Margaret Wister paused, as always, before descending the sun-bleached wooden stairway to the beach, not to get her breath but to look about her. Her terry robe was as old as the bathing suit under it, but both were serviceable, and she was not about to charm anyone, not at her age. She was a sturdy, rectangular woman, with a rectangular face and a little bump of a nose, and eyes that reserved comment on what they saw.
A morning mist still hid the Connecticut shoreline, but Long Island Sound was blue and motionless, and two or three sails were sprinkled on it. The public beach was beginning to sprout bright umbrellas and a midweek scattering of mothers and children; their distant voices were like pleasant bird sounds on the wind.
On Margaret’s own beach, four empty beer cans gleamed at her. Beach wanderers occasionally left their droppings. She put up with them, for she was the oddity here, she and her brown-shingled cottage, leftovers from another generation. She picked the cans up, depositing them in her metal trash basket, and stepped over to the weathered beach cabin where she kept her blanket and beach chairs. Years ago the cabin had served as a guest cottage, but it was little more than a storeroom now, cluttered with dusty, rattan furniture.
She had left the cabin door closed, but not locked. It swung open at her touch now, then slammed back against her hand. There was a scurry of movement inside, and a voice said, “Damn it, hurry!” An astonished, primitive anger rose in her. Without thinking, she threw herself against the door. It fell open, and she stumbled in headlong, hitting the opposite wall. In the spinning dimness she saw a girl struggling with the straps of her bikini, a boy in swim trunks helping her. The boy turned, scrambling through the doorway; Margaret’s hand reached out in blind instinct and caught the girl’s ankle, tripping her, and for a moment they wrestled ludicrously. Then she felt herself being pulled away. She tried to hit at the boy who was pulling her, but his fist came at her, and she was down, tasting blood and feeling a swooning agony as the back of her head struck the wall.
The dizziness passed. When she could, she got to her feet and satisfied herself that she could stand and take a step. The face reflected in the wall mirror was that of a stranger: gray hair stringy and awry, eyes puffy, blood oozing over swollen lips. Outrage put every other thought out of her mind, and she pushed through the doorway. Her beach looked at her, innocently empty, as though no one on the pebbly sand had ever been caught up in violence — no one except herself.
She climbed painfully up the steps to the top of the bluff, up the path to her bright little garden, into the darkness of her shingled cottage where she telephoned for the police.
Naturally, Emma arrived just as the prowl car pulled away. That was perhaps two hours later.
Emma was her sister, eight years younger, a childish, chattering, good-hearted woman with orange hair and pink cheeks and a body too plump for its girlish dresses. She insisted on looking after Margaret as if Margaret were senile; and Margaret endured her with dry patience.
Emma said the obvious now, and kept on saying it. “What on earth have you done to your face?” and “What were the police doing here?” and “How dreadful!” Margaret held her patience and allowed Emma to be useful and drive her to her doctor’s and her dentist’s; and when she was satisfied that her face and her teeth were still properly in place, no matter how they felt, she let Emma drive her back home. Then she said she wanted a nap, and Emma left, after one last inanity: “You’re too old to live alone, Margaret; I’ve been telling you that for years.”
“Yes, you have,” said Margaret dryly. As soon as Emma was out of sight, she went down to the little beach cabin again.
The room was as she and the detective had left it, the image of frantic flight still on the tumbled rattan furniture. Without the faintest idea of what she might look for, she got down on her stiff knees and crawled and peered until her head hurt and her knees ached, and she mumbled to herself about her folly. And, in the midst of the familiar, she saw the unfamiliar.
It was a bit of wire, stiff, silverfish, less than two inches long, with clasps at its ends, shaped for a purpose. It lay on the floor, behind the table. She picked it up. As she stared at it, a memory crept out of her adolescence, a memory of discomfort and embarrassment and her mother’s voice saying: “You are not going to be ashamed of your teeth all your life, as I’ve been. You’ve got to wear them.”
