Selection from Peter S. Beagle's Summerlong
(first chapter — full novel in 2008 from Conlan Press)

text copyright © 2008 Avicenna Development Corporation

 

Chapter One

When he heard the airplane, he stopped working and went out to the woodpile, away from the trees. He waved both arms as the 767 crawled across the gray sky, beginning to circle for the descent into Sea-Tac. There was no way Joanna could have seen him ó sheíll be reminding all those Chicago businessmen in first-class to turn off their laptops and straighten their seatbacks ó but he knew she liked to think of him waving at just that moment. He went back inside and called her number, leaving a message for her to come home to.

"Del, hi, itís Abe. Listen, should I bring the sweater back tonight, the purple one, or maybe you should leave the thing here. Itís still cold as hell, and I thought you might need it. Give me a call. Love you, cookie."

Sitting at his worktable, once more trying to play "Midnight Hour Blues" on the harmonica, he could see the two great blue herons stalking the shallows, dividing the rocky shoreline between them in silent, professional cooperation. He leaned on his elbows, watching the birds, marveling as he always did at the perfect stillness that attended their daily hunting. He had seen them stand as long as half an hour, waiting for prey to forget they were there. Far beyond them, two sailboats were racing down the Sound, the one in the lead canted over so far that its bowsprit was nearly touching the water. I always think Iím going to like sailing, and I never do. What the hell am I doing living on an island?

On the ferry, he stayed below decks because of the wind. He drank a weak beer and read the paper without looking up, finishing as the first warning horn sounded. His car was parked on the left side of the boat, making it easier to turn onto First Avenue in the Friday rush-hour traffic. He got all the way to Denny without hitting a single red light, which was rare enough to be taken as a good omen. First to Denny, Denny to Aurora, get over and hang a fast right ó careful down the hill, watch out for the skateboarders. The elderly station wagon coasted smoothly into the one vacant space of the three allotted to visitors by the condominium Homeownersí Association.

Joanna was shooting hoops by herself: even before he saw her, he could hear the basketball pounding harder and harder against the backboard mounted above her garage door. When she came to meet him, he said, "Must have been a real stinker. Youíre going to knock that thing loose again."

"It snowed in Chicago, and there were seventeen planes ahead of us to get de-iced, and we had a reserve because Tamara was out with some kind of family crisis, and there were these huge college kids who wouldnít stay in their damn seats, and Iím so glad to see you." As soon as the door closed behind them, she hugged him so hard that her chin dug painfully into his collarbone. "God, I really donít know if I can hang on another three years ó Christ, practically four. Four more years of being a head waitress in a flying Burger King, training gravel-brained girls to tell the difference between tonic water and ginger ale. Smiling at people who know itís my fault that weíve been sitting on the runway for two hours. Iím never going to make it, Abe, I swear Iím not."

He loosened her grip slightly as he kissed her ear. "Yes, you are, Delvecchio. Youíre going to serve the full twenty-five year sentence, no time off, and then youíre going to start traveling every which where they fly, and for free. And that will make it a whole lot easier for a retired elderly gentleman, barely scuffling along on a professorís pitiful pension, to accompany you, which is good, because you always overpack." He kissed her more properly this time, easing her toward the coat closet. "But right now youíre being taken out to dinner at our Ethiopian place, because youíre starving. Your blood sugar drops, and you get all glumpy. I can always tell."

But she pulled away, shaking her head. "I donít want to go out. I donít want to go anywhere, ever, in my whole life. Iíll do spaghetti, you throw one of your salads together. Itís all in the fridge."

"I hate making salads," he grumbled.

She laughed for the first time. "I know. Thatís why theyíre so good. Thereís new dill coming up in the window box." She hesitated for a moment, and then added, "Make it a big one, with everything. Lily said she might be coming for dinner, if she gets off early at the station."

"She wonít show," he said. "Four to one." But he made the extra salad. Joanna reheated the spaghetti when it became obvious that her daughter was not going to join them. Over dinner she asked him about the book, and he shrugged. "I keep telling you, if thereís one thing the world is decidedly not holding its breath for, itís another learned treatise on John Ball and the Peasantsí Rebellion. I donít even know why Iím doing it, Iím just too bloody egotistical to quit. Pour me some more of that horrible plonk."

