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The Condition


The Captain's House

Summer comes late to Massachusetts. The gray spring is frosty, unhurried: wet snow on the early plantings, a cold lesson for optimistic gardeners, for those who have not learned. Chimneys smoke until Memorial Day. Then, all at once, the ceiling lifts. The sun fires, scorching the muddy ground.

At Cape Cod the rhythm is eternal, unchanging. Icy tides smash the beaches. Then cold ones. Then cool. The bay lies warming in the long days. Blue-lipped children brave the surf. They opened the house the third week in June, the summer of the bicentennial, and of Paulette's thirty-fifth birthday. She drove from Concord to the train station in Boston, where her sister was waiting, then happily surrendered the wheel. Martine was better in traffic. She'd been better in school, on the tennis court; for two years straight she'd been the top-ranked singles player at Wellesley. Now, at thirty-eight, Martine was a career girl, still a curiosity in those days, at least in her family. She worked for an advertising agency on Madison Avenue --- doing what, precisely, Paulette was not certain. Her sister lived alone in New York City, a prospect she found terrifying. But Martine had always been fearless.

The station wagon was packed with Paulette's children and their belongings. Billy and Gwen, fourteen and twelve, rode in the backseat, a pile of beach towels between them. Scotty, nine and so excited about going to the Cape that he was nearly insufferable, had been banished to the rear.

"God, would you look at this?" Martine downshifted, shielding her eyes from the sun. The traffic had slowed to acrawl. The big American engines idled loudly, the stagnant air rich with fumes. The Sagamore Bridge was still half a mile away. "It gets worse every year. Too many goddamned cars."

A giggle from the backseat, Gwen probably. Paulette frowned. She disapproved of cursing, especially by women, especially in front of children.

"And how was the birthday?" Martine asked. "I can't believe la petite Paulette is thirty-five. Did you do anything special?"

Her tone was casual; she may not have known it was a tender subject. Like no birthday before, this one had unsettled Paulette. The number seemed somehow significant. She'd been married fifteen years, but only now did she feel like a matron.

"Frank took me into town. We had a lovely dinner." She didn't mention that he'd also reserved a room at the Ritz, a presumptuous gesture that irritated her. Like all Frank's presents, it was a gift less for her than for himself.

"Will he grace us with his presence this year?"

Paulette ignored the facetious tone. "Next weekend, maybe, if he can get away. If not, then definitely for the Fourth."

"He's teaching this summer?"

"No," Paulette said carefully. "He's in the lab." She always felt defensive discussing Frank's work with Martine, who refused to understand that he wasn't only a teacher but also a scientist. (Molecular developmental biology, Paulette said when anyone asked what he studied. This usually discouraged further questions.) Frank's lab worked year-round, seven days a week. Last summer, busy writing a grant proposal, he hadn't come to the Cape at all. Martine seemed to take this as a personal slight, though she'd never seemed to enjoy his company. He's an academic, she'd said testily. He gets the summers off. Isn't that the whole point? It was clear from the way she pronounced the word what she thought of academics. Martine saw in Frank the same flaws Paulette did: his obsession with his work, his smug delight in his own intellect. She simply didn't forgive him, as Paulette --- as women generally --- always had. Frank had maintained for years that Martine hated him, a claim Paulette dismissed. Don't be silly. She's very fond of you. (Why tell such a lie? Because Martine was family, and she ought to be fond of Frank. Paulette had firm ideas, back then, of how things ought to be. )

In Truro the air was cooler. Finally the traffic thinned. Martine turned off the highway and onto the No Name Road, a narrow lane that had only recently been paved. Their father had taught the girls, as children, to recite the famous line from Thoreau: Cape Cod is the bared and bended arm of Massachusetts. The shoulder is at Buzzard's Bay; the elbow at Cape Mallebarre; the wrist at Truro; and the sandy fist at Provincetown.

Remembering this, Paulette felt a stab of tenderness for her father. Everett Drew had made his living as a patent attorney, and viewed ideas as property of the most precious kind. In his mind Thoreau was the property of New England, of Concord, Massachusetts, perhaps even particularly of the Drews.

"Is Daddy feeling better?" Paulette asked. "I've been worried about his back." Martine had just returned from Florida, where their parents had retired and Ev was now recovering from surgery. Paulette visited when she could, but this was no substitute for Sunday dinners at her parents' house, the gentle rhythm of family life, broken now, gone forever.

"He misses you," said Martine. "But he made do with me."

Paulette blinked. She was often blindsided by how acerbic her sister could be, how in the middle of a pleasant conversation Martine could deliver a zinger that stopped her cold: the backhanded compliment, the ripe apple with the razor inside. When they were children she'd often crept up behind Paulette and pulled her hair for no reason. It wasn't her adult life, alone in a big city, that had made Martine prickly. She had always been that way.

They turned off the No Name Road onto a rutted path. It being June, the lane was rugged, two deep tire tracks grown in between with grass. By the end of summer, it would be worn smooth. The Captain's House was set squarely at the end of it, three rambling stories covered in shingle. A deep porch wrapped around three sides.

As she had every summer of her life, Paulette sprang out of car first, forgetting for a  moment her children in the backseat, Scotty whiny and fidgeting in the rear. For a split second she was a girl again, taking inventory, checking that all was as she’d left it the year before. Each  member of the family performed some version of this ritual. Her brother Roy rushed first to the boathouse, Martine to the sandy beach.

But it was the cottage itself that called to Paulette, the familiar stairs and hallways, the odd corners and closets and built-in cupboards where she’d hidden as a child --- the tiniest of the Drew cousins, a little Houdini --- in games of hide-and-seek. The Captain’s House, the family called it, in memory of Clarence Hubbard Drew, Paulette’s great-great-grandfather, a sailor and whaler. Clarence had hired a distinguished architect, a distant cousin of Ralph Waldo Emerson. The house had the graceful lines of the shingle style; it was built for comfort rather than grandeur. A house with wide doors and windows, a house meant to be flung open. On summer nights a cross breeze whipped through the first floor, a cool tunnel of ocean-smelling air.

Paulette stood a moment staring at the facade, the house’s only architectural flourish: three diamond-shaped windows placed just above the front door. The windows were set in staggered fashion, rising on the diagonal like stairs, a fact Paulette, as a child, had found significant. She was the lowest window, Roy the highest. The middle window was Martine.

She noticed, then, a car parked in the sandy driveway that curved behind the house. Her brother’s family had already arrived.

“Will you look at that?” said Martine, coming up behind her. “Anne has a new Mercedes.”

Paulette, herself, would not have noticed. In such matters she deferred to her husband, who was partial to Saabs and Volvos.

Martine smirked. ”Roy has come up in the world.”

“Martine, hush.” Paulette refused to let her sister spoil this moment, the exhilarating first minutes of summer, the joyful return.

They unloaded the car: brown paper bags from the grocery store in Orleans, the oblong case that held Gwen’s telescope. Tied to the roof were suitcases and Billy’s new ten-speed, an early birthday present. Martine stood on her toes to unfasten them.

“I’ll do it,” said Billy, untying the ropes easily, his fingers thick as a man’s. He had sailed since he was a toddler and was a specialist at complicated knots. Not quite fourteen, he towered over his mother. He had been a beautiful child, and would be an exceptionally handsome man; but that summer Paulette found him difficult to look at. His new maturity was everywhere: his broad shoulders, his coarsening voice, the blond peach fuzz on his upper lip. Normal, natural, necessary changes --- yet somehow shocking, embarrassing tothem both.

They followed the gravel path, loaded down with groceries, and nudged open the screen door. A familiar scent greeted them, a smell Paulette’s memory labeled Summer. It was the smell of her own childhood, complex and irreducible, though she could identify a few components: sea air; Murphy’s oil soap; cedar closets that had stood closed the long winter, the aged wood macerating in its own resins, waiting for the family to return.

Paulette put down the groceries in the airless kitchen, wondering why her sister-in-law hadn’t thought to open the windows. Billy carried the bags up the creaking stairs. The house had nine bedrooms, a few so small that only a child could sleep there without suffering claustrophobia. The third-floor rooms, stifling in summertime, were rarely used. The same was true of the tiny alcove off the kitchen, which had once been the cook’s quarters. Since her marriage Paulette had slept in a sunny front bedroom --- Fanny’s Room, according to the homemade wooden placard hanging on the door. Fanny Porter had been a school chum of Paulette’s grandmother; she’d been dead thirty years or more, but thanks to a long-ago Drew cousin, who’d made the signs as a rainy-day project at the behest of some governess, the room would forever be known as Fanny’s.

The sleeping arrangements at the house were the same each year. Roy and Anne took the Captain’s Quarters at the rear of the house, the biggest room, with the best view. Frank, if he came, would grouse about this, but Paulette didn’t mind. Someone had to sleep in the Captain’s Quarters, to take her father’s place at the dinner table. That it was Roy, the eldest son, seemed correct, the natural order of things. Correct too that Gwen shared prime accommodations, with Roy’s two daughters, on the sleeping porch, where Martine and Paulette and their Drew cousins had slept as girls. The porch was screened on three sides; even on the hottest nights, ocean breezes swept through. Across the hall was the Lilac Room, named for its sprigged wallpaper; and Martine’s favorite, the Whistling Room, whose old windows hummed like a teakettle when the wind came in from the west. Billy and Scotty took the wood-­paneled downstairs bedroom --- the Bunk House --- where Roy and the boy cousins had once slept. It was this sameness that Paulette treasured, the summer ritual unchanging, the illusion of permanence.

The Condition
by by Jennifer Haigh

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial
  • ISBN-10: 0060755792
  • ISBN-13: 9780060755799