Issue 156, Fall 2000
In their early fifties Agnes gave a party that David remembered almost in its entirety. He wasn’t sure why. At the center of the evening was the surprise appearance of an old friend of Agnes-a pianist named Cassie, who’d made the drive out to the end of the island by herself. David remembered her as a petite, athletic woman, small-chested and slightly sunburned, and dressed in flowing white cotton. She had ostensibly come to play the Wurlitzer organ during the party. But the surprise appearance of a musician, even of a notorious professional, was not unusual; the Flannigans were well-connected and their Wurlitzer was known even in the city. Perhaps it was Cassie’s slyness that aroused David’s attention: the sexy quickness of her grin, or the feeling that she knew what he was going to say before he said it.
Yet Agnes threw hundreds of summer parties on their great green lake of a back lawn-a sun-dappled, private expanse that in their younger days always seemed fragrant with roses. At one end of the yard, behind a tall row of windows, the blond Wurlitzer loomed like a judge’s bench: at the other, a massive hedge framed the pathway down to their private dock; any number of events had transpired in the space in-between. What David usually remembered about his wife’s parties were the incidents that turned into stories for later parties. Perhaps it was the way Cassie had seemed to materialize at the edge of the lawn like Titania into the reddening dusk, sending Agnes and therefore the entire party into merry chaos. She waved at Agnes as though from an incoming ship, and Agnes shrieked and ran to greet her, and led her jauntily through the crowd, introducing her to bewitched guests. David recalled the two of them laughing quietly as Cassie turned her dark eyes on him for the first time; under her gaze he inexplicably felt as though he were a boy in the schoolyard once again, trying for the first time to plumb the enigmas of the foreign sex. Before he could speak they whisked each other away, in a rush of remembrances and jokes and plans, and disappeared into the den for what seemed like an hour, though it couldn’t have been that long, David thought: the span must have been elongated in his memory-before some Bach, or possibly Mozart, breathtakingly floated, without any of the usual experimental starts and stops, out of the upper regions of the house. The guests gave a collective sigh and turned towards the large bay windows, where Agnes could be seen gazing over her friend’s shoulder at the music.
David stood still, watching his wife. Cassie’s vibrance had resonated something lovely and mysterious in Agnes that made the roof of his mouth tingle. She seemed to glow with health through her white cotton dress, in that time before the fear of ultraviolet rays, and the edges of her smile seemed touched with a pleasant consciousness that she was on a kind of stage. The thought that she knew herself to be the object of collective desire sent a thrill down David’s spine. Such moments were perhaps part of the reason he acquiesced to his wife’s parties; as Agnes grew too old to inspire them, she would find him less and less willing to have people out to the house.
Her figure had just begun to grow plump, to overflow itself ever so slightly and with a roundness that bespoke, David felt, more of generosity than of age or neglect-like the women painted by Raphael. It was an old habit, to compare her to other women he’d slept with, or with women whose images he’d seen in the media, and since she was outgrowing both categories, Raphael seemed to be all that was left. Yet she was almost outgrowing Raphael, too-not by size, but by age. Her hair was just recently touched with gray around the temples and pubis, and David found the contrast of color strangely moving; the sprinkles of white and gray gave that formerly uniform triangle a certain depth and texture which aroused him, and he couldn’t help stroking her despite the growing realization that her limbs were heavy with boredom, or resignation, or both ...
The pastorate ended. Applause spread across the lawn like a breeze. David joined in mechanically, returning smiles in the residual enchantment of the music. He moved towards the bar, which the caterer had once again set up too close to the birch trees. He had found himself increasingly fascinated with Agnes of late-perhaps because his other prospects had begun to thin?-though to his surprise she was the one who began to grow disinterested, at what he felt to be the ripe age of fifty. “That was nice,” she would say afterwards, and though he always felt sure she’d climaxed, there was a certain rote to her manner that disconcerted him. He felt periodic flashes of resentment when she did not return his advances, but these faded into the dim realization that, at this stage, he had nothing on which to rest his expectations for their sexual relations. How late did women continue on, anyway? David knew of no one he could ask, and didn’t trust polls of any kind. He certainly hadn’t heard anything about continuing relations from his parents. And his own daughter had berated him, as a young mother (he’d always kept track of Katie’s life by her station: college student, graduate student, wife, young mother, divorcee, etcetera), for his and Agnes’s failure to send “positive messages” about sexuality.