Braces. Or were they called retainers now? Retainers were removable, braces fixed. It didn’t matter. She felt a sudden anguish of kinship with that girl in the bikini, and as if she were watching them she saw her and the boy in here again. The image blurred, and she was the girl herself, feeling the painful pressure of the braces as the boy kissed her, breaking away for a moment, turning so the boy could not see her fingers fumbling at the braces, slipping them out, putting them on the table behind her, and turning to the boy again, shyly and eagerly. How long ago? And then she and Timothy Wister had married, and she had put the braces away forever and could forget about them. But this boy wasn’t Tim. Tim was dead and buried, and she was an old woman, a widow for the past 25 years.
Awkwardly she got to her feet and wrapped the wire in her handkerchief. Her lips hurt. Half a century ago, she had mislaid her braces, and her father had raged at her, and she’d had to search the house and grounds for two days until she found them. They were expensive. You don’t throw that kind of money down the drain.
She went up to her cottage, into her bedroom, and put the bit of wire into her handkerchief case. Then, setting her alarm for seven in the evening, she gave in to weariness and slept.
By seven-thirty she was back in the cabin, sitting on the floor of the little curtained closet next to the front door. Her body hurt, but she made herself as comfortable as she could with pillows and a blanket, and waited. If she reached out, she could touch the door, and she would, later, when it became necessary to wedge it shut with the rubber doorstop. She did not know how long she might have to wait, or if her whole idea were foolish and futile. She was no detective; she was Margaret Wister, 68 years old, widow, retired nursery-school teacher, and she ought to know better.
The cabin smelled musty. Time, the vandal, had made his mischief with it. She dozed, and woke, and felt cramped, and almost did not hear the alien sound in the night.
There was a vertical crack at the doorway that suddenly widened, then narrowed again. Margaret heard the sound of breathing, shallow, shaking with fear. It was the girl. Margaret waited, compassionate and calm, listening to the whisper of hands searching wood surfaces. Her own hand ghosted out from the curtained closet and slipped the rubber wedge into place under the door. There was a fretful sniff of impatience, and the room glowed faintly. She could see the flashlight, the girl’s fingers covering its brightness, the reflection of it on the young face.
Margaret said, “You won’t find it.”
The girl gasped. The light swung wildly and went out, and there was a thudding, stumbling noise. The door stopped her; she wrestled with it, panting. Margaret got to her feet stiffly. “You can’t open it,” she said. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
“Get away from me!”
“I don’t intend to go near you.” Margaret’s hand found the floor lamp and turned it on. “I just want to have a look at you.” She had to blink in the brilliance. The girl cowered at the door, hiding her face. She was wearing dungaree shorts and a boy’s shirt. She was slim and long-haired and young — she couldn’t be more than 17 — and she was an animal in terror.
Margaret asked, “What’s your name?” She did not expect an answer. “You might as well tell me your name. I found your braces. I’m sure the police will be able to trace you through them.” She waited, patiently, because she was in full control.
“I didn’t do anything. I didn’t.”
“You broke into property that did not belong to you. You took part in an attack on me — ”
“ — that might have had serious consequences. I don’t know what you and that boy were doing in here before I came in, but I’m sure it would distress your parents.” She made her voice more gentle, “I have no desire to get even with you or to punish you. If I had, I’d have given your braces to the police when I found them.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I haven’t made up my mind.”
The girl was facing her now. She could be a pretty thing, with her tanned face and huge eyes; she’d be beautiful in a few years, but she was thin and graceless now, and terror had made her ugly. “Please don’t tell anyone.”
“At the moment I don’t see why I should. What is your name?”
“Promise me you won’t tell anyone.”
“Will you give me my braces back?”
“They’re of no use to me.”
The girl said, “I’m Mary Peterson.”
“Your name. Not someone else’s.” She waited.
The girl hesitated. “Warren.”
“What does Deedee stand for?”
“And the boy’s name?”
The girl was silent.
“The boy’s name, Deedee. He was the one who hit me.” The girl blinked, and an impulse to smile tugged at Margaret’s lips. “You don’t want to betray him.” The loyalties of the young. She herself would have died on a flaming cross before giving Tim away. “Suppose I were to tell you that you can’t have your braces back unless you give me his name?”
No answer, of course.
Margaret said, “Come with me.”
“Why? What are you going to do?”
“We’re going up to my cottage,” said Margaret. She went to the door and pushed the wedge away with her toe.