"Youíre doing it because John Ball matters to you," she said. "Donít you think Iíve sat through enough lectures in my living room to know? Heís really important to you, he excites you when you think about him, when you wake up in the morning. Beats hell out of waking up for Burger King."

He patted her arm. "When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I think is, I have to pee. The second thing I think about is you. I donít get around to John Ball until after Iíve had my English muffin. Sometimes not until after coffee."

Joannaís butterscotch-brown eyes, very slightly mismatched, turned up at the corners when she smiled. "For a retired elderly gentleman, youíve still got some moves on you. Practically worth breaking out the good wine."

They cleared the table, washed the dishes in companionable silence, and went to bed. In the night he woke to the bedside lamp and saw her standing naked at the full-length mirror. He said quietly, "Mirrors lie. This is a scientific fact."

"So is a double chin," she said. "So are stumpy Sicilian legs and spider veins. Not to mention a butt thatís practically got skid marks, itís dragging so low. God, my bodyís really gone south this last year ó I mean, look at me, Abe, really look." She turned to face him, spreading her arms wide. "The tits are still okay, just barely, but look at that belly, youíd think Iíd had a dozen babies instead of only one. I never used to look this bad."

"Come here, Del," he said; and, when she shook her head, "Right now. You want an old man to have a heart attack, you standing there like that? Come here, damn it."

She came back to bed then, feeling smaller than usual when she curled in his arms. He said, more harshly than he meant to, "You want to know what you look like, you ask me. Iím ten and a half years older than you, and I know Iím still hot stuff because you tell me so. Same thing, exactly."

"No, itís not," she mumbled into his chest. "Youíre so much better-looking than you were twenty years ago, with that cool white beard and everything, and Iíve turned into this walking mess. My crew, theyíre all little bunnyrabbits, all of them, the men too. I should have gone for international, day one, before Lily was born. Europeans donít care if you look like the Night of the Living Dead. And at least Iíd have seen Florence." But his hands were slipping down her back, pulling her close. She resisted at first, saying, "Ah, youíre crazy," and then, "Wait, wait, Iíll get the light."

"No way, lady," he said. "Us old guys need all the stimulation we can get."

 

They slept late, and wound up taking the noon ferry to Gardner Island, using both cars. On deck they watched for orcas, and Joanna talked about Lily. "Sheís got such lousy taste in women, thatís what gets me so pissed at her. I donít care that theyíre usually grocery clerks or construction workers ó hell, the lawyer was the worst of the lot ó but they treat her so badly, Abe. I know, I know, she practically asks for it, and itís her life, not my business. I know all that. It shouldnít break my stupid heart, but it does."

"I should talk to her," he said. "We used to have such long, serious talks when she was little. About death and sex and dinosaurs, and why some people can raise one eyebrow and some people canít. Itís been a while since we had one of those."

"She always liked you," Joanna said. "You never disappointed her. Unlike me."

"Come on, I never had a chance to disappoint her. Iíve been Uncle Abe almost all her life. Uncles get away with lots more than mothers. Uncles go home."

The ferry turned slowly into the wind, approaching the island. It was a curiously warm wind, surprising Abe with its unseasonal caress, but Joanna shivered and shoved her hands deep into her jacket pockets. "Lily was born disappointed in me. They put her into my arms, and we looked at each other, and I knew right then: Iím never going to please this one, not ever. Everything she does, every dumb choice she makes, itís all got to do with that very first disappointment. Does that sound absolutely weird?"

"No, just absolutely vain." He put his arms around her from behind, nuzzling into her hair. "Godís sake, give the kid some credit, let her be independently dumb. You canít be snatching all her idiocy for yourself, thatís just plain greedy. Think how dumb her father was, ditching you for a real-estate agent. Itís in the genes, cookie."

"Donít call me cookie," she said automatically, but she pressed herself back against him. She said, "I thought of a way we can prop up that saggy porch of yours. Iíll show you when we get there." The arrival horn sounded then, and they went below to their cars.

Following the tomato-red Jaguar ó her single luxury ó off the dock, pausing at the one traffic light of Marley, Gardner Islandís one real town, then turning up into the green-shrouded hills, he thought about Lily as a child playing contentedly with skeletal horses twisted out of pipe-cleaners. An undertow of memory caught him there, summoning the night drive sixteen years before, and the blood that had looked so black on Joannaís new skirt. Another girl, it would have been. Lily wanted a sister so much.