He sighed and ordered a scotch. When Agnes and her friend returned to the pany a fresh wave of applause broke across the lawn. Cassie adjusted her dress-it was askew from working the pedals, David observed-and blushed from the base of her delicate neck to the buttonish knob on the end of her nose. David found himself reconsidering his opinion of her-but no, in the end it was true that she was not quite pretty, though her presence did seem to lend beauty to Agnes, in the way that almost beautiful people can emphasize beauty by comparison.
He felt again, looking at his wife, that panicularly intoxicating desire which extends from exhibition and pride of ownership, and was grateful to the woman beside her for providing a suitable contrast. Few besides Agnes seemed to know this stranger, this bestower of heavenly music, and whatever explanation Agnes must have provided for her appearance had faded from David’s mind. But the vision of her standing shyly beside Agnes on the porch, with the sun redly lighting and merging their hair from behind and, it seemed, belowand the outline of Agnes’s hips and breasts showing faintly through her thin cotton dress-was preserved indelibly in his memory, as though cast in amber.
But now they were old, and the house was for sale. Their current real estate agent was a prim, shapely young woman with bright red lipstick and a husky voice which struck David as affected. She was not optimistic about a sale. She had suggested that they begin to think of their house and surrounding properties not as a residence, but as a package. And theirs was a complicated package, she told them. Real estate values were plummeting all over Suffolk County. The yard hadn’t been quite kept up to its potential. She was afraid the old organ pipes cut down on storage space. She tipped the cup of tea Agnes had given her to her red lips and said she hoped they understood. She expected they would do much better if they thought about a price in the neighborhood of-her voice dropped to a murmur, and she uttered an appalling number.
Agnes shook her head sadly and said she knew it. She had long felt, and was feeling now with increasing desperation, as though Little Bay were a prison from which she would never escape. She had been pushing for years for a move to “something smaller,” by which she meant an apartment-style retirement home where there were people around all year long, and where she would only have to cook breakfast. The idea of their leaving the house was hateful to David, but when Agnes talked of the move it seemed inevitable to him.
David sat up very straight and gazed down on the girl with the slightly bemused frown he reserved for his clerks—and, occasionally, for his daughter’s ex-husband, of whom he had never really approved—and informed her in his even, it’s-become- a-bit-more-serious-than-we-had-anticipated voice, that they were quite firm about the price.
“I hope you understand, Shirley—”
“Oh, it’s Sheri, actually.”
“Yes. Sheri. I hope you understand that we are not in the position to—er, to haggle. We have invested quite a bit in this house, you see. And we consider the Wurlitzer an asset.
It is an antique, as you may remember.”
Sheri’s smile, though glazing slightly, remained fixed. She nodded politely and said she would certainly do what she could. She plainly expected that wouldn’t be enough—despite their private dock and view of the bay—despite even the guest cottage, which could be rented out during the summer. They shook hands, and Agnes escorted her off the porch. David heard them talking as they walked out towards the driveway.
“The northeastern tip of the island,” the girl was saying, “isn’t exactly the Hamptons. If you really are set on the price, I hope you’re ready to wait.”
“Oh, we’re ready,” Agnes replied. “You see dear, my husband . . . ” And her voice dropped too low for David to hear.
David blew disgustedly through his lips and sat down to read The New York Times. He took great satisfaction in reading the Times in the evening, in his chair by the window overlooking their tranquil segment of Little Bay—particularly the Metro Section. Sometimes he also tuned in to Manhattan traffic reports.
