Monday, August 2, 2010

The Last Sunset

1. The Phone Call

With Angela and Pete, more than with anyone I know, I always call at the wrong time. I called last summer to ask how Angela’s mother was doing—she was very old, and had finally fallen and landed in the hospital—and they were just walking out the door to go to her funeral. There I was in Pete’s pocket. On Sunday, I was going to wait and call at about six, cocktail hour, but I called at four-thirty, determined to check one more thing off my list of things to do: See Buster about outboard (check). Call Angela and Pete (check). I needed to get the boat registered, which meant I needed the title, which meant I needed to get in touch with Angela, who had registered the boat to her and Pete’s business. I caught them in the car: they had just gotten into Rockaway with a load of plants that Angela’s sister the nun, out on Long Island, had gotten on sale at Lowe’s, and they were going back upstate to the farm in the morning. Pete handed me to Angela, who said in her mild voice, “Hi, Mary, how are you?” And then, after I gave her a hearty “I’m fine!” she said, “Mary, you just almost deafened me.” Pete had put me on speaker phone.

I was overjoyed to hear that they were in Rockaway. I invited them over for dinner—my friend Clancey and I were going to make chicken salad and grilled vegetables—but Angela griped about parking and also said that they were not comfortable leaving the dock once they were down there. Well, I blurted out, could we come to the dock for sunset?

One of the things I have always loved about the people on the dock was that, though they’d lived in those stilt houses on Jamaica Bay forever, they never got tired of the sunset. The night before, Clancey and I had gone to the Wharf for dinner and, failing to find a table outside, we were sitting just inside a window, rather forlornly. I went out to the car to get my cap and returned via the ladies’ room to be greeted at the bar by the Boss’s girlfriend, Sandra. The Boss was there, too, hiding behind his sunglasses. They had seen me dancing out the door. (The Beach Boys or something silly of my vintage were on the jukebox, and I guess I wasn’t that forlorn.) I was so relieved for having gone to the marina a week earlier and paid the Boss: $1,500, $500 for the remainder of last season (when I didn’t take the boat out at all) and $1,000 for this season. He and Sandra got a table outside, having left their name with the head waitress, and I was trying to do the same (though we’d already ordered) when Sandra relented and said, “Why don’t you sit with us?” I was elated to be at the Wharf watching the sunset with the Boss and his girlfriend. They are like Rockaway royalty. It was about eight o’clock, and sunset was at eight-twenty. The Boss complained that some guy who was waiting for a table was blocking his view.

So I was crowing about this on speaker phone when Angela said, “To be honest, Mary”—uh-oh, what was coming?—“I totally believe that the Boss stole everything over the years.”

2. The Message

Angela needed to get off the phone—Pete had gone into a deli, leaving her double-parked in the middle of the Boulevard—and she said she’d call me back. With one phone call, I had shattered the serenity of a Sunday afternoon. I started the coals and strung up some twine for the morning glories to climb on; if I was going to be in agony, I would at least be able to check one more thing off my list. So I missed the callback from Angela, but she left a message:

“You can come over for the sunset, but these are the ground rules: Bring a bag of ice. You can have two beers apiece. We can’t offer you anything else—all we have is some leftovers, just enough for ourselves. It’s a little embarrassing, but that’s the way it is.” She was almost inaudible, or maybe I didn’t want to hear anymore. For the boat, she told me I should bring the registration and a Xerox of my driver’s license. (Pete in the background: “Or she can fax it.”) “And there’s no water.” They hadn’t turned on the water in the bungalow since the start of last season, when they came home to find the place vandalized.

I couldn’t decide what to do. Clancey didn’t know Angela and Pete—they’d never met, though Clancey had been out in the boat with me—and she was disinclined to go. I decided to jump in the ocean before the lifeguards went off duty, at six. Actually, the last thing I wanted to squeeze into the hundred and forty minutes before sunset was a search for a photocopier on the peninsula. On the way down to the beach I had the idea of taking a picture of my driver’s license, downloading it to my computer, and printing it.

