Under the sienna brown umbrella, Kitty Wolfe read her magazine.
Even under the umbrella, she wore a large brown sun hat with a brim
as wide as her shoulders. Her strapless bathing suit was a matching
auburn with white polka dots the size of quarters. There had been a
time when she’d savored the scorch of the sun, spreading oil over
her thin body and baking in the heat like toast. That was when she
wore bikinis. Now, she could not so much as feel warmth on her
cheeks without recoiling in visions of wrinkles round her lips and
crow’s feet around her eyes. She wore large sunglasses that matched
her bathing suit and hat. She kept her toes tucked inside the shade
of the umbrella.
Beside her, in
an identical beach chair, Colin watched the waves lap at the shore.
He drank from a crystal glass that flickered in the sun like a
diamond ring. His drink was bourbon brown; he wore khakis and white
linen. He was at the beach for the weekend, Labor Day weekend, the
last weekend of summer. Every hour or so, he walked up to the house
to call the office and replenish his drink. Although he tried to
clear his thoughts of work, his mind always drifted back to stocks
and bonds. To him, the ebb and flow of the waves seemed only to
mimic the stock market which was ebbing this past week and had him
A few feet from
his toes, Madeleine played in the sand. She wore an orange,
one-piece bathing suit, the color of sherbet. Although Kitty bought
her a handful of bathing suits before they left the city for the
summer, this was the only one Madeleine wore. From the back, she
resembled her mother, spindly and narrow as a branch, the same
mahogany hair. Madeleine wore her hair short, ear-length; Kitty wore
hers long, past the shoulders, tucked in a ponytail under her brown
hat. Madeleine’s face was an exact replica of her father’s – grey
eyes, straight nose, gaunt cheekbones.
Madeleine packed sand around her legs. She was never the type to
build castles or dig holes, but always, always this – the desire to
envelop her body in sand. She liked to imagine the stretch of her
legs as the Sahara Desert, and that the wiggling of toes and the
lifting of knees caused earthquakes.
“Daddy, will you cover my top half now?” she asked for the second
time that morning.
a minute. I don’t want to get sand in my drink.”
come on, Colin. She already asked you once. Just bury the girl in
sand,” Kitty said.
“After my drink, I said.”
to bicker, but Madeleine was no longer listening. She missed her
nanny, Magda, who spent whole mornings with her, taking turns
covering their bodies with sand, shaping their legs into mermaid
fins. Magda didn’t even mind when sand got in her hair. It was her
day off, though, and she’d taken a bus back to the city to see her
The ice cubes in
Colin Wolfe’s crystal glass tinkled. “All right, Maddy. I’m
She lay back
into the beach, and folded her arms across her chest. He felt
awkward kneeling beside his eight-year-old daughter, scooping
handfuls of sand and sprinkling them over her stomach. He knew it
was ridiculous, but he was afraid to touch her.
“Do I look
dead?” Madeleine asked, opening her eyes.
“A little, but
your cheeks are too red for a dead person.”
She giggled, and
closed her eyes again. “You have to pack it harder, Daddy. Don’t
you know how to bury someone in sand?”
“No. I guess I
haven’t a clue,” he said.
harder – like a snowball.”
Colin could not
remember the last time he packed a snowball, but he tried to follow
her directions. He wanted to impress his daughter and say something
clever, but all he came up with was, “Have you had a good summer,
replied, because what else is there to say to questions like that
Kitty glanced up
from her magazine and said to no one in particular, “She probably
won’t remember a thing about this summer when she’s grown up.”
“Why do you say
that?” Colin asked.
true. I remember being sixteen like yesterday, but I don’t recall
anything about being eight.” Kitty shook a cigarette from her
half-empty pack, and turned her gaze, thoughtfully, to the waves.
being eight. I had the biggest crush on a girl named Stacy Temple.”
being four. I nearly drowned, and my father had to jump in the pool
with all his clothes on to save me. But, eight?” she said.