“Because that’s where I have your braces. I’m giving you back your braces, Deedee Warren.”
“Is that all?”
“For the moment. But tell your friend I want to have a talk with him.”
“I’m sorry he hurt you,” Deedee said belatedly.
“Thank you,” said Margaret.
She went out into the star-speckled night, and Deedee followed her.
Next day she was furious with her body; every cell in it ached, and a feverish lassitude held her prisoner. She was the more furious because now Emma would insist on staying with her. Yet when Emma did arrive, Margaret was grateful. Emma said something about garbage on the front walk, which Margaret couldn’t figure out, and a timeless interval after that the doctor was at her bedside, poking at her and telling her that she was lucky not to have pneumonia. Whatever it was that he gave her put her to sleep. When she awoke the aching was gone, but Emma was not.
Emma was not gone until four days later, and when she went there was garbage on the front walk again: orange rinds, coffee grounds, wilted lettuce, plate scrapings. Emma said, “I didn’t want to upset you, but it’s been happening every day. I think you ought to call the police.”
Instead of the police Margaret telephoned every Warren she could find listed in the local book. There wasn’t a Deedee or a Diane among them. Finally, she telephoned her dentist and, pledging him to secrecy, gave him as accurate a description of the girl as she could. He did not have such an orthodontia patient himself, he told her, but he would check his colleagues in the area. By that time an odd kind of memory was tugging at her. She sat and waited for it to show itself.
There had been a child in one of her nursery-school classes, a thin, solemn-eyed little girl of four. “Does not participate in group activities,” Margaret had written of her. When the others sang, she would sit alone, cuddling a rag doll; when the others played with clay, she would be at the piano, touching the notes almost soundlessly, singing to herself. Her mother had been a pretty, fussy woman, somewhat deaf, forever busy with her prettiness. Deedee Williams. Of course.
Her dentist called her back then, to report that a colleague had mentioned a Deedee Williams. She lived on The Hill, in one of the rambling, landscaped monstrosities the developer had christened “estatelets.”
Deedee’s mother said that Deedee was visiting a friend in Nantucket and would not be back until next week. Margaret said she would telephone again.
She could wait.
On some mornings it was beer cans; on others, nothing at all. Twice it was broken glass. Margaret swept it up patiently and put it in the garbage can, wondering at the kind of boy who could do this. A normal one would have been bored with it after a day or so and stopped. There was a sickness here, and knowing that the sickness touched the child Deedee upset her.
That next week she went shopping in Manhattan, and boarded her return train at four-thirty. In the last car, which was air-conditioned, she saw Deedee sitting alone in a double seat. It was as if their meeting had been planned.
Margaret lowered herself into the empty seat beside the girl. “Deedee Williams,” she said. “Williams, not Warren. You should have known I’d find out.”
Deedee stared at her, not speaking, and Margaret wondered that she had not remembered the girl instantly; that four-year-old who stood alone looked at her from this girl’s face, and she wanted to touch the soft cheek as she used to. Instead she asked, “Did you enjoy Nantucket?”
Deedee’s eyes flickered. “How did you know?”
“I’ve learned a great deal about you.”
“How doesn’t matter. You live on Larkspur Lane. Your father is an accountant and has an office in Manhattan on East 40th Street. Your mother’s a pretty woman, slightly deaf. You went to the Stony Hollow Nursery School when you were four years old, and one of your teachers was named Margaret Wister. Do you remember her?” She waited. “No, you don’t, do you? It’s the old who remember.”
“What do you want?”
“Don’t you know?” Silence. “He’s told you what he’s been doing, hasn’t he? He’s bragged to you about it. He’s been littering my front walk with garbage almost every day. Does he think he’s frightening me? Do you know?”
The girl seemed to shake her head; Margaret could not be sure.
“Well, what do you think of what he’s been doing?”
“Don’t you have an opinion? If you didn’t have an opinion before, do you have one now?” Margaret smiled faintly in the silence. “I don’t give up easily, Deedee. I have 68 years of patience.”
The train rolled and rumbled, the conductor came and punched their tickets, and they sat in the cold breath of the air conditioner. Margaret asked, “Do you have a crush on him?”
