The three men finished with the small boat before nightfall. The painting had to be done quickly and it was difficult. So afterward they rested and smoked in the drawing dusk, their backs against a massive rock. The boat was called a yola. They had spotted it bobbing near an island on a buoy in the natural harbor formed by the embrace of two small spits of land and hauled it ashore. With thick smears of black paint, they covered up its pale blue gray color, its name, Bonita, and the white numbers of its registration. Over the lights, they spread a thinner coat. At sea, even if perchance they ran with lights to avoid a reef, this silty covering would make the lights indistinct and fickle; and someone might mistake them for a phosphorescent curiosity of the sea. Now they needed only to replace the engine with the larger one left for them the night before, beneath a tent of canvas concealed with branches and brush. The two older men had lived more than forty years in the same village in Santo Domingo. The younger man, an American barely twenty years old, could understand only some of the words they said. He might have been fluent by now but preferred not to be. Still, he could tell that they were talking about the way the sea always eventually gave up her fish, as well as other things. He heard the words for “weather” and “soup.” He knew these men as Ernesto and Carlo; but he suspected these were not their true names. For these jobs, the men lived for a few weeks each year in Honduras, at the homes of people whose names they had been given. They were different people each time, cousins of acquaintances of men who knew these men by other names. At each place they stopped for food or rest, they would meet other people with no names. There seemed to be an endless supply of people who would forfeit names and memory for fifty American dollars. He had met them only once before. They disgusted him then. They terrified him now. He did not expect to meet them again.
The young man drew in the sweet smoke, laid his head back, and thought of his sister. The last time he had seen her, she had been seven years old, dressed for Halloween as a carousel horse, in an outfit their mother had made of black tights and papier-mâché. He remembered his father saying that the young man did not need a costume to look like a freak. His mother pivoted on his father and defended him, a reflex on behalf of her cub. But the young man knew that he had disgraced her, too, as his brother, still in high school, had honored her. He had failed to finish high school. His brother brought home trophies and fine grades. His own experiments with drugs and drunkenness had nearly put him in jail and cost his father considerable money and even more shame among his circle of wealthy friends. He did not like sports. After the time for playing baseball in the park was over, he had turned to quieter things. His mother had not minded, but his father spoke of him as a quitter. To the young man, the handsome, rough boys with their wide red mouths were embarrassing, almost frightening. He was not like the sons of his father’s friends. Long ago, they had gone off to Brown or Michigan State. His brother would go to a fine college one day also. Still, his brother did love him. And his mother loved him no less than she loved his brother. His mother thought he would come out of the ways he had never expected to go.
The young man sometimes believed this, too.
His thinking of it was interrupted when Ernesto said something conspiratorial to Carlo about offering a puff of their smoke to the owner of Bonita. This amused Carlo so much that he deliberately fell over on his back, laughing as only a servile man can, like a dog performing for its master. Carlo was stupid, which the young man did not believe made him any less dangerous than Ernesto.
The owner of the little yola sat some distance away with his back also propped against a large rock. He made no comment on Ernesto’s offer because he was dead.
Like a rare heron displaced from her environment, Olivia Montefalco high-stepped regally into the heat and blare of O’Hare International Airport. Though it was June, she wore a white wool suit with her high-heeled white sandals and huge diamond- stippled sunglasses. Those she passed were certain they had seen her before, perhaps in a magazine photograph. They fell back to make way. A grandmother rushing to meet her daughter for the Sunjet to Vegas thought that Olivia was that actress, the one from that movie about the artist whose boyfriend was a ghost… ? It had been a sweet movie, without all the sex, sex, sex. She had short hair, like Olivia’s. A pilot who jumped down from a hotel shuttle --- a little too athletically, but in a way he hoped would impress the flight attendants --- was sure this woman had been on a charter he’d once flown to Crete. Unlike the gambling grandmother, he was correct.
