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The big housethe home of Troy and Mary Jamisonwas of stone and slate and glass and redwoodwith contrived tiltings and flarings of its egret-white roof. It stood on the bay side of the north end of Riley Key, overlooking the Florida Gulf, partially screened from occasional slow traffic on the lumpy sand-and-shell road that ran the seven-mile length of the Key by a grove of ancient live oaks, so gnarled and twisted, so picturesquely hung with fright wigs of Spanish moss that Mike Rodenska, walking across to the Gulf Beach in the sunlight of an early April Sunday morning, had the pleasant fancy that the oaks had been designed by the same architect who had contributed the light and spaciousness and a certain indefinable self-consciousness to the Jamison home. The architect had drawn the trees and subcontracted them to an artistic oak-gnarler.
There was a shell path leading from the sleeping house to the road edge where a big rural-delivery box, lacquered pale blue, stood solidly on a redwood post. Aluminum letters, slotted along the top of the box, spelled out D. Troy Jamison.
All these years of knowing the guy, Rodenska thought, seventeen years of war and peace, and I never knew about that “D” until it popped up on a baby-blue mailbox.
The dulled edges of the broken white shell bit into the tender soles of his feet, and he walked gingerly. He wore dark blue swim trunks with a wide white stripe down the sides, carried a big white beach towel, a cigar case and tarnished lighter.
He was a sturdy man, Mike Rodenska, who couldn’t stop lying a little bit about his height, and felt disappointed in himself whenever he caught himself in the lie, because he despised all forms of deceit. He was half-bald, with a fleshy nose and a solid thrust of jaw. There was a wryness and a gentleness about him, particularly evident in the brown eyes, deeply set under a grizzle of brow. He had been Troy and Mary Jamison’s house-guest for the past five days of perfect Florida weather, and he had used the beach opposite the house with such diligence that the new deep red-brown tan over a natural swarthiness disguised the softness of all his years of newspaper work.
Beyond the road there was a path through small creeping plants and taller sea oats down to the wide beach. The path curved and he started to walk across the plants, winced and hobbled back to the path, sat down, pulled his left foot up onto his knee and picked three sandspurs from the sole of his foot.
A very bright man, he said to himself. You learn easy, Rodenska. Before, you wore shoes. These are the things that stuck to your socks yesterday, boy. They have a place, a destiny. They stick to you, they get farther from mother, then they settle down and raise baby sandspurs. Nature’s devices.
He got up and followed the path down to the beach. The morning sun was low behind him, so the Gulf was not yet a vivid blue. It was gray and there was a silence about it, a long slow wait between the small lazy nibblings of immature waves against the flat wet sand left by the outgoing tide.
A flock of short-legged sandpipers ran south along the beach, pausing to stab needle bills into the wet sand, eating things too small to be seen, their legs a comic and frantic blura batch of tiny men grabbing breakfast on the way to work.
“Eat well,” he said. “Be my guest.”
He spread his white towel. Nine pelicans in single file flew north, a hundred feet off the beach, beating slow wings in unison, stopping at the same moment to glide long and sure, an inch above the grayness of the water, full of a banker’s dignity and memories of prehistory.
“The loan committee,” said Mike Rodenska. “Renew my note, hey?”
The Jamison cabana, of enduring tidewater cypress, weathered to a silver gray, stood on thick stubby pilings just above the three-foot drop where the big storms had cut into the beach far above the high-tide line. He could see glasses standing on the porch railing, glinting in sunlight, a few with an inch of amber in the bottom, stale forgotten liquor from last night’s party.
He walked along the beach, wet sand cool on the soles of his feet, and came suddenly upon a line of footprints that led directly into the waternarrow feet with high arches. Feminine. He looked up and down the beach and saw no evidence of her return, and he suddenly felt very alert and apprehensive about the whole thing. Some of the ladies last night could have . . . but logic came quickly. Wet sand. Outgoing tide. And with the last footprint so close to the lethargic suds it had to be a recent thing. He looked up and saw a towel and beach bag on the cabana steps, then he stared out and at last spotted, at an angle to the south, the tiny white dot of a swim cap over a half mile out.
