in August at their father’s in the Caymans. Their father had become, as Elizabeth said, a tax pirate. He looked like one, all ruddy with sun and drink, seemingly unable to place his children when they came into the room. Boarding school again, dimmer now without Elizabeth in it to shoot him a smile, she being in freshman year at the college the family had gone to for centuries, and the one good moment of his week was opening his mailbox to find her letter in it, thick and funny and slightly smelling of apples. College was good for her, she loved it, she got a nose ring, she partied in the city, she now had a girlfriend, yes she was a lesbian. Uncle Flip has just been so supportive, she wrote, but don’t tell Mama, yet; Elizabeth wanted to come out to her in person. Just as the snow melted, she wrote for him to spend the summer with her and her friends on Martha’s Vineyard, they’re all getting restaurant jobs, and he, thinking of the empty condo, the family estate with Slim and Bear slowly getting potted from 5 p.m. on, said hell yes and came out to the island and slept on a blowup pool float for two months. Boats in the bay and jugs of cold wine in the fridge, and girl panties in the bathroom drying on the line, and noises from the bedrooms late at night that made him burn with hunger and embarrassment. Chip’s forearms chiselled from scooping ice cream out of rock-hard containers all summer. The tacit understanding was that Chip and Elizabeth did not have to visit their father in the Caymans this year, and they were a little hurt when he didn’t press the issue. Back to junior year with sun streaks in his hair, the acne gone from the sea salt and tan, and, surprise! Chip was suddenly sort of popular. All you have to do is say nothing and laugh at everything and you get a reputation for being jolly. House parties, ski trips, weekends at second houses in Nantucket, third houses in the Berkshires, penthouses in Manhattan, nightclubs everywhere, fake I.D.s, molly and pot and vodka in his orange juice in the back of history class. One morning, a blurry memory of girl legs, a bared breast, a smeared mouth, weeping, just some townie whose face he couldn’t remember, and his friends a little awkward when Chip came into the room but soon class solidarity flowed around him again like water. He was hungover for his SATs, they were so awful that Bear talked to him in a sad voice and Slim hired him a daily tutor and promised a BMW for hitting 1350, a Mercedes for more than 1400. On his third try, he got a 1320, and they relented and gave him a car; it was only a Volvo, but it was new. Another summer on the Vineyard. He was a barback at his sister’s restaurant, there were parties every night after closing, cigarettes in the alleyway, Bloody Marias for hair of the dog when the sunrise sent swords into his eyes. Senior year, parties and sleeping during calculus, and, on the phone one Sunday, Bear cleared his throat and said, I’m so sorry your grades are not what we would expect for you to follow your sister, well, to follow the whole family, to the college, and you may want to look at less challenging schools, Chippy. But Slim said sharply on the other line, Charles, are you utterly insane? He’s a legacy a hundred times over and there is nothing that the right donation cannot do. And, as usual, Slim was correct. He was accepted with his mediocre SATs and grades, even though the class valedictorian, a girl who was captain of three sports and had perfect SATs, was not, and when she was told she would not be let in off the wait list, she began to ugly cry in chapel and had to be led out by her friends and comforted under the apple trees just then blowing their white petals everywhere. Prom, a blurry boob unearthed from blue chiffon, Martha’s Vineyard. His sister staggering home, and against the rising sun she seemed transparent, she had so little flesh upon her bones. The Caymans, their father deflated, leathery, dating a girl younger than Elizabeth. Chip had forgotten how utterly spiky Elizabeth could be. Their father’s girl vanished and was not seen again during their stay.