Deedee looked away, and Margaret felt a pang of sympathy. “I’m an intrusive old woman, I know. But you two intruded into my life first. We have shared pain and fear and anger, and one of us is going to hurt the other two very badly if this doesn’t stop. Do you know that?”
Silence. Margaret tried another tack. “What’s he like? He’s bright, isn’t he?”
“Yes.” It was a whisper.
“Older than you?”
“Attractive? Naturally. He seemed tall, though I really couldn’t take the time to measure him. Well built. Muscular.” She touched her jaw. “Does he go to college?”
“He quit last spring.”
“He said it bored him.”
“What’s he been doing since then? Has he a job?”
“I don’t see why you have to know all that.”
“All right. We won’t answer that one. You’re . . . 17, aren’t you? Seventeen and in love, and he’s . . . 20. He is, isn’t he?”
A nod answered her. “Deedee, don’t you have any opinion about the actions of a bright 20-year-old who day after day dumps garbage on an old woman’s front walk?”
The girl asked, “How do you know he’s the one?”
“You’ll admit I have reason to suspect.”
“You can’t prove it.”
“Don’t challenge me, Deedee; we should be honest with each other.”
“What do you want, anyway?” It was almost a cry.
“For one thing, I want him to stop.”
“What do you expect me to do about it?”
“Can’t you get him to stop?” There was no answer. The girl was retreating from her. Margaret tried to reach her, knowing all at once what was under her turmoil. “He won’t listen to you, is that it? And it hurts?” It was the wrong remark, the worst she could have made; they were as far apart as age and anguish could separate them.
Margaret said, “I wore braces on my teeth when I was your age. I know what it’s like. That’s a silly reason for not wanting to see you hurt, isn’t it?”
They were pulling into their station. People were standing in the aisle. Almost desperately Margaret said, “I’m 68 years old, Deedee. At my age one knows how little time is given us. We shouldn’t throw it away.” Deedee pushed past her, and Margaret let her.
“You don’t know what I mean, do you?” Margaret asked, but it was to herself, for Deedee was swallowed in the crowd. “Or care, either.”
There was nothing to sweep up the next day, or the day after that, or the week following. It gave Margaret a strange feeling, for she did not know whether she had won or lost. It was an anticlimax; there was nothing in her life but the absence of annoyance. Deedee became merely a silly teenager with a crush, and the boy was an offstage villain afraid to show his face, hardly worth a hiss. So she weeded her garden and had her daily swim, and the intruding presence remained at the edges of her property, not even growling at her any longer.
On a bright morning in August she opened her front door, picked up her bottle of milk, and saw the package on the step; a shoebox, inexpertly covered with imitation wood-grain paper. A prickling started in her shoulders. She put a hand out cautiously and lifted the cover. Inside, bedded in cotton, as if bedded in a coffin, lay a dead squirrel.
After a while she took it to her refuse can, feeling only a kind of distaste, but when she went into her bedroom to telephone Deedee, a dizziness took hold of her and spun her violently. Then her kettle, boiling away for coffee in the kitchen, began to whistle. She put the telephone down and started over to silence it.
How it happened, she did not know. Perhaps the leg of a chair tripped her. She found herself on the floor, sprawled like a great dummy, gasping for breath, with her left hand twisted beneath her. The kettle screamed at her, and she tried to push herself up, to free the hand, but pain raced up her arm, and she collapsed, for a moment thinking the kettle’s scream was hers.
She could see that her hand was broken. So she sat on the floor, trying to discipline her racing thoughts. The most upsetting was of Emma, back here again, carrying a tray of goodies to the sickbed. After a bit, Margaret got to her feet again, shut off the kettle, went back to the bedroom telephone, and dialed her doctor.
She had plenty of time to think during the rest of the day. In the late afternoon, with her hand like a plaster baby dangling in its sling, she made two calls: one to the woman who did her heavy cleaning, who assured Margaret that she would come over and take care of her; and the other to a woman at the real-estate office, who for some years had been after her to sell her property. The real-estate woman was there in 20 minutes, and 10 minutes after that a FOR SALE sign grew out of the front lawn like an invading weed.