Colin packed the
sand down around Madeleine’s chest until it was smooth as an iced
cake. Madeleine tried to breath without moving because she knew
deep breaths would cause small cracks on the surface of her sand
body. Kitty returned to her essay on the state of affairs in
She read the
first paragraph three times before giving up. Kitty Wolfe was more
interested in reading about affairs than the states of them. Every
week, from their condo in the city, her husband brought The New
Yorker for Kitty to read. By the time she got the magazine, it
smelled like a bathroom. She tried to read it front-to-back because
she knew her husband enjoyed discussing it over cocktails, but some
of the articles were simply unbearable. They were just so wordy or
boring or something. She flipped through the watermarked pages,
pausing over a cartoon on page thirty-five, which showed a
decrepit old man lying in a psychiatrist’s chair. The caption read,
“I blame my mother.”
On the weekends,
Kitty read this insipid nonsense, but on weekdays, she read romance
novels. She liked the drama of paperback romance novels, the steamy
love-making between the man with chiseled pecks and the woman with
long hair. They all started with the same premise – a man and woman
who hated each other. Kitty hated her husband, but thought their
opportunity for romance had long since passed. Colin did not
approve of romance novels. Although he did not straight-out forbid
Kitty to read them, she took to hiding her novels a few years ago.
She offered them to Magda or threw them in the trash.
Madeleine nearly blew her cover. Kitty and her husband were
drinking gin martinis on the verandah when Madeleine came out in her
Tinkerbelle pajamas. “Mother, I found your novel under my bed,” she
said, holding Kitty’s copy of Love at the Lighthouse. Kitty
was almost finished (less than fifty pages left), so instead of
throwing it in the trash, she’d tossed the novel under Madeleine’s
bed to hide for the weekend.
silly. That must be Magda’s, and why are you awake? It’s way past
your bedtime.” Madeleine looked at her strangely, but didn’t say
anything. “I’ll go tuck you in. Colin, do you want another martini
while I’m inside?”
it made her mad. Kitty turned the page, and skimmed through Ian
Miller’s newest theatre review. A few years ago, Kitty met Ian
Miller at a cocktail party. He wore copper, wire-rimmed glasses and
a maroon turtleneck. She’d never heard of him before, and felt
embarrassed when he said he wrote for The New Yorker. He
leaned in too close to her face when he said this, but after meeting
him, Kitty began reading his reviews religiously. She thought of
him as a friend and liked to bring him up in conversation.
said now, “can we go to the theatre next weekend? The New Plays
Company is putting on Nobody Here but Me, and Ian Miller says
it’s the must-see of the season.”
“I thought you
wanted to go to the opera.”
Last week, Ian
Miller wrote about an avant-garde production of Madame Butterfly.
(Also, indisputably a MUST-see.) “The opera’s playing all season,
though, and this is the last weekend for Nobody Here but Me.
want, dear. I’m going up to the house to check in with the office.”
up after her father. “I’m going down the water.”
“Don’t go in too
deep,” her mother warned. “I’m too far away to save you if you
went down to the water with her, and for a moment, Madeleine missed
her again. Madeleine loved swimming out deep and letting the waves
crash her back to shore. Magda called it body surfing.
shoreline, Madeleine sat down and waited for the waves to wipe away
the sand like fingers. Finally, she grew impatient and helped it
along. She looked back to her mother, who disregarded her magazine
for another cigarette. She waved, but her mother did not wave
back. She was not watching Madeleine, but staring at a flock of
birds flying circles above the water.
the birds dive into the waves; she wondered if they were eating or
just diving; she wondered if her husband was really calling the
office. For as long as she could remember, she assumed he had
another woman – someone young, someone blonde, someone who shared
his bed Monday through Friday while she was at the beach with their
daughter. She thought the woman had a name like Tiffany. She
thought Colin gave her diamond necklaces on her birthday and
shopping money for their nights out. She tried to go through their
bank statements to see if Colin withdrew money for these purposes,
but she never understood numbers and couldn’t decipher which
expenses might be fake. She wondered if he didn’t want to see the
play because he’d seen it before, with her, the other woman.