When I got back, Pete called, in his role as apologist for Angela. Really, my friend and I were welcome. “If you do come, we’d like to know what time, so we can be semi-prepared,” he said. So I told him I’d be there at eight: twenty minutes to sunset. I repeated all this to Clancey. She was more disinclined than ever to visit the dock. To her it was blazingly clear that Angela, at any rate, did not want company. Plus dinner was almost ready. “Could we take them some food?” I asked, knowing they would have already eaten. It was just too awkward. Not even my plan to take a digital picture of my license worked: the crucial information came out blurry. The ocean had solved nothing. Pete’s phone call had solved nothing.

While I stewed, Clancey grilled. If I didn’t know better, I’d suspect that this was all a Tom Sawyer-style ruse to get my guest to do the cooking. We had grilled-chicken salad with fresh dill and free mayonnaise that the girls in the deli had given us in packets (after telling us that a small jar of Hellman’s cost a shocking $5.49); potatoes, striped squash, eggplant, and a multicolored pepper—Clancey said it was called a chocolate pepper—from the organic farmstand; and a bottle of red wine, which I sipped just a little of. “I’m glad I ate before going over there,” I said. I had enough anxiety without adding hunger to it. “You sure you don’t wanna come with me?” I left, alone, at about seven-thirty.

I bought a bag of ice and called Pete on my way over. The gate to the marina was locked, no sign of Pete—I was a little early—so I showed how independent and resourceful I was by parking on the Drive. They had taught me to call it “the Drive,” instead of Beach Channel Drive, as they had taught me to call Rockaway Beach Boulevard “the Boulevard” (the neighborhood kids call it the Dirty Boulevard) and Ocean Parkway “the Parkway” and Rockaway Freeway “the Freeway.”

3. The Visit

The dead-end street from the Drive to the dock, High Tide Street, smelled of sewage. A few years ago, a developer put up apartment buildings here, on a street that floods regularly, twice a month. Who would choose to live on such a street? Did the agents arrange to show the apartments only at low tide? Many black children, including a toddler, were playing outside on the stoops and in the street. There’s a storm drain here, too. Between that and the tide and plumbing that obviously wasn’t adequate, the street had turned into Rockaway’s own cholera epidemic.

Angela had come out to dispose of one small plastic bag of household garbage. “I shouldn’t have said that about the Boss,” she said right away. “I can’t prove anything, and you don’t need to hear that.” She mentioned some things, like their dinghy, that had gone missing over the years. I hoped she didn’t suspect that he was the one who broke into their bungalow, that it was an inside job.

Pete had gone into the boatyard to wait for me at the gate—we had just missed each other. I gave Angela the bag of ice and went out to meet him. He made me go back up to the Drive and pull my car in the lot. “Otherwise,” he said, “you have to walk down that nasty street again.”

“So is this a hit-and-run or are you going to stay for a while?” Pete asked.

“One beer,” I replied. I had to get back to Clancey, and I knew they were busy—they were always busy. That’s why I hadn’t yet descended on them upstate, in the house they were fixing up to rent out to skiers. I was afraid they’d feel they had to drop everything and entertain me.

Pete was sorry that Clancey hadn't come with me. “See those clouds?” he said, pointing to a tiered arrangement of fluff to the north. “If the sun goes down right, those will light up beautifully.” But there was a bank of clouds at the horizon, and the sun might just plop behind it with no fireworks. “A nothing sunset,” Pete called it. A dud.

He showed me the plants they’d picked up from Angela's sister. The S.U.V. was crammed with them—hibiscus, phlox. The sister had gotten carried away—some of them cost only sixty cents. The plants surrounded an ancient pump that originally cost thousands of dollars; Pete had picked it up for a few hundred.

The Boss had mentioned the night before that Pete and Angela had auctioned off all their furniture, so I was semi-prepared for the empty bungalow. Pete stood outside sort of ruefully, almost ashamed, as I regarded the splintered railing and shuttered windows. The back windows were shuttered, too. Angela had set out the paperwork on a table against the back wall. “We’ll take care of business first,” she said. I signed where she told me to. I gave Pete an envelope with eighty-five dollars and the betting sheet from the Kentucky Derby. When I’d offered to pay for the boat, earlier in the summer, he refused, then said I could give him ten dollars. I wagered his ten dollars on a horse in the Kentucky Derby, choosing the horse on a hunch, but trying to channel Pete’s hunch: I picked Super Saver, and we won eighty-five dollars. It was not the fortune I imagined on my way back to the O.T.B., clutching the betting chit in my greedy little hands. Still, as Pete said, “It’s more than ten dollars.”