At dusk Margaret settled at her kitchen table with pad and pencil, and started methodically listing every possession she had, from china, Mother’s Spode, to bed linen. After some items she wrote “Keep,” after others, “Sell,” or “Salvation Army,” or “Ask Emma.” It was astonishing how many things one old, unsentimental determinedly practical woman could accumulate, and how many memories they stirred.
At eight-thirty the doorbell sounded. For a moment she did not recognize the girl outside. “Deedee?” she asked, as if from another century.
“May I come in?” Deedee asked, and Margaret stepped back automatically.
The girl stared at her cast-encased arm, and Margaret said,” Don’t mind this. I did something foolish this morning.”
“I saw your sign,” Deedee said, standing there in the hall.
“Don’t tell me you want to buy it,” Margaret said.
“No.” Deedee hesitated, and then her words tumbled out. “You don’t have to, Mrs. Wister. He won’t do it anymore. Honestly he won’t. He won’t ever.” Her young face was splotched, and Margaret could see that she had been crying.
“The squirrel,” Margaret said after a while. “He told you about it.”
“So when you saw my sign you assumed I was selling because — “
“You don’t have to. He promised me he’d never do anything like that again. Never.”
It was hard for Margaret to gather her thoughts. She said, “Come inside,” and “Sit down,” and “Can I get you something?” The girl sat on the edge of a chair as if she might scoot off any minute. Margaret lowered herself to the sofa opposite, looking at the lovely, unhappy face, and a wave of emotion rose in her. She thought, Deedee did this for me, and, disciplining her voice to dryness, she said, “I appreciate this, Deedee.”
The girl shrugged.
“But I’m not selling because of what he’s done to me. I discovered this morning that I’m an old woman and shouldn’t live alone. Not in a house like this.” She added irrelevantly, “My sister wants me to live with her, but I’ll probably take an apartment in town.”
“Oh.” Deedee seemed at a loss, and moved as if to get up. “Well, I guess — ”
Margaret cut her short; she could not let the girl go, not yet. “I’m grateful to you anyway. It’ll be a while before I can move out, and I’d be just as pleased not to have more such gifts from him.” She hesitated, and added, “It must have been difficult for you.”
Again the shrug.
“Apparently both of us made painful discoveries this morning.”
“It’s hard, when liking doesn’t go along with loving.”
A flush had risen on Deedee’s face. “He isn’t . . .” she started to say, and repeated, “He isn’t . . .” and she could not say what he wasn’t.
“Bad? Wicked?” Margaret offered her. “I’m sure he isn’t totally. But you wouldn’t be here if you thought nothing was wrong with him. You don’t like what he’s done. You don’t like what it means. Do you?” She made her voice gentle. She wished she had the girl next to her, so her hand could comfort her.
Deedee sat, unable to answer.
“Has he ever told you why he did these things?”
“Deedee, has he? I must know.”
It was a mumble, and she had to strain to hear it. “He said, for laughs.”
“Oh, child . . .”
“He hasn’t hurt anyone. When he hit you, he didn’t mean it. It was an accident. It was — ”
“I was there.”
“He hasn’t done anything else. Honestly he hasn’t. And he promised he’d stop.”
“What makes you think he’ll keep this promise?”
“He will.” The girl moved as if to avoid the question, and stood up with awkward defiance. “I just came here to tell you you didn’t have to sell. I didn’t come for a lecture.”
“Deedee, I know I have no right to interfere
“Then don’t!” The girl headed for the door, and Margaret rose, helplessly, wanting to say “No,” and “I don’t want you to get hurt,” but the cry had gone unheard before, and it would now. So she said, almost in surrender, “I’m still grateful to you.”
The door resisted Deedee, then yielded, and she went out into the darkness. Margaret heard her gasp, and panic took hold of her. She almost tripped, hurrying to see. She knew it was the boy looming in the darkness out there. “You,” she said, and anger swept the panic off. “You!” Recklessly, she went out onto the porch. “Show your face. Come here where I can see you.”
“Okay,” he said, and came toward her, so tall and overpowering that she had to step back, in spite of herself, into the light and safety of the hall. He followed her in, with Deedee, looking frightened, behind him.