The Sound came into view at the top of the first ridge; then vanished again behind the shaggy hemlocks that had long ago replaced the logged-off pines and Douglas firs. Ahead of him, the red Jaguar handled the turns with autopilot ease, just as he did making the run from the ferry to Queen Anne Hill. He saw two deer browsing in someoneís tomato patch ó they never looked up as he passed ó and a family of raccoons prowling the roof of the elementary school.

On the last descent to the coast road, which always felt to him like tumbling straight into the gray sky and the gray water below, he could see her riding the brakes, as he was forever telling her not to do. He ordered himself not to say anything about it, though he knew he probably would. She turned left at his battered green mailbox, crept down the steep driveway ó paved once again last year, and already fracturing like arctic ice in the spring ó veered sharply right at the fork, and nosed the Jaguar into her favorite space under the burly wisteria vine. He parked by the woodpile, and they stood silently together, regarding his house.

"The porch isnít that saggy," he said. "We could go another year, easy, without messing with it."

"Whatís that thing on the roof?" She pointed to a peculiar bulge near the attic window, barely visible beneath a winterís humus of hemlock needles. He blinked, then shrugged. "What? Itís always been there, you just never noticed it before. Doesnít leak or anything."

Joanna was looking at the little one-car garage, down a slight slope to the left of the house. She said, "You know, a really good spring project would be to clean out that dump so itíd be fit for a self-respecting car to live in. It wouldnít take that long, two of us working."

"Del, thatís where I keep stuff, weíve been over that. Thatís my reference library." She laughed in his face, her warmly derisive, anciently bawdy Mediterranean laugh, and after a moment he joined her, as he never could resist doing. "Okay, itís my stuff library, but some of it comes in useful sometimes. I made that choice way back, keeping the car dry or my papers."

"Well, if you ever looked at those boxes, youíd see the mildew all over them, never mind how many old bedspreads you cover them with. Whatís wrong with moving them to the basement?"

He sighed. "Because thatís where Iíve got all my beer stuff ó my boiler and my carboy, all my bottles and yeast and malt and everything. Give it up, Del. I know youíre right, no question, Iíll deal with it. Summer, I promise, after we get back from the rain forest."

About to continue the argument, she caught herself and laughed again, but it was a different sort of laugh. "I didnít think I did that so much anymore, nagging you to change the way you live. After knowing you all these years. Iím sorry. You never do that to me."

"Ah, I do too," he said. "Getting on you about leaving lights on, not soaking sticky dishes, living on banana-pancake mix half the time. Making fun of the way you scour the whole bathroom whenever you shower ó"

"Just the bathtub, come on ó"

"Point is, we both do it. Thatís how you tell weíre practically a relationship." He put an arm around her shoulders. "Look, I tell you what. We go inside ó you unpack ó I salvage my leftover meatloaf for sandwiches ó we maybe take small nap afterwards ó we work on the porch, or the attic, or the garage, or nothing at all, whatever you like ó and tonight we go out to the Skyliner. All Sicilians love the Skyliner Diner."

"Deal," she said instantly. "But if I do want to make a start on the garage, thatís what we do. Fair enough?"

"Understood." But in fact they spent the afternoon peacefully accomplishing nothing of any importance. Joanna dozed, shot desultory baskets into the hoop she had nailed too high on a huge hemlock, and sang her entire Hank Williams repertoire in the bath, while Abe hosed raccoon droppings off the stairs that led down to his stony sliver of beach, and loudly searched his sagging bookshelves for a nineteenth-century monograph on fourteenth-century agriculture. ("It was here, itís always here, I never move it!") The meatloaf was still edible, the nap sociable; the attic, porch and garage left alone; and four hands of a card game called "Thatís All" ended in a mild dispute over exactly how many consecutive wins that made for Joanna. Later he washed clothes, while she became entangled in a long, repetitive telephone conversation with Lily that left her depressed, and angry with herself for being so. "Damn her, she pushes buttons I didnít even know I had ó every one, every time. And then she touches my heart, some way, and I say exactly the wrong thing, and I always wind up feeling like such a fool."