They hadn’t made
love since the Fourth of July, and that turned into a fiasco. The
fireworks were long over, and they’d been the last to leave the
Bernstrom’s annual gala. He wore a navy sear-sucker suit; she wore
a gold sundress (red, white, and blue lingerie underneath). Both of
them were stumbling drunk; he could barely get it up. Perhaps,
they’d try again on Monday. She wondered if he had this problem
back from the beach and said in a whiny tone, “I’m hungry.”
“Magda made us
sandwiches. They’re in the picnic basket on the kitchen table. Go
tell your father to bring it down. Get me a gin martini, too, while
you’re up there.”
and headed up to the house. This past summer, Kitty taught her how
to make drinks. She could make martinis, gin and tonics, and Bloody
Marys. Whenever Kitty’s friends came over, she would ask Madeleine
to make their drinks. She thought it impressed them to have such a
mature, obedient daughter. Her friends applauded Madeleine’s
efforts, but secretly found the drinks too strong.
Madeleine hobbled back to the umbrella. Madeleine carried the
martini in her right hand and in her left, a thermos of lemonade
Magda put in the fridge. Colin carried his crystal glass and the
“Have you been
practicing your arithmetic?” he asked her (again, so
“Yes,” she said,
although he suspected it was a lie. Colin worried about his
daughter. She barely passed second grade because of her poor math
skills. She read at the level of a fourth grader, but could barely
add single-digit numbers. He should sit down with her this weekend,
maybe go over some subtraction.
At the house, he
called the office and talked to his secretary, Stephanie. He gave
her some instructions about the Rutledge account, and she told him
to enjoy his weekend. He would like to have an affair with
Stephanie. She was a curvy woman whose clothes were always a little
wrinkled, but she was so – nice. She always smiled and asked, “How
are you doing today, Mr. Wolfe?” He would like to have an affair
with her, but he had no idea how to go about it. Should he ask her
for a drink after work? Should he invite her into his office, pin
her against the door, kiss her pale orange lips? There was also the
question of their marriages, and what if she said no? Work would
become terribly awkward, and he would need to find a new secretary.
Stephanie was a good secretary and a good woman. Who was he
kidding? He’d never have an affair. Still, he thought of her puffy
lips, her constant smile.
In the picnic
basket, they found three sub sandwiches, apples, one giant bag of
potato chips, a jar of pickles, plastic plates, napkins, and a red
plaid picnic blanket folded and tied up in white string.
Madeleine’s sandwich was turkey, cheese, and mayonnaise. Her
parents’ sandwiches had tomato, lettuce, red onion, and mustard, in
addition to turkey and cheese.
Colin untied and
laid out the picnic blanket. Kitty fidgeted with the sienna
umbrella in an attempt to garner more shade. Madeleine opened the
potato chips and began shoving them in her mouth by the fistful.
Besides a piece of toast with strawberry jam in the morning, she’d
eaten nothing all day.
“How many times
do I have to tell Magda?” Kitty said. “No potato chips.”
fine,” Colin replied. “She’s a growing girl; she can eat what she
up from the potato chips to find her parents staring at her. She
felt like she’d been caught doing something wrong. She felt greedy,
and fat. Then, she remembered she was just as skinny as her mother,
and she took another fistful. The chips were organic, salt and
“She’s going to
get fat if she eats like that,” her mother said. “Besides, the
point is I told Magda not to buy them, and she got them, anyway.”
up, “Don’t be mad at Magda. I asked her to get them.” She held up
a six-inch sub wrapped in cellophane. “Want your sandwich?”
“Not now,” her
mother said, shaking another cigarette from her pack. She blocked
the wind with the rim of her hat and lit it on the third try. “Did
you call the office?”
“Yes, I needed
to give Stephanie some instructions on a new account.”