Pete offered me a beer. “We’ve got one Spaten and three Schaeffers,” he said. I took the Spaten. They had no bottle opener, so he had to perform the cigarette-lighter trick with a screwdriver.

“Pete, Mary brought us ice,” Angela said in her role as Pete’s etiquette coach.

“Thanks,” he said. Now I know: for people who are staying in a house on stilts without running water in the summer, ice is the perfect gift.

I had a few other little gifts for them: a package of artichoke seeds from Amsterdam and a box of matches from Greece. Pathetic, but it could have been worse: I’d almost grabbed an open bag of tortilla chips to share, but Clancey discouraged me. The matches now seemed ominous. I hoped they’d be used only to light a candle.

The Boss had been sweet to them lately, Pete said, and told me a story: The Boss had called about the sewage over the winter, and someone came out, but the guy said the building was in foreclosure, so there was nothing he could do. Then he asked the Boss, “Who owns this property?” They were outside the tumbledown bungalows, uninhabited for decades, that the Boss’s grandfather the bootlegger had owned. “I do,” said the Boss. So the guy gave him a ticket for a crack in the sidewalk. Pete shook his head disgustedly. “And they come after us for pooping in the bay.”

Somebody over at the other marina that Pete does business with was also giving up on Rockaway. “It’s Third World,” Pete said.

“When are you going to come visit us?” Angela said. “We’re happy up there.” They bragged that the deer hadn’t eaten any of their garden. “Every day, he pees the perimeter,” Angela said. Pete described the drive along the reservoir from Ellenville.

The next morning they were having the gas and electricity turned off in the bungalow. They'd had the phone turned off last summer. “That’s thirty dollars a month we’ll save,” Pete said.

So this was it. I had been keeping an eye out for the sun from the gloom at the back of the boarded-up bungalow, but it was north of the door. There was no movement to go outside and watch, and only one chair out there. It was a long way from the days we’d sit outside at cocktail hour—Pete called it his favorite meal of the day—and I’d practice knot-tying, and he and Angela made fun of me: “She’ll learn to tie a knot when she loses a boat in the bay.”

Anyway, it was a nothing sunset. “Well, at least I don’t have to be sad,” Angela said.

“I have to go,” I said. No one protested.

“Mary, would you like that sailboat?” Angela pointed to a round stained-glass object on the wall: a boat at sunset, its sail shaped like a smile and striped like a rainbow. “Margie gave it to me, and I’m sure she’d be glad to know you have it.”

“Did Margie make it?” Pete asked. Margie was a friend of theirs who had a potter's wheel in her basement and decorated tiles and could probably do stained-glass work if she felt like it.

“No. I think she found it somewhere.”

That made Pete start scouting around for something to give me. He grabbed another sailboat off the wall, a 3-D one, its sculpted sail swelling out of the frame.

Outside, Angela offered me a low collapsible table with the points of the compass in blue on white—very nautical. It had come off one of the boats they handled, and I had admired it—coveted it, in fact. I took it gladly. Pete opened the door to the storage space between the bungalows. “Can you use a vase?” he asked, handing me a dusty glass vase that looked vaguely familiar.

“O.K., I suppose so.” But that was it—I couldn’t hold any more.

“Come back tomorrow morning and I’ll give you the Egg Harbor,” Pete said, trying to sell me the last boat in his inventory. “Two thousand dollars. You can take it to work.” That made me smile. So what if the Rockaway ferry was no more? I could make my own run to Manhattan.

It was not the sunset I had been hoping for, but it was good to see with my own eyes that Angela and Pete really are done with Rockaway. I will always be grateful that they accepted me on the dock and put me in a boat and gave me memories (besides the ones of getting towed in): water lapping under the bungalow, the A train rumbling over the trestle bridge behind Angela’s kitchen curtains, the swallows darting from their nests among the pilings in the evening, the swans gliding up to the dock, and the drip of the tap that the Boss left open so that the swans would have fresh water.


lucette said...

This is so sad.

tricia said...

I need to read this again...

tricia said...

This reminds me a little of the beautiful, bittersweet elegy you wrote last year for your Ptown friend.

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