"Well, the buttons work," he said, himself knowing much better than to say it, and unable not to. "If they didnít work, sheíd quit manipulating you the way she does. Sheís been doing it to you since she was a child."

Joanna looked at him for a long time before she spoke again. Her voice was quiet and even, completely unlike her normal tone. "Thank you. I canít tell you how much I needed to hear that."

He spread his hands. "Come on, you want the truth or you want comfort? You know I always tell you the truth."

"Yes," she said. "Youíre the only man whoís ever told me all the truth, all the time. In my life. Youíre also the only man Iíve ever wished would lie to me, just now and then. Might show you actually care what I think of you."

The calm remark caught him amidships, blindside on, and he found himself gasping for words. "I do care, for shitís sake. Twenty-whatever years, of course I care what you think, you damn well know I care. I just hate to see the same thing happening to you with her, over and over, every time." He gripped her wrists, and while he could feel the resistance happening in her body, she did not pull away. He said, "Del, Iím a mean, cranky, solitary old Jew, and I know it, and I like it, and youíre the only person in the world whose opinion actually matters to me. The only one."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," she said; but she smiled then, and moved against him. In his arms she said, "But it doesnít matter all that much, does it, Aronson?"

"Enough," he said. "Enough, believe me."

It was raining in the evening ó a Gardner Island rain, soft as snow, seeming to blow from all directions, capable of turning to a razor-edged mist within hours ó but they drove down to the Skyliner anyway. The diner looked like an old streetcar, sidetracked onto a bare, windy bluff overlooking the Sound. There were no other buildings nearby, and the dark little parking lot was as rutted and potholed as the gravel driveway itself. Even so, the Skyliner was bursting and humming with light, like an acacia tree in spring. They heard music from within, and Abe growled, "Rats, theyíve got the flamenco guy back. I had my face fixed for the trio."

"Since when donít you like flamenco?" she asked. "First Iíve heard of it."

"Since it became music to eat arugula by, thatís when. California cuisine is corrupting everything light beer missed." They went in, greeted Corinne, the manager ó a dainty retired policewoman who had always wanted to run a restaurant ó and were seated in their usual booth, in back, by a window. The guitarist was flailing doggedly away at a soleares, candles were lit on all the tables, and both Abe and Joanna agreed that the paintings on the walls this month werenít nearly as horrendous as last monthís exhibit. Abe stole a glass of ice water from a vacant table and let it sit untasted, as he always did. He said, "You look nice."

"Thank you. Youíre cute too, except the beard needs trimming. I wish youíd lose that shirt."

"Last time, I promise. Howís the bald spot doing?" He bent his head forward for her to inspect.

"Youíd have to be looking." She ruffled his hair, then shook her own head in something more than mock-irritation. "Rats, I wish my hair would do that, turn all Spencer Tracy white like yours. Mineís just going this old-soap gray, just like my motherís. I think the coloringís making it worse."

He touched her hair gently. "Del, I keep telling you, just donít color it then. United doesnít care. Theyíre not allowed to care anymore."

"The bunnyrabbits care," she said grimly. "I know it shouldnít bother me, I know it makes me a bad person, but Iím not going to have them grinning at me, calling me Mom. Lily doesnít call me Mom, why the hell should they? Sheíll probably be calling me Mom too, by the time we get to the salad."

Abe looked up at the girl standing patiently by their table. "Would you really do that?"

"No," the girl said. "I would just call her maíam, and I would say, Iíll be your server tonight. May I tell you about our Special of the Day?"

She was tall, almost as tall as Abe, and slender, and her voice was low and clear, with the slight, warm hint of an accent. Thick and heavy and desert-colored, her hair caught the candlelight and gave it back with the added rawness of a living thing when she turned her head. But her tanned, slightly freckled face ó a trifle long by current standards, cheekbones more than a trifle heavy ó was thoughtful and merry at once, and her eyes were dark green as elm leaves, and shaped like them, tilting up slightly at the outer corners. She said, "The special is blackened snapper in a ginger-mango sauce, over a jasmine rice pilaf. I really recommend it."

"Primavera," Abe said softly. "Primavera, by God." She looked blankly back at him. Abe said, "Actually by Botticelli. Itís a Renaissance painting of a young girl who represents spring ó thatís primavera in Italian. You remind me of her."