“I don’t know
why you keep her around. She always looks so unkempt.”
on to the sandwich and appeared to eat without breathing. Within
minutes, she finished her lunch and curled under her lime-green
towel, napping in the sun. Her cheeks were red from not wearing
sunscreen. She knew she would get burned, but liked the feeling of
the heat against her skin, against her bathing suit straps.
Kitty opened the
picnic basket and took out the jar of pickles. She began eating
them. Ever since she was a child, she’d loved pickles – not the
round ones on top of hamburgers, the long ones beside sandwiches.
She craved them as other women craved chocolate. She liked their
bitter crunch, their aftertaste. She ate five. She drank her
“I need another
drink,” Colin said.
“You just got
one,” Kitty said back.
“Well, I need
another. Just because you don’t drink until lunch doesn’t mean you
can criticize my drinking habits. What are you, counting?”
Colin stood up, and Kitty didn’t reply. Although she
was – counting, that is. Four. This would be his fourth drink of
the day. It made her feel embarrassed, as if her husband needed to
get drunk in order to survive a day at the beach with her. Although
she knew he drank on weekdays too, even when she wasn’t home. She
could tell when they talked on the phone. That made her feel
“Get me another
martini, too. While you’re up,” she said.
A handful of
seagulls surrounded the picnic basket, pecking at the potato chips
Madeleine left in her wake. Kitty lit a cigarette off the end of
the one she almost finished. She buried the stub in the sand. The
seagulls were ravenous, and she thought about feeding them her
sandwich. She took a potato chip from the bag, and one swooped down
and grabbed it. Her hand instinctively jumped back to her side.
She thought about feeding them her cigarette butt. She finished her
The wind blew
cold from the sea, and Kitty shivered under her sienna umbrella.
She reached for her shawl, tawny brown, and put it around her
shoulders. Madeleine woke from the cold. She felt like she’d slept
for hours, although it had been only a few minutes. She shuddered
under her towel and dug her feet under the sand. A cloud blocked
the path of the sun, and she admired its turtle-shape. When it
passed, Madeleine’s eyes were momentarily blinded.
mother said like a question, “Maddy, I have an idea. Come here.”
Madeleine wrapped her towel around her shoulders and went over to
her mother. Her mother held the string from the picnic blanket in
her right hand. “What is it?” she asked.
my sandwich for me,” her mother said.
Madeleine retrieved the sub, still cool from the shade of the picnic
basket. She handed it to her mother, who unwrapped the cellophane.
Very carefully, her mother tied the string around the sandwich and
gestured to Madeleine. “Come, sit beside me,” she said. “Give me
your ankle.” Madeleine put her leg in her mother’s lap. Kitty tied
the end of the string around her ankle.
she said, “Now, what I want you to do is run down the beach.”
“Why? What’s going to happen?” Madeleine asked.
“Don’t ask questions. Just do it. Trust me, you’re going to love
I have to?”
Kitty grabbed her daughter by the arm. “Yes. Now listen to me:
You’re going to remember this day for the rest of your life. This
is it. This will be the only thing you remember about this entire
summer. So don’t be mad,” she said.
with her martini glass towards the beach. “Now, go!”
Colin walked out
of the house and watched a flock of seagulls descend upon his
daughter’s ankles. Madeleine gaped back at the birds and ran like
hell. Kitty stood up beside the sienna umbrella – brown hat
discarded, brown sunglasses discarded, hands at her waist, laughing
like a banshee. The seagulls thought only of eating and focused
their beady eyes upon the sandwich.
enveloped her like a grey cloud of noise. Madeleine thought they’d
pick her up by the hair and swallow her whole. She tripped in the
sand. Bent down. Untied the string, and ran to the water.
devoured the sandwich behind her. From the back, Colin could see
her hands on her knees, the shape of her panting frame. He moved
forward, and his hand wavered. The crystal glass shattered like
diamonds beside his bare feet.