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My husband died sailing off the coast of Maine, leaving me a widow at the age of twenty-seven. This was the time when a lot of girls were losing their husbands to the air war or the ground war; I lost my husband to recklessness, to a freak storm and a flimsy boat. I had no bitter, apologetic telegram to inform me, no grieving soldier at my door with the unsent letter, watch, and kit, no child to console.
His name was Sam Bax, and no one ever stopped him from anything. His brother Patrick and I watched him sail out of Little Crab Harbor when he knew there were storm warnings. We passed the binoculars back and forth, but Patrick got the last full glimpse of him. When he passed the heavy glasses over to me, there was a bright white dot on the horizon, but it might have been a buoy and not the last of Sam's sail. I remember thinking at the time that Sam acted out every wild impulse Patrick had ever entertained and fought down. Sam was thirty, and Patrick thirty-two, the oldest and staidest of youthful lawyers. He executed his violence on the tennis court, and the first time I met him -- before Sam and I were married -- he and Sam got drunk after dinner and played a vicious game of midnight tennis that ended with Sam's wrist and ankle taped, and Patrick with a dent in his head where he had collided with the racket Sam hurled at him. And that was pretty much the outlet for Patrick Bax. He had squashed his recklessness down to an ironic sort of caution that was a slap in his own face.
Sam, on the other hand, during our five years together, broke his collarbone when a skittish horse threw him in front of a hurdle, and Sam, who had never jumped,narrowly missed breaking his back and smashing his skull. He broke his right leg skiing, and on a rock climb he cut his shoulder, so deep that, when they carried him down, he was bright gray, unconscious, and you could see bone beneath the wound. I was used to sharing my bed with plaster, tape, and ace bandages. It wasn't athletics, although the Bax boys were athletic in a well-rounded, general way. It wasn't sport at all. If there had been no sports, they would have invented something much more dangerous. They were natural front-line soldiers, but both of them beat the draft by staying where their upbringing dictated they stay'in school'and they graduated as lawyers like their father, grandfather, and great-grandfather before them.
The Baxes summered at Little Crab Harbor, a bleak enclave with a beach composed of lunar-looking rock. From the shore you could see, set on a hump of boulders, the lighthouse at Great Crab, and at night you could hear the bell buoy tolling arrhythmically. Their house was a big, rambling, cedar-shingled cottage with a clay tennis court next to the potting shed. All summer long they walked around in smudged whites, their kneecaps powdery gray. All of them -- Sam and Patrick and their parents, Leonard and Meridia -- were tennis crazy. A little rise, shaded by ash and pine, looked down on the court, and I spent countless hours reading there, or dozing off to the sound of the ball. The Baxes believed in playing until you felt you might collapse. Leonard's face usually turned purple when he had had it, and Meridia became quite yellow under her tan.
But Sam and Patrick never knew when to give up. They kept a big pitcher of water at the side of the net, and they played and drank under the hot sun until the water ran out. Then they held their heads under the pump and returned, dripping, to the court while the air dried them off. If either gave up, it was my turn, but I wasn't much fun for them. I was good for a couple of bracing sets, after which I lost interest and went back to my book. Their usual cry, when I retired to my place under the tree, was “But you were just getting warm!” When I said I wanted to improve my backhand, I could tell they were truly puzzled. That didn't have anything to do with playing, they said.Patrick and I were at the bay window when Sam sailed out. Patrick was annoyed -- his chief reaction to his brother. He delivered himself of his standard lecture, referring to Sam as “that collection of accidents.” His voice was prim and remote.
“Our Sam is hoping to be elected the world's most dangerous boy,” he said. “You shouldn't have let him go. Why the hell didn't you stop him?” He peered through the binoculars. “I wonder if I should put some tarps over the court before it rains.”
When he put the glasses down, his eyes were dreamy and angry. You could tell he envisioned himself in that Sailfish, thrilled by the small-craft warning, pitting himself against the sea. It was the end of summer. The leaves were on the verge of turning, and some recent gales had brought down branches. Underfoot, the moss buckled. An hour after Sam sailed out, the sky turned the color of tin and you could see a knot of greenish clouds out by the Great Crab lighthouse. When we went to put the tarps on the court, the air was poised and still, the way it is before it storms.
I said, “I told him not to go. He said it would be his last sail of the season and he wanted me to come with him.”
“Sam isn't happy unless someone is worrying,” Patrick said. “That's how he keeps his boyish laughter.”
As we walked back to the house the wind came up and it began to rain, large, heavy drops that hit on a slant and raised puffs of dust. Patrick spent the afternoon pacing and calling the Coast Guard. I sat leafing through a stack of old salt-bloated magazines, and suddenly I was exhausted: it occurred to me in a rush of panic what I was waiting out.
We had come up to close the house for the year. Leonard and Meridia were in Boston. I thought we ought to call them.Shine On, Bright & Dangerous Object. Copyright © by Laurie Colwin. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.