The waitress did not smile, but a shadowy dimple appeared under one cheekbone. She said, "Perhaps she reminds you of me. I can also recommend the pan-seared scallops."

When she had gone to fetch their wine Abe said, "California. Santa Cruz, maybe San Diego. Theyíre all moving up here. Unbelievable."

"Sheís not from California," Joanna said. "You know sheís not from California."

"Greek, maybe. Balkan somewhere. The accent could be Greek."

Joanna patted his hand. "Listen to you. We used to have a captain who always came on the p.a. like that, talking in little tough grunts. Sweets, that child just knocked you on your ass, and youíre hoping I wonít notice. Forget it, she knocked me on my ass too. How old do you think she is?"

"Nineteen. Eleven. One hundred and twenty-six. I have no idea." He realized that his voice was shaking, no matter how level he tried to keep it. He said, "Del, I taught history until last spring. People really do look different in different times, thatís just something I know. You look at the paintings, the statues ó faces change, itís genetic and cultural and spiritual, all together. That look ó Del, that model got discontinued a very long time ago."

"Well," she said, and the light-brown eyes that he knew so completely widened in teasing affection. "Sometimes maybe one slips through."

The waitress brought their drinks, took their entrťe orders, and came back with those in smiling silence. Abe and Joanna ate and talked and laughed quietly, and never quite took their eyes from her. She returned once to ask them whether everything was all right; for the rest, she had two other tables to serve, and it was plain that the cook was tired and slow that evening. Once they heard him cursing her in the kitchen, and the guitarist stopped playing for a moment and half-rose from his stool. Joanna said, "Heís in love with her."

"How can you tell?" Merlot always made Abe benignly argumentative, dogmatically broadminded. "Just because he canít keep time for shit, thatís not necessarily love. Rhythmís a lot rarer than love."

"When she looks at him, he smiles. So sweetly, so hopefully, it could break your heart. Sometimes she smiles back, sometimes not. Abe, you canít miss it."

"I could miss it." Abe turned his head as the waitress came out of the kitchen with a tarry smudge of grease or oil on her forehead. The guitarist resumed his questionable bulerias as she passed, playing with renewed flair, but she never looked at him. Joanna said, "There."

"Doesnít break my heart. Just proves sheís got a half-decent ear. You want to split another bottle?"

Joanna gave him what he called her downtown-Palermo look. "So you can have that child bring it over here? Sure, why not? I just donít want you to think this is all going unobserved."

"I never do." He beckoned to the waitress, who was helping an elderly couple gather their leftovers and struggle into their heavy, damp coats. When she came to their table he ordered the second bottle of Merlot, but it was Joanna who asked, "When you have a little time, would you come and sit with us? Weíd really like that."

The waitress considered them gravely. "Because I look like a painting?" Her low voice was amused, but not mocking.

"No," Joanna said. "Just because we think youíd be nice to talk to, thatís all." She nudged Abe, who nodded and said, "Please."

The waitressís eyes were tired, but clear as a spring pond. She said finally, "I have one more table. When theyíre gone."

All but a few booths had emptied, and the guitarist had smiled one last wistful smile at her and slipped away into the rain, when at last she returned to sit down between them, folding her arms before her. She said, "My name is Lioness. Lioness Lazos. Who are you?"

They told her together, oddly hurriedly, for all the world like immigrants hoping to be allowed to remain on the Aegean island where she told them she had been born. Joanna asked, "Forgive me, but Lioness is a Greek name? One more thing I never knew."

The girl laughed very softly. "My mother wanted to spell it Lyonesse, but my father wouldnít let her. Thatís what she told me, anyway. I never knew him."

Abe never took his eyes from her face. He said, "That was an enchanted country, Lyonesse. Did you ever hear of it?"

The waitressís expression did not change, but she shook her head. Abe began to recite, his voice slightly rasping, and more than slightly Newark, but as plain and casual as though he were the one taking her order for the Special of the Day.

          When I set out for Lyonesse,
                    A hundred miles away,
                    The rime was on the spray,
          And starlight lit my lonesomeness
          When I set out for Lyonesse,
                    A hundred miles away

          What would bechance at Lyonesse
                    While I should sojourn there,
                    No prophet durst declare,
          Nor did the wisest wizard guess
          What would bechance at Lyonesse
                    While I should sojourn there.

