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I swam out to the float alone, the one that was anchored farthest from the beach, and lay down between the seagull stuff that had dried in so many spots. From there I could see the beach club members at a beautiful distance. I could see Mr. Fieldings' orange fish waving above his cabana, and him, sitting in front of his domain, doing accounting on a bridge table in his bright orange bathing suit, the little kind that stretched like balloon fabric over his privates. He used rocks, as smooth and oval as eggs laid from large birds, to weigh down stacks of bills and orders from his liquor store. His wife still wore bikinis and gold loop earrings, because they had no children.
Mrs. Fieldings was the head buyer for Bergdorf Goodman over in Scarsdale and had me working there on Saturdays, modeling pre-teen dresses. She just pulled me off the diving board line-up one day and gave me this job that paid in clothes. Luckily, my friends never recognized me in a dress without my nose clip and hair as bone dry as the sand.
The Fieldings were landmarks to my left from my vantage point out on the float — the lifeguard, my center marker on his giant wooden high chair, and the snack bar at the other end, pumping up smoke signals all day long.
That Labor Day Weekend was no different from others I remembered, with the sky bluer and the view sharper like a true fall day; and every member was eating up their summer quota. I turned away from the club and faced the open Long Island Sound. I put my ear on the hot, salty surface and heard the water lapping against the underside of the float. It reminded me of the sounds I'd heard the night before coming from the orange cabana.
Fort Slocum stood on a deserted island off to the right about two thousand yards from me. The fort didn't function anymore, but it stood tall like my father with hands on his hips and a take-no-prisoners attitude. I had heard that the island was infested with rats.
I heard a sloppy breaststroke coming at me and saw Mary Beth zig-zagging her way out to the float. Every few feet, she stopped and floated on her back for a minute to build up strength so she could make it the rest of the way. I think it was the french fries and dogs that slowed her down. Some of the kids called her Miss Snack Bar '72.
"What are you doing out here?" she panted, hanging on to the side, her hair stuck to her cheeks. Her eyes were always scanning the surface for a water rat that might have made its way across the sound for a visit.
"M.B. Can't you see I'm busy?"
Now she had one leg up, her foot in the white-crusted seagull droppings, but this kind of thing never fazed her.
"Come on, Nan, help me up."
"All right." I pulled her by two hands, and she slapped down hard on her ribs. "Come up to my office."
"What are you doing out here all by yourself?"
Mary Beth was still breathing hard. Now there was white crust on her elbows.
"I want to go back," I said, eyeing the whereabouts of my parents. I could see that Mary Beth was too winded to go now and decided to wait.
"When are we going to do it?" she asked.
"Tonight is the last night of the summer."
I looked for Mom in her circle of chairs. All I had to do to find her was to look at which direction Mr. Fieldings was facing. He was in a sit-up chair, with Chivas Regal crates piled upside down in the shape of a side table. When you walked by their living room on the beach, you could hear the sound of ice scooping and falling into real highball glasses. He was getting up now, his skin oiled and evenly grilled to perfection.
I wondered what he saw in Mom when he had a wife like Mrs. Fieldings. Mrs. Fieldings always seemed to be waiting for the punch line, ready to burst out, and something was always swinging from her — a tiny gold chain-belt on her waist, the strings on her bathing suit that unraveled and fell to her golden sides, those earrings. Her entire orange bikini was made of triangles with a bow tie on each hip. Mom's was practically a skirt. But more than all of that, Mrs. Fieldings was really nice to me. I worked with her. I knew her. After my hours were done, she would take me to the pink-striped restaurant in Bergdorf's, which looked just like an ice cream parlor, and buy me the Kitchen Sink.
Mary Beth was staring at me, her cheeks on the verge of purple. "You sure it was them in there last night? Maybe it was Cheryl and Joe or someone from their group. They're always sneaking into the cabanas at night." Mary Beth was trying to make me feel better.
"No, I doubt it. They're going away to college, and they'll be able to do it anytime they want." I dove in and swam back to shore freestyle. When I got there, I turned around and saw Mary Beth was still halfway out, floating on her back.
I walked past the new tennis court, which was now crowded with women's doubles, their volleys hanging in the air too long. I found Dad behind the snack bar, in the horseshoe pit with the rest of the guys. My heart went out to him, knowing what I knew. He looked so content with a beer in his hand, the tattoo on his arm of an old ship bobbing and weaving over his muscle. He was almost as tan as Mr. Fieldings.
"Hey — sweetheart!" He waved for me to come over. When I got there he said to the guys, "Look at the arm on this kid."
He handed me the horseshoe. "OK, I'll give you a little leeway. Stand over there."
"Still tough," one of the men said.
I looked at my audience before I walked up to my spot. Mr. Patella had burgers stuffed in the sides of his mouth, doing a Marlon Brando. All the men had bloated stomachs, their belly buttons pulled like the knot in a balloon — except for Dad's, still tight as a drum. He liked to say his muscle tone came from laying sheet rock, not lying in the sun. Sometimes I saw Cheryl, the best-looking teenager who hung out at the lifeguard shack, checking him out.
"Shoot," Dad yelled. His streaked hair was glistening and the comb marks made deep rows as if a miniature plow machine worked the land of his head.
I stood on my marker and gave my best shot. I heard an immediate clink. A hit. This meant that Dad would give me a swig of beer. I walked to the keg area, confident. The men cheered and when I turned to catch Dad's eye he was observing Mr. Patella's impersonation of President Nixon before he noticed me and handed me his cup.
I left the pit and found Mary Beth in line at the snack bar. "You didn't wait for me, Nan. You never do."
"My Dad was waiting for me, but I'm finished now. I'll meet you on the wall." I was lightheaded from the Michelob I had guzzled. Draft beer served the best head.
Mary Beth arrived with a whole tray of stuff for us. The sodas spilled and made the hot dog rolls soggy. We sat on the wall that separated our club from The Blue Tip Shore Club and watched the crowd down at the snack bar. The tide was getting low, and I smelled the muscle beds. Here came Mom, walking real slow, her bob tied back in a scarf because she thought this made her look like Elizabeth Taylor. She and the actress seemed to be gaining weight at the same speed.
The great thing about our wall was that no one even looked over there; it was far enough away from everything. Gloria Gaynor played on the loudspeaker from next door, so we even had our own music. Over the wall was a rock pile where Mr. Fieldings collected his paperweights, and I could see splatterings of orange paint here and there.
"So, here's the plan," I said to Mary Beth, helping myself to her french fries. "And listen up because you have a key role. Without you, I can't catch them. At nine thirty tonight, when it gets dark, meet me behind the lifeguard shack under that tree. That's when they go in. Everybody else will be up at the clubhouse and they'll think they're safe. At nine forty-five we'll check for sounds, and if we hear them going at it, we'll follow through with Part Two of our plan."
"Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Look over there," I said, fully inspired. There was my mother — her usual club soda and lime in one hand and a tuna salad sandwich in the other — with her girlfriends, the ones who gave Mrs. Fieldings the daggers. Up came Mr. Fieldings with his Ray Bans on and still a little wet from his swim — he swam religiously every day even in crummy weather. He headed directly to Mom, taking the soda from her hands so she didn't spill.
"Oh my god," said Mary Beth. "Go get your father. Now. He'll catch them talking."
"Big deal. Talking. What's that going to prove?"
"Well, I guess talking looks innocent. But, watch his thing. Maybe it'll rise up," she said, demonstrating with her finger.
We watched his thing.
Mary Beth knew more than I thought. Some of my friends were that way. You assumed they didn't know about any of that stuff, meanwhile they'd already been to second base.
"I know," Mary Beth said. Now she had my attention. "Maybe they're making a plan about tonight. Where to meet and all that."
"Yeah, right. With everyone standing around them." How was I going to count on Mary Beth tonight if she couldn't understand the workings of a basic cheap affair?
"Look, look," Mary Beth said with a new confidence. "Now they're alone."
Maybe Mom gave her friends the high sign and they left them there to chat. Mom stood there, brazen with that tuna sandwich on the paper plate, her hips hidden under that long gauzy skirt. One thing my mother had that Mrs. Fieldings didn't have? Boobs. And, plenty of them. The cheaters stood there chatting, with my poor father right around the back of the snack bar, in the horseshoe pit, probably in a slump.
"Oooooooh," Mom yelled, and we jumped down from the wall with high expectations. Her pickle wedge fell in the sand and they both bent down to pick it up at the same time. Their heads banged. Mr. Fieldings' laugh was gargly from all those cigarettes.
I started to have my suspicions about this whole thing when Mom suddenly always had to get to the liquor store. My father would yell, "I better not catch you in there again, Chris. I better not find more empty bottles!" Stuff like that. But she didn't care; she'd go anyway. She even took me with her a few times, and I watched the love birds talk about wine. Mr. Fieldings would bring her a deep red bottle from the back of the store, and, with his cheek next to the label, they'd coo.
Now Mr. Fieldings pointed to an out-of-the-way snack table, and they both sat down. Seeing them together, sharing that sandwich, I couldn't concentrate on the second part of my plan. Mom put her thumb in her mouth and sucked off the tuna fish like she always did.
"Hey, Nan. NAN! You know, your mother looks exactly like Elizabeth Taylor. She's even got those eyes," Mary Beth said.
"Well, they're the same type, if you know what I mean."
That night, with the lifeguards off duty, Mary Beth and I climbed up onto the lifeguard chair. From there, our float looked as untrustworthy as a rubber raft. The sun was going down, coloring the horizon salmon-pink, and the Good Year Blimp still hung in the same spot above us as it had all day like a bloated fish.
It was about eight thirty and the tide was nice and high now. Mary Beth was licking the salt off her arm. I realized then how much I would miss her. We were both going into seventh grade, but because I lived in New Rochelle and she lived in Yonkers, we never saw each other during the school year. Once Memorial Day came, we always picked right up where we had left off the year before.
We heard the theme from The Godfather playing over at Blue Tip.
"Oh, I loved that part!" Mary Beth was scanning the water's surface again.
"When Al Pacino marries the beautiful Italian girl? In Italy? I love Al Pacino. You see them do it on the bed. Then, he's always trying to teach her how to drive? And she really stinks? Then she goes out into the car one day, with a big smile, she kind of bops on the seat — she goes all by herself like she's going to surprise him? And the car blows up. Al Pacino flips out. Wants to kill everybody. It's so sad I can't stop thinking about it."
"You mean you actually see them do it? You see it go in? Wait a minute. How did you get to see it?" "I went with my parents."
"They let you see that?"
Mary Beth stood up on the seat of the chair in her rat-sighting stance, and I thought we were going to tip. "I see one! I see one! I told you!"
"Come on, let's go down. You go first. Go down backwards. Real slow."
When she reached the sand, I jumped from the third rung, feeling it in the ankle that I'd broken over the winter.
"I don't see any," I told her with a rock in my hand. "Besides, if they can make it all the way over here from Fort Slocum, we should put them on the swim team."
All I had to do was say I saw rats and I'd never get her to swim out to the float tonight. It had become our territory since the older kids lost interest in it. We were supposed to meet out on the float at nine fifty — after we caught Mom and Mr. Fieldings sucking it up in the cabana.
We roamed around the empty beach; the sand felt rocky underfoot and seemed to be getting rockier every summer. I wondered about all those pictures of turquoise water and powdery sand. Palm trees.
The pool was "L" shaped, the diving area in the short part, and tonight, the underwater bulbs were all lit. If anyone was sitting up in the blimp — although Mary Beth said it was run by remote control from a tower somewhere — they would look down and see a fat, neon L. The kiddy pool was fenced off and usually yellow by noon. Then there was a mountainous hill that rose and rose like the stomach of a gigantic bear sleeping on his back in the middle of Castaway Shore Club. At the top of the hill was our clubhouse, a wooden mansion, with huge picture windows and crooked floors, that used to be the home of one New Rochelle family in the old days, like the rest of the clubs that lined this strip. The clubhouse windows glowed, like the eyes, nose, and sour grin of a jack-o-lantern; the thunderous music of the live band drifted down to where we hid under the only tree on the beach, behind the lifeguard shack, where we made our plan.
"It's almost time," I said, holding a stick in my finger, puffing on it and squinting one-eyed, the way Mom smoked.
"No, it's just that, well, we already know what they're doing. So, then we're really not catching them, if we already know about it."
"Yeah, but Mom should know that someone knows and might tell Dad. Then she'll be scared."
"Your Mom seems nice, Nan. I mean, she's always nice to me."
"You're the one with the nice mother. You have a real mother. She even takes you to the movies. Trust me, OK? It's almost nine thirty."
In the dark, from under the tree, it was hard to see. The cabanas were little huts in the center of the beach; all of them were painted white because it was a club rule. Inside, you could do anything to them. The interior of the Fieldings' cabana was painted in a glossy orange that shimmered when they left their door propped open with a rock. Mary Beth's mother said all the orange all over the place was to draw attention to themselves. Of course, they had that Koi fish attached to a pole on top of their roof like no one else.
"You go to your lookout point by the pool fence. If you see anyone coming, bang on the corner pole with this oar — two times. At exactly nine forty on the pool clock, I will be done with my surprise attack. Everything will be over. Then go swim out to the float, and I'll meet you there."
"Why do we have to meet there? The water's so black now."
"Because no one can see us there. Just swim straight — not crooked. Depending on the way things go, I might be right behind you."
Mary Beth looked relieved. I could tell she was scared but I didn't know if she was scared about Mom, who she believed in, or about the swim out. Sometimes, in some weird way, I think she felt bad for me, when it was really I, who felt bad for her.
Just as it turned nine thirty, as if we had made the appointment ourselves for the couple meeting on the sly in the Fieldings' cabana, we could see a faint glow through the curtain. It was the only light on the beach we saw. Maybe there was a burning candle inside.
"Run to your post," I said.
I let a few moments pass and snuck up behind the row of huts. When I was sure they were in the cabana, I would bang on the door, yell "fire" with my disguised voice, and then run as fast as possible down to the water, dive in, and swim out to meet Mary Beth. They'd never know it was me. As I walked behind the huts, I noticed that the back window of the Fieldings' cabana was open. I saw the light and the faded orange curtain blowing through. It was funny how you could plan so carefully, and then something like this open window turned up like a gift.
My heart was pounding. I was going to catch Mom once and for all. The one good thing about sneaking around on the sand is that you don't make a sound. I was so intent on my mission, I forgot completely about Mary Beth.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "This Side of Water"
Copyright © 2019 Maureen Pilkington.
Excerpted by permission of Regal House Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Blue Tip Shore Club 19
Turquoise Water Behind Him 30
In The Beach Chair 44
Toward The Norwegian Sea 64
Sounds Skimming Over The Atlantic 86
Not That Kind Of View 101
Dreaming Over The Monongahela River 117
Nudes In A Green Pond 122
Crowded Pond 135
Must Be Near The Hudson 138
Two Pigs And A Circle Of Palm Trees 144
The Water In Alexander's Eyes 158
Holy Water 168
Past The Clubhouse 184
Effects Of The Waterfront 195