“She doesn’t think it’s going to sell,” Agnes reported. “She said it would take someone with piles of money. She thinks they’d have to absolutely love the house—enough to ignore the fact that the town is going downhill. She’s right, of course.
“The girl is ridiculous. She’s obviously never been here during the summer.”
“She has, though. And I thought she was sweet.”
“She seemed uppity to me,” David said. “Besides, I don’t know anything about that company, Templeton.”
“What are the options? Unless we want to go with Jamie Conlon. I know you don’t, but we might call him up just to see.” David felt her watching him. “I could call,” she added.
David glanced up at her, frowning. Jamie Conlon had been buying up waterfront land for years. The rumor among David’s friends in the Oysterponds Historical Society was that he was trying to gather up enough property to bully the town into changing the zoning laws, so he could put up a hotel.
David had fought him in court on the issue, on behalf of the town, pro bono. He had served fifteen years with the historical society: he wasn’t going to let all that work be trashed by a third-rate developer.
“We’ re not doing that. ”
“Of course we’re not,” said Agnes, who cared little for the town and nothing for the historical society. The historical society was made up of sad old men who spent their time discussing ways they could keep about the town the atmosphere of an empty museum, and writing text for plaques.
David rattled his paper and said nothing. He was tempted to remind her what he thought about Jamie Conlon, and also to make the point that whether or not they stayed in the house for another season or two was a small matter compared to the preservation of an entire town. He wondered idly why it didn’t get easier to hold his tongue as he grew older. He always thought it should, but it never did. But he did it this time. Agnes gave up and walked silently into the kitchen to begin making their dinner.
They were moving because they were old, David thought.
It was a terrible reason to do anything. Agnes had contended that the house was getting to be too much for them—and it was true that managing the stairs was sometimes hard on one’s joints, especially in the winter. But aching knees seemed hardly worthy of consideration next to the idea of leaving one’s house.
He’d always loved the house more than she had. He had chosen it. It was their third house, and the first one he really loved. He loved the heady smell of polished wood in the back hall and on the stairs, and the blown-glass windowpanes that hadn’t been changed since the thirties, and the old dumbwaiter in the kitchen that ran upstairs to the master bedroom—and downstairs (for some reason) into the cool, gigantic basement. He loved the big stone fireplace that connected the living room and the den, and also the little Dutchtiled fireplaces in the upstairs bedrooms. He loved the rambling property and the worn, uneven wood floors in the guest cottage. He loved the slightly crooked hallways, which seemed to go on and on—as if the architect’s attention had wandered midtask—past little, oddly shaped bedrooms they had never used. And he loved the organ, set magnificently in the huge front bay window like the bridge of a ship.
The Wurlitzer had added an element of romance to the saltworn beachfront house. Though the keyboard was no longer connected to the pipes, it still appeared functional; the instrument still disseminated into the open, high-ceilinged rooms an air of mystery and elegance—of church and pageantry and the higher ans. It was a full pipe organ set in blond oak, with four rows of twenty-two keys, over one hundred stops, and an entire octave of foot pedals. The pipes were built into the attic. When he and Agnes were first shown the house, their aging real-estate agent had led them slowly and solemnly upstairs, caressing the darkly gleaming banister with what seemed to David a rather touching affection, and revealing, in hushed, respected tones, that the organ had been made to order as a gift to the previous owner from one of John D. Rockefeller’s daughters. The story was that Miss Rockefeller had fallen hopelessly in love with this man-a dashing young pianist with the Metropolitan Opera—while dancing with him at a party. When she discovered he was married, she gave it up at once-it was the custom in those days, as Agnes often pointed out, to cede the affections of a man when one discovered he was married-but nevertheless the young heiress had had the organ delivered to remember her by. Agnes often wondered what the man’s wife thought of the gift, and which room she’d convened to storage after the attic was filled with pipes. Neither she nor David played an instrument. She had been determined to learn to play something on organ if there was going to be one in the house, but her mistakes seemed so much more awkward when spectacularly amplified that she gave up almost immediately.