A door slammed behind them: a weary busboy returning from heaving an eveningís trash into a dumpster. Lioness Lazos did not turn, but her face tightened with the effort of not turning, and Joanna saw this and knew that she had been seen in turn. Abe finished the old Thomas Hardy poem.

          When I came back from Lyonesse
                    With magic in my eyes,
                    All marked with mute surmise
          My radiance rare and fathomless
          When I came back from Lyonesse
                    With magic in my eyes.

The green eyes had a brown shadow to them in the candlelight. The waitress said, lightly and carefully, "Well, I havenít any magic, nor any secrets. I am just a lady lion, a long way from home."

Her father was a Greek businessman, she told them ó powerful, mysterious, even dangerous; her mother, a nurserywoman, had left him when Lioness was an infant. She had brought her daughter to America and raised her in a blurry succession of country towns and community colleges, from the last of which Lioness had dropped out to go skittering through an equally anonymous run of dead-end jobs, this being the latest. "Iíve only been working here a couple of weeks, less. I like it, people are nice, but the rain!"

Abe told her, "Lioness, thereís a saying that on Gardner people donít tan, they rust. Youíll get used to it."

The elm-green eyes changed then, becoming momentarily soft and unfocused, an old womanís eyes, not seeing either of them. Lioness said quietly, "I donít mind the rain. Itís the cold. I never could bear the cold."

Joanna asked, "Where are you living? Are you on the island?"

"Thereís a room, right in back." The girl pointed. "I can stay there as long as I need to ó Corinne likes having someone here at night. Itís not a bad room, really, and I borrowed a sleeping bag." Something came loose in her face; something held too closely slipped free. "But I have to find a warm place, soon. I cannot be cold again, not again."

Joanna touched Abeís wrist without looking at him. She said, "You know, thereís a little garage ó actually, itís not that little, and it stays pretty warm if you plug in a heater. And we never use it for anything."

She felt his arm tighten under her hand, braced herself for protest, and was genuinely startled to hear him grumble to Lioness, after a long moment, "You could come out tomorrow and take a look, see what you think. I guess I could move a couple of things."

Lioness regarded them both in silence, her out-of-time face utterly unreadable. She said finally, "I will come tomorrow afternoon, after we serve lunch. Thank you." She rose abruptly then and moved away, swiftly collecting glasses and dishes from other tables as if she were picking flowers. Abe and Joanna looked after her without speaking.

When they left the Skyliner, it was still raining lightly, but the air had turned curiously gentle, and the rain itself felt almost warm on Joannaís skin, which was unlikely for Gardner Island in July, let alone February. Driving home, Abe told her, "Itís your fault, I just want you to understand that. When she mugs me and takes off with all my priceless little treasures, then youíll be sorry."

"You donít have any priceless little treasures. Just your beer things and me. Anyway." She was fiddling with her safety belt and the window handle. "Anyway, I couldnít let her be cold. I couldnít, Abe. I donít know why."

"Coming from somebody who always steals all the blankets, every bloody night." The car skidded momentarily as the mud dragged at the tires, and he took his hand off hers to turn the wheel and keep them on the road. "Yeah," he said. "I donít know why either, but yeah, me too. And when you think about it..."

When he showed no signs of ever finishing the sentence, Joanna eventually asked, "When you think about it, what?"

"Isnít that odd?" Abe said softly. "Look, here we are, the two of us, people of a certain age and a certain...wariness, right? We donít pick up hitchhikers, we hang up on people who want to sell us stuff over the phone, and we never buy anything thatís advertised on TV. Aronson and Delvecchio, theyíve been around the block, right?"

"I bought a thing that makes grilled-cheese sandwiches. Years ago. I never told you."

"So here we are, and we meet this girl in the Skyliner, looking like she made it to Woodstock a day too late, and the next thing you know youíre offering her my garage ó rent-free, I have no doubt ó and Iím letting you do it. Just what the hell happened back there, Del?"

The Sound filled Joannaís window: black as onyx, but dancing with reflected light from the Seattle side. A ferry was heading out, itself bright as a birthday cake, and Joanna could see another sparkling off toward Vashon Island. She said, "I donít know."

illustration from Sandro Botticelli's "Primavera," 1482


Some Notes From Behind The Curtain [courtesy peterbeagle.com ]: