Summers in Maine

I wrote this in 2006. I hope you enjoy it.

Summers in Maine had always been somewhat of a mystery. I never really remembered exactly what happened the following fall. And I never really remembered what had happened the spring before I got there. But all time was split and referenced by those summers on the coast.
My grandfather bought the cottage when I was a toddler. Many of my first memories are on the shallow bluffs overlooking the ocean. I remember the taste of sea salt.
The summer of 1945 was different. My cousin James returned from the war that summer. He spent three weeks at a hospital in New York nursing a wound and thereafter came to the beach at my aunt’s behest. The women of the family thought it would do Jimmy good to spend a month or two away from it all.
I remember when the cab dropped him off. He emerged slowly as if burdened by some force that I couldn’t see. As I looked down the line at my family, there was a collective sinking. Like the exhaling of a deep breath. He took his bags from the trunk and walked down the pathway toward the front of the cottage. My mother and aunt went running out. We hadn’t seen Jimmy in damn near three years. On that day, I remember my aunt’s apron quivering from the force of her sobbing. She cried that way only twice in my life. Jimmy was expressionless.
I was uncomfortable – and when Jimmy didn’t return any of the emotion exhibited by his mother, the sinking feeling turned to tension. It was subtle but there. We all went inside. Lunch was waiting on the patio. Jimmy sat down and though volunteering little – began to answer questions to which we already knew most of the answers. But we asked anyway. He tolerated our questions for half hour or so.
My aunt remarked after lunch that Jimmy must be exhausted from his travels. As a young boy that comment had always aggravated me, as much as a young boy can be aggravated. I had no idea how sitting on a bus, or a train, or a ship could be so exhausting. All you did was sit there. I was dying to ask Jimmy how many Japs he had killed and what it was like to carry a gun. Did he have his own rifle? Had he earned any medals? But I had been beat to the punch. There would be no questions until Jimmy got a chance to sleep.
I took off with our dog - Jackson. We ran up and down the rocky shore. At some point, I fell asleep beneath a large tree about half-mile from the cottage. I dreamt of the next quarter at my prep academy. Maybe the headmaster would ask me to play football. He hadn’t asked last year, but perhaps things would be different. I had grown an inch or two after all. The grass on the field was especially green in my dream.
I woke to Jackson stirring about me. I could hear my mother calling faintly over the rising tide. I stood up to shake the dirt from my hair. The air was just cool enough to prompt me to trot back to the cottage. When I walked in, the record player was stuck on a scratch. I would have tried to fix it, but had been sternly directed a few days earlier not to touch the record player under any circumstances. This most likely due to the fact that I had a tendency to drag the needle.
My aunt and mother were sitting at the table. My uncle was reclining in the living room with Jimmy and my father. Dad waved for me to come over. I hopped up in his lap and leaned my head back on his chest. They talked about the upcoming World Series until Mom called us to dinner. Dad picked me up like a rag doll and set me squarely on the ground before swatting me on the rear. I looked back to see him smiling at me.
My aunt cooked a hell of a roast beef. She said it was the only thing Jimmy would eat when he was a kid. He tried to act excited, but didn’t eat much. I figured he must have still been tired from all that sitting in boats and buses on his way back from the front. After a few nibbles on my mothers’ allegedly world famous lemon icebox pie, Jimmy excused himself and stepped out to smoke on the patio. All the adults at the table clammed up after he left, but I didn’t pay much attention.
My mom started to stop me when I excused myself and headed for the door too. But she stopped and waved me on. Jimmy was sitting on an old railroad tie and gave me a half smile.
“You smoking yet,” he asked.
I was thrilled that he thought I was old enough to have started, being the ripe age of eight and all. I would have said yes, but was afraid that I would be obligated to do it. I had seen my friend Randy try a drag of his old man’s cigarette a few days ago and knew that I would probably end up depositing my dinner into the ocean.
“Nah, you know how Mom is.”
He took a slow drag off the cigarette. We talked about my prep school. I told him all the same old teachers were there that had been when he went through. He shook his head and smiled. We sat there for a few minutes, not really saying much. Just listening to the ocean and occasionally looking back inside to see what the old folks were doing.
“Tell me what it was like,” I said.
“What do you mean,” he replied. “The war, what’s it like?”
Jimmy looked down at his cigarette. He stood up and tussled my hair and walked back inside. I hadn’t said anything else – mostly out of embarrassment. Who knew, maybe he was still tired.
The summer went on like that for a few weeks. Me probing Jimmy about the war and him never answering me. He was never ugly about it. Usually just ignored me the way a mother might ignore a child who asks over and over again for a piece of candy at the grocery. I finally gave up. Jimmy got a good tan that summer and met a girl who lived a few cottages down the way. They spent a lot of time together, to my disappointment. I had no use for girls.
I packed off and headed back to Connecticut in early August. Mom and I went through the usual pre-school rites. There would be the trip to Sears and Roebuck to get four pairs of khakis. She said I needed a new sweater but that it could wait until the weather cooled. And so life went on. School and summers in Maine.
I enlisted in the Army when I was seventeen. You would have thought I told my mother I had signed up to be a human cannonball. She wailed for days. Of the many things that took place over that year, I remember the trip to Korea. I was scared shitless – and so was everyone else. But most of the guys there hadn’t passed up Yale to come to Korea as a private.
It was a blur. I saw so many things. A dead man for the first time. A dead woman for the first time. I saw men break under the stress of the war – most cracking slowly under the isolation of our occupation. Men who learned of their wives’ weakness via letters from home. Births and death of family members – all occurring is some alternate, more sane universe that we thought still existed elsewhere. I took my wound in November, after seven months, losing my right leg at the knee.
When I arrived at Bethesda, Maryland, mother came to visit me. I remember being happy to see her but being numb. There was disappointment mixed with the relief in her face. She told me that the family would be at the beach house in a few weeks and that I should go there. I told her I would think about it.
After two months of therapy, I took her up on the offer. I was ready to get away from the smell of disinfectant and death. The bus ride to Maine was a full day. I sat next to a woman from Nashville who didn’t stop talking long enough to allow me to pretend to have fallen asleep. When I arrived at the cottage, the scene was familiar. Several of my family members were there to greet me. Their hugs had a ceremonial feel. Jimmy was there and was the last in line. But he didn’t hug me. He shook my hand and grabbed my bag.
Jackson was long gone – but I went for a walk after I unpacked. More houses had sprung up along the shore down the way from our place. Most were bigger and generally obnoxious. But other than the new houses, things were as they had been. I recognized the lay of the land, the trees where I had burrowed forts nearby, and the feel of the rocky shore under my shoes.
That night after dinner I sat out on the patio. Jimmy walked out not long after I did and sat down on the chair next to me. I offered him a cigarette. He told me he quit years ago. We watched the sun go down.
“So, tell me what it was like.”
And I wanted to tell him but the knot in my throat wouldn’t let me. I stood up and put my hand on his shoulder as I walked inside.


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