THE STORY OF DAVID
One afternoon, we’re eating tuna fish sandwiches on our beach towels when we hear a man shouting. “David!” he calls several times, his voice tinged with hysteria. Then the man is staggering down the beach, his palms beating at his temples. “David!” he roars. He looks like an actor in a Greek tragedy as he falls to his knees and pounds on the sand. Everyone at the beach is transfixed. Could this beautiful July day be the day this man loses his beloved son?
Summer! It’s not officially summer until we pack our tan Volare station wagon with Frisbees and beach chairs, playing cards and Scrabble, paddle ball set and my father’s homemade box kites, coolers, sleeping bags, suntan lotion (we wore only SPF 8 in those days), containers of homemade chocolate chip cookies, boogie boards, cameras, bathing suits and flip-flops. We’re traveling a mere eighty-five miles east, and just for a week, but as we pack we shout our yearly joke across the street to the neighbors who rent a house with us in Amagansett each year: “Traveling light?” Harry Garrison and my Dad call to each other.
We never travel light. Years later, I’ll come to suspect that we bring so much with us out east because we share a secret fantasy that we’ll never have to go home. Amagansett is our Shangri-La, our Garden of Eden, our Paradise Found, our Best-Place-on-Earth. Never mind that nine of us have to stuff ourselves into a weather-beaten cottage without a water view. For the next week, we’ll spend pretty much every waking minute on the beach.
All five of us children learned to swim early in life and are probably less afraid of the surf than we should be. My nickname is Porpoise, because I won’t come out of the water until my teeth are absolutely chattering, my fingers wrinkled like prunes, and my lips blue. There’s an outdoor shower, which means my sister and I won’t have to take baths for a whole week. We stand together in our bathing suits and sculpt our hair into dramatic shapes with sudsy shampoo.
My father takes a ritual group photo each summer. In truth, he’s a good technician but not a particularly intuitive photographer. He can manage the light settings and the focus just fine, but he has a habit of taking the photo from too far away. As we stand on the wooden stairs that lead up to the deck, my father backs up across the street. But even that’s too close. Soon he’s walking backward into the dunes, his Topsiders filling with sand. “Are you getting us all in the photo?” Harry calls to him. Once Labor Day rolls around, my father will get the photos back, eight tiny, sunburned figures crowded together on a staircase.
In the evenings, the grown-ups play “Pass the Trash” and drink wine while we eat cookies and watermelon. Bedtime is negotiable, and sometimes we wake in the middle of the night to the smells of popcorn or chocolate chip pancakes. If we get up the next morning before our parents do, we’re allowed to go put our feet in the water, though we’re not allowed to swim unless at least one adult is present.
“My son David; David is dead!” David’s father begins to weep. We all look toward the waves crashing against the shore and imagine a little boy’s body being tossed in the ocean’s depths. I can’t swallow the bite of sandwich in my mouth. I look over at my parents and they’re both still as statues, my mother with her hand clutching at her neck.
Then, over the crest of a dune comes walking a little boy with a plastic shovel in one hand and a blue pail in the other. He has not drowned after all; he was off looking for crabs. This must be David. The boy’s father staggers over and flings himself at the boy, who seems entirely unprepared for this emotional show of affection. “You must never do that! Never, never, never!” we hear him scold.
Each summer after that, we’ll tell the story of David. It’s the best kind of story because it has a tragic beginning and a happy ending. Oh, Amagansett. If only all of life’s stories could end this well.