October 25, 2014
“Sink or swim,” my mother’s brother says as he drops me from the side of a boat in the Great South Bay. Bobbing up, head above water, I can see the shore, see where my father sits in a folding chair, Times spread across his lap, head tipped back, eyes closed. Water fills my nose and lungs, and I am scooped out by a strong-armed uncle. Funny, they said, it worked so well with all the other kids.
Every summer my mother’s family piles into this house bought by a grandfather, great uncles, and an aunt. My mother’s family: police detectives, payroll clerks, and Brooklyn Navy Yard workers. Irish. This is a place where men come to catch blues, weekend fishermen after a perfect run. Where women wash clothes in ice-cold water, then hang them on long lines cast toward the Bay. Line-dried clothes, stiff and hard, that stink of bay water and don’t bend easily against skin.
I am spending the weekend with my parents at this house, a four-room summer bungalow with an old outhouse and a hand-cranked pump in the kitchen with water so cold it makes my teeth ache. Nights when the weather turns cool the house is kept warm with a kerosene heater. The smell burns my nose and clings to my clothes.
My parents spend much of this visit away from the bungalow taking long car rides. They drive with the windows rolled down, me sitting between them in the front seat, my thighs sticking to the red vinyl cushion, my hands reaching out for the large silver radio knobs.
“Why did we come here?” My mother asks after my near-drowning. She flicks a cigarette ash out the window. She repeats the question, even though my father and I don’t answer.
We drive back roads that take us far from my mother’s family, far from the bottles of alcohol stored in tall fisherman boots by the back door and in the mop bucket under the bathroom sink. Far from the endless games of gin rummy where men sit on the open-air porch playing cards and making jokes about my father chasing ambulances and robbing cradles.
My mother likes to stop at roadside stands and small shacks with large red signs that read FRESH! Places where the strong smell of clams and mussels lingers in the air. Men in undershirts drag boxes of clams off the backs of trucks, shuck them roadside, and drop them in large kettles of boiling water.
My mother holds the clamshell to her mouth, scoops the fleshy part out with her teeth. “It’s best when you can still taste the sand,” she says. “When you can feel the grit against your teeth.”
My father doesn’t eat. Raised kosher, he has no taste for the hard-shelled fish that spends its life hiding away from harm.
fire island 1973
Past Patchogue, past my mother’s family that we do not visit, to catch the ferry. Fair Harbor. When the boat lands, luggage, food, and my brothers, two plump-legged babies, are loaded into sturdy red wagons and pulled over the wooden slat walkway to our house. There are no cars on the island. Here is a new sound for us, the loud sound of quiet not heard in the city.
My parents’ friends visit on weekends. They say marvelous or delightful when they see the house. But it’s when they step onto the deck that they point wildly at the ocean, ice clinking against the sides of their glasses, and always say the same thing: What a view!
Every evening the sunset is celebrated. An event. My father mixes drinks, pours them from a thick-lipped silver shaker, for the lined-up visitors. My mother doesn’t take ice. Why water down a good thing? she says. Nice and neat, just like you, he always says when he hands her a glass. These are the lines they know by heart.
My mother takes her nightly place on the deck, my small brothers resting against each hip, and leans on the rail for support. It is the first time each day that we turn our back to the ocean, face west and wait for dark.
“Our family is just drawn to the water,” my father says as the light fades. “It’s our legacy.”
coney island 1979
Shaina maideleh, my aunt calls me in front of her friends. Pretty girl. Marriageable girl. I am visiting my aunt’s cabana at Brighton Beach. It is past the season, and she is dressed warmly to sit outside and play mah-jongg. Her friends, women she has known for forty years, stop playing for a moment to look me up and down. Their thick-veined hands never far from the smooth tiles.
“Why do you want to go over there for?” My aunt argues with my father. “What’s to see?” She is trying to talk him out of a short trip to Coney Island before we return to the city.
“It’s not how you remember it,” she warns him. “Things are different now.”
But this is time for good-byes. My father is packing up his law practice, retiring, moving away from the city with us. He doesn’t want to hear what my aunt has to tell him, his mind on the Coney Island of memory: the original Nathan’s, the aquarium, the amusement park. Our subway ride is filled with stories that begin, “Did I ever tell you about the time…” The train leaves its subterranean tracks and heads above ground. We are elevated, getting closer to the water.
He wants to take me to where he grew up, where he spent hot afternoons walking the crowded beaches, escaping his strict orthodox home. Here’s where Saul used to live and the Greenfarbs, he’ll tell me, my head reeling with the stories of stickball players and egg creams. Instead we’re greeted by boarded-up storefronts, a beach community battening down the hatches before the storm. Graffiti and broken bottles overtake the landscape. It’s fall at the beach, after the season. Russian women in black push past us, darting into neighborhood stores with Cyrillic signs.
The dark comes early. My father and I catch the train home. He doesn’t speak on our ride back, no more stories, just the smell of salt water and the memory of the littered shoreline.
seaside heights 1983
New Jersey. Down the shore. Home to girls with the highest hair I have ever seen, moussed, sticking straight up from their foreheads. This is the boardwalk: bright lights, skee-ball, and the smell of fried fish. Friends and friends of friends piled into a car and crossing state lines looking for adventure. At night, sunburned skin stinging, I am alone on the beach with a boy. He kisses me, slips his hands under my shirt and tells me he loves me. My heart swells. Somewhere in the background a Bruce Springsteen song is playing.
At home bright lights of an ambulance carry my father away. The first of many heart attacks. I return to an empty house and a note written by my mother with directions to the hospital. I can picture her frantically searching for something to write with, saying, as she walks in circles, how can we live in a house without pens, how can we live like this? Her note is weighed down with a heavy crystal tumbler, her empty drink glass.
sag harbor 1986
As soon as the weather turns warm the tap water in my one-room apartment on West Fourth turns brown—water main breakage, the harbinger of a long New York City summer. I am offered a trade: my city apartment for a friend’s guest cottage on Long Island.
The island air is cooler. I sleep with the windows open on an old metal bed that pulls down from the wall—only the weight of my body pressed against the wall will keep the bed from becoming airborne, its legs threatening to rear up like a prop in an old vaudeville skit. I work waitress jobs and live a life with no phone. Letters begin to carry weight and I start to check my mailbox every day.
It is my mother’s brief notes, ones written on spiral notebook paper or on the back of my brother’s homework assignments, that teach me to read between the lines. I become an interpreter of all things implied, a proficient reader of omission and nuance. A letter saying my father is catching up on his reading really says my father is slowing down, tiring easily. A cheerful note, written in pen on real stationery, makes me panic. It can only mean I am expected to believe everything is fine.
The summer days are cold and gray in Northern California. I live in a fog-bound two-room house near the ocean, built into the bending arms of Route 1. Living on another coast, in a different time zone, and yet my body defies science, never adjusting to the time difference.Everything feels off balance on this side of the continent. I wake early and comb the beach at sunrise. I fall asleep quickly after dinner, sometimes waking to find myself sitting on the couch, as if I never expected sleep to come.
On the cliffs surrounding the house farmers grow broccoli and brussels sprouts the size of small children. The morning breeze feels damp and carries the smell of aging vegetation and the sea. I keep the windows closed.
I visit the small fishing town where Hitchcock filmed The Birds. Sightseeing makes me feel like a visitor, an observer. One night I dream of the Great South Bay and my first swimming lesson. I am in the boat, having tossed my father in the water. I lean over, dangerously far, but cannot reach him. I wake up knowing before the phone rings that it’s time to go home.
At the farthest reaches of Long Island, where the fingertip of land stretches east into the Atlantic, we gather. My brothers in ill-fitting suits, no longer boys, but not quite men, their big hands and bulky wrists peeking out of suit jackets, their feet splayed in shiny shoes that reek of last-minute purchase. Here my mother holds the small urn of ashes. No pine box. No formal service. My mother’s family does not attend. My father’s family does not attend. Just immediate family. And we are immediate, getting up in the middle of the night when we get the call, to board planes and rent cars.
We make the long drive to the island’s end together. The weather so cold that ice forms on the windshield as rain falls. Wiper fluid gone, my brother leans out the passenger-side window, reaching to clear the windshield with an old map. “This trip is going to kill us,” my mother warns.
We park at the cliffs. Cold wind whips our hair. I watch my mother search the horizon like a lost child, my brothers standing close on either side. “So this is how a love story ends?” she asks.
We hold hands as the ashes swirl around our feet and calves. I let go and begin to swim where no sea runs, in the strong current of family that always pulls me in toward shore.
Publisher’s note from Meghan McNamara at Stillhouse Press
I have to credit a large part of our early buzz for Helen on 86th Street and Other Stories to Wendi, because she really knew how to promote her work and get people excited about it. It’s nothing short of a miracle that we were able to take this collection on in late June and turn out a complete book in just two months. Sadly, although Wendi was able to see each of the elements individually, the first finished books arrived in our office on the morning that we learned Wendi had passed away. But as Scott Berg, our managing editor for Helen and member of Wendi’s Rotisserie Writers Group said, it’s like a kismet sort of reincarnation. We don’t have Wendi anymore, but her voice will live on through her stories and there’s something really special about that.
After Wendi died, we knew we needed to get her book out as quickly as we could. We had been running a pre-sale through our website, per Wendi’s suggestion, and the book was doing really well, so we moved up our publication date from Dec. 1 to Oct. 1 and it’s been pretty much go, go, go ever since. We’re really excited for people to read Wendi’s stories and see how well she marries life’s most trying moments with wry anecdote. With Wendi, there was never a topic too delicate to explore and that’s really what we want to share with readers.
WENDI KAUFMAN’s fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Fiction, and Other Voices, and her stories have been anthologized in Scribner’s Best of the Fiction Workshops, Elements of Literature, and Faultlines: Stories of Divorce. She received a literary fellowship from the Virginia Commission for the Arts, was the winner of a Mary Roberts Rhinehart award for short fiction, and a Breadloaf Scholar in Fiction. For several years Kaufman curated “The Happy Booker” blog and was a frequent contributor to The Washington Post and Washingtonian magazine.She graduated from George Mason University’s MFA program in Creative Writing. After a prolonged battle with cancer, Kaufman passed away in Aug. 2014. Helen on 86th Street and Other Stories (Oct. 2014) is her first full-length book.