Issue 14, Autumn 1956
The summer that Henry Wilder was in love with Jane Pratt—he was fifteen then—he was also much under the influence of Otis Purney. This was a summer which, when he looked back on it, seemed to have been spent on the brown sands of the Poquinuck Island Club, or around the pool of the club, or in the men’s bathhouse, or racing breakneck to Poquinuck in Purney’s convertible. Salt water drying to make his combed hair stiff; the hot gray-painted boards of the bathhouse under his bare feet and the feel of the wide cracks between these boards; the sun-hotted leather of the seat of Purney’s car—these were the flavors of the summer.
The influences of Jane and Purney on Henry seemed to him precisely opposite in quality: Jane’s wholesome, to put it all in a word into which it would not fit; Purney’s not. The thing was, Henry’s parents considered Otis an unwholesome boy. He had heard them say it, and while denying it and spending all his time with Purney in defiance of them, he believed it some what. Purney wasn’t much liked by any parents, or by people his own age, either. He was a thin, pimply boy, no good at sports, who knew all about sex before anybody else and who knew plenty of dirty jokes. His mother, who was divorced, had lied so that Otis could get a driver’s license when he was fourteen; Otis had had a dinner jacket at twelve and tails at fourteen. He was a year older than Henry and had already owned two cars of his own, both Ford convertibles. Boys who were good at sports held Purney in contempt but borrowed his car; he was generous. Henry really liked him; partly because Henry himself was no good at sports either rand partly (this was the reason he gave publicly) because Purney had a wonderful sense of humor. Besides, he felt a little pleasant guilt ill associating with Purney; he was so unwholesome.
To speak of Jane’s “influence” on Henry may be to use the word oddly. If someone had told her, “You have a great influence on Henry Wilder,” Jane Pratt would have laughed, in the clear, easy, unthinking way that healthy girls of seventeen have—girls whose happy, straightforward lives never were and never will be influenced by anyone or anything out of sight of the smooth and sensible path on which they move, like a comfortable, rapid train of Pullmans on its New York, New Haven & Hartford tracks, from birth to death. Just as nothing much—certainly nothing new—could influence Jane, so Jane’s own influence on Henry was no more voluntarily exerted by her than a stone intentionally exerts ripples when it hits the water. Still, she had an overpowering effect on him that summer, though they were almost strangers; it had been a year or two since he had even spoken a word to her. He watched her, thought about her, and considered every action he took ill the light of how it would seem to her, meritorious or not. This was mainly guesswork. Since they no longer knew each other well enough to talk, it was hard to know what would please her. As far as he could tell, she never looked at him, approvingly or disapprovingly. His main effort during the summer had been to reach two states which, surely, would be to her liking: a mature bearing, and physical fitness. For a good part of the summer he kept his feelings about her secret from everyone; when he did talk, it was of course to Otis Purney.
The first time Henry spoke to Purney about her was at the Poquinuck Island Club pool. That afternoon they had driven over from Granchester at a maniacal speed, as usual. The last half-mile, along the causeway between the flat fields of gray-green, salt smelling marsh (Poquinuck was not a real island) and over the little humped bridge that gave you such a rollercoaster bounce if you took it fast, Purney, “hunched over the controls,” as he put it, had roared along in second gear at fifty miles an hour. “I’m going to drive the rest of the way in second,” he had said, “to prove that I want a woman.” Purney was always talking about sex. He and Henry were both obsessed with sex that summer, but Purney talked about it more easily.
Henry and Purney were sitting by the edge of the pool watching Jane dive when Henry spoke. Though the club had a beach, nearly everyone now swam in the pool, which had been built eight years before. The only people who still swam in the Sound—it was often pretty fruity—were a few members who had belonged to the club before the pool was built and who liked to make it clear that their Poquinuck habits had been formed long ago—that is, at least eight years ago. So quickly are things and people changed and customs grown old on the Connecticut shore of Long Island Sound. The sand, along that part of the shore, was a dirty brown, not dazzling. So the pool was where most people swam. When Henry and Purney used the beach at all, they just sat on it.
Jane was a yellow-haired, blue-eyed girl with long brown legs. She was a wonderful athlete, and she must have been muscular, but she wasn’t bulgily or angularly athletic; just a pretty, tremendously healthy girl. She was wearing a red bathing suit that fitted her tightly and that just about filled the requirements of decency; still, there was nothing indecent about it, either, because of the nature of the girl. She clearly wore it not to attract attention but the better to swim and dive.
She had been diving for some time. Now she climbed again up the ladder to the high board, off which Henry, to his shame, had barely the nerve to take an awkward header (only two years ago he had been jumping off it feet first), and, standing there for a moment in the sun, trim, erect, wet, and wonderfully tanned, turned her head sideways and hack and with the left hand smoothed the wet blond hair back from her face. A casual, alert, beautiful gesture, like something a hunting dog might make.