He waded in and swam, making a great splashing and snorting, losing his wind with a quickness that hurt his pride. He floated on his back, gasping, and as his breathing became easier he was pleasantly conscious of the almost imperceptible lift and fall of the swell. He winded himself again in a grim sprint toward the beach, and had a fit of coughing as he walked up to his towel. When he looked for her again he saw her about two hundred yards out, coming in, using a slow and effortless crawl, rolling on the beat for air, snaking her brown arms into the water. He took pleasure in watching her. She stood up and waded ashore, and he admired the width of shoulder and slenderness of waist beforeas she took off her white cap and fluffed that coarse black, white-streaked hairhe realized it was Mary Jamison. She wore a gray sheath swim suit with some pale blue here and there, and as she walked up to him the sun touched droplets on her thighs and face and shoulders, turning them to mercury.
“Good morning, Mike.”
“What year was it you won the Olympics?”
“Oh, pooh! What would you expect? I could swim as soon as I could walk. That makes forty-one years of practice.”
“You do this every morning?”
“When it gets too cold I use the pool.”
“You looked so alone ’way out there, Mary.”
“That’s the good part of it,” she said, and added quickly, “How does coffee sound?”
“Hot and black? Like a special miracle, but you shouldn’t go all the way back . . .”
“Just to the cabana.”
“Oh. I keep forgetting the conveniences around here.”
“Maybe half a teaspoon, thanks,” he said. “Help you?”
“Stay in the sun, Mike.”
He watched her walk up to the cabana. A little heaviness in hips and thighs. A little softness in upper arms and shoulders. Otherwise, a girl’s body. Make them all swim, he thought. For forty-one years. What if I’d had that routine? With me it would be forty. Thirty-nine, starting at one year. Rodenskabeach boy. Flat belly. Good wind. All I needed was money. Does swimming keep your hair? Are there any bald beach boys? In Hawaii, no.
Troy’s letter hadn’t said much. But the inference was he had landed neatly on his feet in this marriage. “Mary and I want you to come down, Mike. We’ve got a beach place with plenty of room. We built it three years ago. You can stay just as long as you want.”
And so, Mike had been prepared for a younger Mary, a second-marriage type, golden and loaded. Not this gracious woman who had greeted him with genuine warmth when they arrived, after Troy had driven all the way up to Tampa in the big Chrysler to pick him up and bring him to Riley Key. She was obviously the same age as Troy or a little older, with strong featuresa hawk nose, flat cheeks, wide mouth, dark eyes that held yours steadily, rosettes of white in her curly black hair. She had such a special poise and dignity that, after the first ten minutes with her, Mike could not imagine her doing any crude or unkind thing. He found himself thinkingnot without a twinge of guilt for the implied disloyaltythat Troy had received better than he deserved.
She came down from the cabana with a tin tray, quilted in the Mexican manner, with fat white beanwagon mugs of steaming coffee, a battered pewter bowl full of Triscuits, and big soft paper napkins weighted down with her cigarettes and lighter. She had brushed her hair, put on lipstick and sunglasses with red frames.
As she put the tray on the sand in front of the towel and sat beside him, she said, “I took a chance you might share one of my vices. There’s just a dash of Irish in the coffee, Mike.”
He grinned at her. “I’ll force myself.”
“What did you think of the party?”
“I was supposed to bring it up first and say thanks. Thanks. I got names and faces all screwed up. I got sorting to do.”
“The party was too big.”
“No, Mary. I like a big party. You know, you get a sort of privacy in a big party. You can do more looking. I’m a people-watcher. Like a hobby. No binoculars, like with birds. I got an hour to kill, I sit in a bus station.”
“Maybe I can help you do some sorting.”
“A pink-faced joker, sixtyish, in Bermuda shorts, with a political voice. Taps youor at least meon the chest to make his point. Soon as he found out I was newspaperor ex-newspaper, or whatever the hell I amhe cornered me and made oratory.”
“That one is easy. Jack Connorly.” He saw her make a face.
“I guess you could say he’s trying to be Mister Republican in the county, but he’s about fifth or sixth in line, I’d say. He’s been after Troy to run for the County Commission.”
She giggled. “That’s my reaction too.”
“My God, will he?”
“Honestly, Mike, I don’t know. He won’t say yes and he won’t say no.”
“So that’s why Connorly was bugging me about the duty of the citizen and all that jazz. I’ll have to have a little chat with our boy.”
“Jack’s wife is the little dark jumpy-looking one. He’s in real estate.”
“Now how about the blonde on the aluminum crutches?”
“Beth Jordan. She chopped herself to ribbons last year. She ran her Porsche under the back of a truck. They didn’t expect her to live, but now they think she’ll be off the crutches in a few more months. Did you notice the scars?”
“It was too dark.”
“They’ve spent thousands on plastic surgery.”
“Just one more for now, Mary. The kid with your daughter.”
“With Debbie Ann? Oh, that was Rob Raines, a local lawyer. They practically grew up together.”
“You notice lawyers get younger every year? Doctors too. You want old guys, full of dignity and wisdom. So you get a kid looks like a batboy, and how can he have had time to learn enough? There was one guy who treated Buttons . . .”
A familiar bitter twisting of his heart stopped him, and he sipped the coffee, chewed savagely on a Triscuit, and out-stared an optimistic gull who was walking back and forth ten feet away with all the assurance of a city pigeon, staring at him with alternate eyes.
“You try to be casual and it doesn’t work,” she said gently.
He could not look at her. “Also,” he said, “you don’t expect anybody to understand at all. And when they do, just a little, you resent them, maybe. The special arrogance of grief, Mary. You know. I hurt worse than anybody ever did.”
“Mike, I wanted you to come down, very much. Troy and I talked it over. There was never any question. But I don’t want you to think that I expect that you have to . . . sing for your supper by talking about private things. But if you ever want to talk . . .”
He overrode her with a heavy insistence. “I was talking about the one guy that treated her. A kid, you would think. But old around the eyes in the special way the good ones have. And he leveled with me. I appreciated that. None of that mighty-mystery-of-medicine jazz. He gave me time to brace myself by sayingno hope. And I never could lie to her and get away with it, so she got the message too, and had time to brace herself, so toward the end in that hospitalwell, like a big airline terminal where the flight is a couple weeks late and you got time for ways to say good‑by in all the little ways, and nobody is too surprised when they announce the flight.”
“Mike,” she said.
He could look at her then, and see tears standing in her fine dark eyes and manufacture a fake Hemingway grin and say, “Knock it off, lady.”
“Mike, it fades. It really does. Oh, it always comes back, but not as sharp.”
“They keep telling me that. How long ago was it for you?”
“Seven years. 1952. I was thirty-five and Debbie Ann was sixteen. Haven’t you got a boy about that age?”
“Close. Micky is seventeen and Tommy is fifteen. And three years later you married Troy?”
“Yes. And we’ve had four wonderful years.”
He stared at her until her chin came up a little, in a small motion of pride and defiance, and then he said, “Until when?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Mary, Mary. I know the guy. Five years I didn’t see him. Does he turn into somebody else? I’m not so wrapped up in my own sorrow I suddenly get dense about people.”
“It has nothing to do with you. Excuse me, but it has nothing to do with you. You’re here because you’re Troy’s best friend. And because it’s good for you to be here at this time.”
“You said to me if I ever want to talk . . . Okay, I give you the same deal.”
She looked angry for a moment, then suddenly smiled. “All right, Mike.” Just then an old car came clanking and chattering up the Key from the south and turned into the Jamison drive. Mary stood up and shaded her eyes against the sun. “That’s Durelda already. Oscar brings her. She works a half day on Sunday.