Oblivious to the stares from fellow travelers and haggard morning smokers, Olivia stood on her toes and scanned the ranks of limousines, SUVs, and police cars. Where was that huge thing Tracy drove? The last time she’d seen it, it had been filled to exhaustion by Cammie and about a dozen of her soccer mates, all chittering and smelling of sweaty socks. Olivia was amazed that Tracy could work full-time and cook for Jim and visit her parents and send letters and coach soccer as well. Perhaps now that Cammie was grown, she had a different car.
Two skycaps trailed behind Olivia, like yoked oxen straining to push the teetering towers of Olivia’s turquoise Henk van de Meene luggage. Olivia stuffed their hands with crumpled wads of dollar bills and gave them a smile so candent that they felt something more than a tip had been bestowed. Olivia had shipped most of her belongings, but the bits and essentials that comforted her after twenty years in Italy came with her, in fourteen matching pieces.
Olivia bit her lip --- a gesture that, when she was married to Franco, guaranteed jewelry within days --- and wondered if Tracy had forgotten her. Olivia hadn’t written for months and months, not since Tracy’s flurry of phone calls and offerings of help during Franco’s illness. She didn’t wonder if being left at the airport would serve her right. That was the kind of pondering that Olivia censored.
With a sure hand and her cousin Janis riding shotgun, Tracy piloted her huge van around the arrivals tier.
“There she is! There’s Olivia! Behind that weird luggage!” Holly Solvig shrieked from the backseat. “Wonder how much extra that cost! I’ve never seen someone with so much baggage!”
“We already knew that,” Janis said dryly.
Tracy remonstrated softly, “Jan. Hols. Come on. If it is Olivia, it’s Olivia. You knew she was wealthy. What I hope is that I have the right airline and the right day.”
Olivia had returned to the United States only twice in twenty years, once for her brother’s wedding, once for her father’s funeral. Each time Holly and Tracy had come to fetch her, the encounter had been the same: Olivia changed her entire appearance the way other women changed the color of their nail polish. But since neither Holly nor Tracy ever changed, she never failed to recognize them; and she did not now.
“I told you it was her, Trace,” Holly repeated triumphantly. “Look, she sees us! She’s giving the Godmother wave.” Tracy glanced back, nearly colliding with a Saab. It was their wave, the American Sign Language letter y, an extended forefinger and thumb. “Look at those sunglasses. She looks like Mario SanGiaccamo’s mother at the country club pool in 1970! She’s Westbrookian all over! Now it’s going to take a half hour to come back around again to get her!” Holly felt like a fool, a forty-two-year-old woman making the “y” sign out the back window of a van. She tried to cover by making other ASL signs she’d picked up over the years at the hospital, those for “Not true” and “Talk to me,” so onlookers might think she actually was talking to someone who was deaf.
“No way!” Janis cried now. “Whoever that woman is, she’s at least ten years younger than we are!” Suddenly, all three women, as if each heard a gunshot at the starting line, covertly found something reflective in the car and began the kind of inventory reserved for buying a bathing suit. Each was thinking variations on the same theme: If this was their old friend, then her appearance was more magical than surgical.
“But it is so too her!” Holly insisted, reverting to adolescent language now, up on her knees and peering out the back window. “That’s Olivia Seno, the Duchess Montefalco --- ”
“It’s countess,” Tracy corrected her. “And you haven’t seen her in eight years, Hols.”
“She could be the Count of Monte Crisco for all I know,” Holly said. “All I know is, she’s trying to get you to back up!”
Abruptly, Tracy braked and, through sheer General Motors muscle, with Holly yelling, “There’s a very sick woman back there! We need to get her to help! Move!” backed her van through a bleating horde of protesting vehicles toward Olivia. She jumped up and wrinkled her nose in delight. The rest of them smiled with various degrees of moxie. Olivia’s shiny appearance, like an advertisement for the benefits of folic acid, made all of them aware of their damp armpits and Thursday morning hair, Jan’s and Tracy’s yoga pants and Holly’s cutoffs, so tight that she would have dislocated her thumb trying to put her hand into the pocket.
Twenty-five years ago, the four of them had been inseparable, a fighting unit with black fishnet stockings under their navy plaid school uniforms, imitation black leather jackets from J. C. Penney thrown over their shoulders. Unholy innocents, they’d stalked the halls of St. Ursula High, cracking gum and cracking wise. Tough girls who’d never thrown a punch, they posed as scofflaws but never missed their curfews. Twenty-five years ago, they’d baptized themselves the Godmothers (in homage to the movie everyone had seen at least ten times). Even Holly --- who, unlike the others, didn’t have a drop of Italian blood --- had to dye her naturally flaxen hair to the color and texture of a witch’s hat. In ninth grade, they’d run a double-D cup up the flagpole. They’d watched from their third-floor math class as Sister Mary Vincent fought the March wind to pull it down, without allowing the flags of the order and the United States to touch the ground, because the janitor, a meek man called Vili, was too abashed to touch it. In tenth grade, once Janis and Tracy had their driver’s licenses and Saturday night use of their grandfather’s Bonneville, they’d gone to Benny’s Beef to pick up rough, bright boys from Fenton High and go parking in the delivery lot behind the golf course, four couples on two leather bench seats. On a dare, they’d drunk whiskey Janis had pilfered from behind the bar at her father’s steakhouse as they’d sat on Alphonse Capone’s grave in Holy Innocents Cemetery. In eleventh grade, they’d sprayed across the principal’s parking space, “We’re the crew that brought the brew to the roof of St. U!” By senior year, Olivia was so madly involved with a college boy from Loyola that Tracy got horrible hives, scoring her arms into tracks of welts, because she needed to do both her and Livy’s term papers for Honors English and civ. Then the Loyola boy fell for Anna Kruchenko, and Olivia used scissors from art class to cut off Anna’s twenty-inch braid a week before prom.
A week after prom, Olivia’s mother had a hysterectomy. While the adult women murmured darkly of “C-A,” Olivia came to live at Tracy’s house for a month, during which Olivia lost twenty pounds, opening huge hollows under the cheekbones that framed her huge eyes. Girls back then wore five, seven, and nine --- not two and four. Plu-skinny as rote was not yet ordained. But Olivia’s wraithlike beauty drove boys to fight over her like rutting elk, sometimes on the sidewalk in front of Tracy’s house. And though Livy had almost never again allowed herself to be anything but concave, she confessed to Tracy that she had made a holy vow to eat nothing but bread if her mother would live, that she had been shoveling peas and pork chops into her table napkin every night. Those nights had been the only time Tracy had ever seen Olivia cry. She had not cried even in the hospital in Florence.
Their principal, Mother Bernard, had to explain to her young sisters (and there were young nuns then, though fewer each year) that there were two kinds of bad girls. One kind did not possess the DNA to turn out bad, and one kind did. The Godmothers were the former. They would grow up to be teachers, parents, and professionals. Perhaps one of them would even have a vocation.
The young nuns prayed that if one of them did, she’d be a Benedictine and cloistered for life.
But in everything but this one matter, Mother Bernard had been exactly correct. Holly was a nurse and the mother of twins. Janis stayed home with her two daughters until they reached high school age and was only now resuscitating her event-planning business, which she ran from home. Tracy taught gym classes in the gym where she’d learned to play basketball. And Olivia! Olivia had made of herself something remarkable, although only by dint of looks and luck. When they spoke of Olivia, it was always Holly who pointed out that Olivia had not discovered radium, she had simply married up.
Still, despite Holly’s protests, it was true: The others’ lives had been cut from a single pattern --- different only because one might have chosen short sleeves, another a scooped neck.
They’d all grown up in Westbrook, a bumper suburb on the hip of Chicago that Holly once called the town without a soul.
All their parents were ten-minute immigrants from the west side, with nothing but blue-collar grit and the best intentions for their children. Janis’s father built the Grub Steak and threw in on founding a golf club even before he and the other town fathers got around to building their own church. All the girls were bused to St. Ursula in Belleview one town over, all the boys to Fenton in Parkside. An elementary school was built the second year that Westbrook was incorporated. But no one would have considered anything but parochial school for his or her children.
Janis’s and Tracy’s fathers were brothers who’d married cousins. Among the two families’ six children, Janis and Tracy were the only girls and were raised essentially as sisters. The eight Loccario grandchildren still celebrated their birthdays at Tony’s restaurant, the Grub Steak. After a martini, he would recall for them when Westbrook had no strip malls or coffee joints: It was a cluster of houses surrounded by forlorn prairie, with distant moans and grumbles from the freight trains that rattled the china in everyone’s hutch and the bewildered hoots of owls perched on bulldozers. There were prairie fires and muskrat. Janis always said Grandpa made the children believe they’d been pioneers in North Dakota.
When the time came, Tracy went to Champaign on a basketball scholarship. Janis went to Triton Junior College and toyed with marketing, as well as with every boy in a twenty-mile radius. Janis was so winsome with her thick auburn blunt cut and her perky rear end that Tracy couldn’t believe they’d come from the same gene pool. Janis turned Dave on and off like a faucet until, in dental school, he made a play for a sassy classmate.
Rapidly, Janis had given her hand but, unlike Tracy, not her last name. Dave’s surname was Chawson. “It might be dental,” Janis opined, “but it’s not musical.” Olivia, meanwhile, had turned a junior-year-abroad romance in Italy into a romance. Even the ending had been appropriately tragic, hence Livy’s triste return to her homeland.
“She’s going to have to sit on my lap if we’re going to fit that stuff in here,” Holly groused as Olivia began the prodigious task of overseeing the loading of her luggage. Put that there --- no, no, that has glass in it --- on top, that’s right…
“At least you won’t feel her,” Janis said. “Do you think she weighs a hundred pounds?”
“Why are we taking her on a cruise?” Holly asked sotto voce.
As only a teacher could do, Tracy gave Holly the Look. She whispered, “Because she’s a widow, and we love her, and for your information, she paid for everything except the airfare! Be nice!”
It was Tracy’s loyalty, not Olivia’s royalty, that inspired this devotion, which drove Holly mad. She had been by far the more affectionate friend, the one who never failed to write Tracy when Tracy was downstate at school, who went to see her play, and fail, in the quarterfinals at state, who welcomed baby Cammie home with a hand-smocked cradle skirt and coverlet, who never forgot a birthday, who co-hosted Tracy’s Christmas open house. Yet nothing was too good for Olivia. Holly understood, but she did not accept…
Tracy’s daughter, Cammie, would later say that had it not been for the tendency of everyone except Holly to oblige Olivia’s noblesse, things might have turned out another way. Lives might have drifted on, uninspired, perhaps, but unscarred.
But in that moment, as the three of them piled out of the car and engulfed Olivia, the umbrella of years collapsed over them and bound them close. They were again a complete set. The ineradicable tenderness and surplus of memories they shared were all that mattered.
“Do you believe I’ve just flown nine hours and I’m going to turn around and fly nine more tomorrow?” Olivia asked. “All because of you nutballs?”
“Is that an Italian word?” Holly asked.
“Nuttaballa,” Olivia said.
“But you’re a jet-setter,” Janis said. “You used to fly to Paris for a weekend to shop.”
“Europe is teeny. The sea is big,” said Olivia.
“You were always profound,” Holly said with a grin.
And they pranced and hugged again.
Excerpted from STILL SUMMER © Copyright 2011 by Jacquelyn Mitchard. Reprinted with permission by Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.
- Genres: Fiction
- hardcover: 320 pages
- Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
- ISBN-10: 0446578762
- ISBN-13: 9780446578769