“Here I am,” he said, smiling. His face was beautiful, with features that belonged in marble. Bright eyes glinted through a heavy fringe of lashes, and a ruddy tan gave the semblance of health, as if there were no sickness there, ever. He was wearing a torn, dirty white shirt that gaped open over his chest, and torn, dirty shorts. His tanned legs were naked down to his sneakers, and those soiled things were his image rather than that beautiful face and that beautiful body.
Margaret found her voice again. “What were you doing out there?”
“Waiting for Deedee.”
“Nothing.” He smiled, enjoying something neither she nor Deedee could see.
“Deedee, would you mind looking?” When the girl had gone, she asked, “What’s your name?”
“Dwight Hunter. My friends call me Ricky.”
“Dwight Hunter.” She knew the name, one of the old families living on one of the last estates in the area. There had been something about the father — alcoholism, something. Deedee was back. “Is he telling the truth? Is he Dwight Hunter?”
The girl nodded. “There wasn’t anything out there.”
“Your father’s name was Dwight.” She remembered now: a suicide, and stories in the tabloids before. Everything has its roots somewhere, she thought. He smiled at her and said, “Yes, ma’am, he shot himself,” as if he had read the memory in her mind.
“I suppose you’re proud of what you’ve done.”
“Would you like me to apologize for it, ma’am?”
“Apologize?” Her voice was sharp; she felt goaded. “Do you think an apology can cover it?”
“What else would you like me to do?”
Everything was wrong. He smiled too much; he was too much the wholesome, charming boy deferring to her age and sex; he was playing the part and enjoying it because he controlled the situation. The smiles, the agreeable acceptance of anything she might say would go on and on, meaning nothing. In frustration she said, “Nothing. Just go. Go! And stay away from me.”
And stay away from Deedee, she wanted to say, and couldn’t. She glanced at the girl; Deedee was staring at him as if she could see nothing else.
“Okay.” He put a hand out, and Deedee took it. They went out together, leaving Margaret alone, weighed down by the cast on her arm, weighed down by her years, by defeat.
Outside, Deedee’s voice said, “Ricky, don’t,” and the boy laughed, and Deedee said, “don’t, don’t, please don’t!” Margaret wrenched open the door with her good hand. Something on the door swung loosely toward her. She saw the boy’s laughing face and Deedee frozen behind him, as she tried to reach whatever it was that hung on her door. It was black; it was loosely tied to the door knocker, and hung limp, somber, funereal. Crape. Funeral crape on her door.
The boy said, “I thought you might need it, grandma. Come on, Deedee.” He reached for Deedee’s hand, laughing, backing away. “I bet you’re going to make trouble for me now, aren’t you, grandma?” His hand tried to seize Deedee’s, but she had shrunk away from him. “Come on, Deedee.”
“Come on, I said. I’m not waiting.”
“Okay.” He turned without another glance at her, and went off, and after a moment his laugh floated back on the breeze.
They watched until nothing was left of him in the darkness. Then Margaret, one-handed and with gnarled fingers, tried to untie the crape. She felt Deedee beside her, and let her take it down.
“What’ll I do with it?” Deedee asked.
“I’ll put it in the garbage later,” Margaret said. “Do you have any idea where he got it?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
The girl’s eyes were huge, but she was not crying. What had happened was beyond crying over. Margaret put her good arm around the girl and guided her back into the living room. They sat on the sofa, and Deedee looked at Margaret and said, “I’m sorry.”
For once Margaret could not speak. She patted the girl’s shoulder, and smiled and nodded and kept her lips shut. She had won, she thought, without triumph, without joy; the boy had won her battle for her, throwing his own cause away, and he didn’t care. He didn’t care. It’s for the best, she thought, but she must never, never say that to Deedee. Deedee would realize it someday, and probably knew it now, without accepting it.
“I think we could both do with a cup of tea,” Margaret said, in as matter-of-fact a voice as she could. The matter of fact would heal Deedee’s wounds as it had always healed her own. Part from your love, sell your home, say goodbye to possessions dusty with memories, and the familiar routine of living will form scar tissue for you.
She picked her way carefully into the kitchen and took up the kettle, and as she filled it she remembered suddenly that only that morning it had screamed and screamed at her.