That year, Michael invited us inside their house for the first time. He wanted to show us a Ninja Turtle figurine he rescued from the road.
Our friendship with the boys was pre-ordained: Chris was my sister’s age and Michael was mine. We lived with my grandmother during the summertime and they were catty-corner to her house, next to the dirt path that went down to the water.
In the living room there was a special chair for the boy’s older sister that to held her head and body in place. She had Cystic Fibrosis, her body as small as her three-year-old brother Chris. I saw her going to the bus everyday, even during the summertime. It was the only time we saw her mother. When I looked at her chair in their living room it gave me a hot feeling in my chest.
Michael yelled from his room, “Wait till you see this, found it on the ground and everything.” Chris came running out of their room, “Yeah, wait until you see,” swinging his arms.
Michael continued describing where he found the figurine when a roar scattershot us still.
“Boys, what’s going on?,” said a skinny man who was now in the living room, a beer bottle lumbering in his hand. “Michael, Chris! No screaming in the house.”
During the summer, my family moved into the cottage next to my grandmother’s house in Hampton Bays. She lived 15 minutes away from our normal house in Southampton. The house was ranch-style, spread out over a corner lot, stacked one story with a damp basement and an attic that smelled like secrets. There was a small patch of roses that grew near the fence and my sister and I would try to sell them to the neighbors for 25 cents a stem. The mostly-retired neighbors and my grandmother did not appreciate the enterprise.
My grandmother’s favorite activities were bridge, golf and arranging flowers, as well as reading romance mystery novels, which, as she once told my older cousin, were “because she wasn’t getting it anywhere else,” since her husband, my grandfather, died 15 years before. He died suddenly, on the 15th hold of the Shinnecock Hills golf course. It wasn’t a heart attack, but I always forgot what happened because my dad never spoke about his father unless his sisters or mother were around.
Located between Tiana Bay and Smith’s Creek, the neighborhood was residential: we were given free-range, from Smith’s Creek to the Yield sign at the corner. We could walk across Hampton Harbor road and yell for the boys; they were always allowed to play.
“Oh, who is this then?,” continued man with long hair.
“Alexandra and Seton, the girls from across the street,” said Chris.
“Over which way, the big house? Kathryn, what’s her name? Talty?”
“Yes, it is my grandmother’s,” I said.
“Tell your dad we’ll mow the grass down to the bay this week. I don’t like the way they are cutting it. Hacking at those raspberry bushes.”
The air was heavy with the smell of antiseptic and air fresheners. There were catalogs and remotes and tiny figurines and broken pencils and T-shirts and pamphlets occupying all the surfaces.
“Ok,” I said. Seton looked up at me and I stared long enough to tell her to keep quiet.
He continued, telling us what traps were better for catching voles and why hand sprinkling was better. He was the manager of a landscaping crew, twice as big as my grandmother’s. He worked his way over to a mounted pine cabinet angled behind the television. Besides the wheelchair, it was the one part of the room with a clear pathway. He opened the cabinet and I pulled Seton behind me.
There was one house down at Smith’s Creek, a triangle shaped one that if you squinted, looked like a blue and red painted boat. A broken down dinghy tied to a rusty pipe marked the high tide mark, where the cattails and reeds met the water. Over time, the dingy broke down until there was only a wooden square left by the time I was 12.
When it was low tide we could wade the whole way out to our boat, my feet primed for the sharp pinch of a jagged mussel edge or blue claw crab. We collected baitfish to go fishing, the seine lined full with glinting silver.
Inside the cabinet there were six guns organized into rows, their dark bodies slung across metal spikes. Their father grabbed a long, skinny one by its neck, and offered the butt to Michael. They stood at the window together, the man’s hair swathed over Michael’s shoulder. He whispered into his son’s ear as Michael brought the gun up and fake shot at the squirrel sitting in the pine tree outside, making bla-bla-bla-bla staccato noises, like when the motor on our boat stammered.
Chris was offered a turn and although his arms could barely hold the rifle up, he took fake-aim at the pine tree’s trunk outside as their dad bent even lower to help him prop the gun up.
They offered me a turn and I said no for both of us, fixed on getting us back. I pulled Seton across the road, the asphalt leaving small indents on the bottom of our feet. I told Seton not to mention the gun: these were the years she listened to most everything I said. I told her we would have to hurry up when we got home; we had an appointment with our grandmother. We were meant to serve hors d’oeuvres at her cocktail hour with her neighbors, the Hanleys.
Ten minutes into serving a plate of cubed cheddar cheese sweating quietly on the plate, artichoke dip flecked green with spinach, Seton and I were on the floor, Shirley Temples in hand as we sat near the fireplace. My grandmother had a strong pour and always gave us a few extra cherries. We were practicing “being seen and not heard,” a quality that my grandmother said was important in all small children. I struggled with it.
The Hanleys were talking about the new librarian when Bammie started talking about hunting season and how she hoped that they gave out more tickets for the deer this year, they were absolutely decimating her tulips.
“They were out, right up against the cottage yesterday morning when I woke up,
said my grandmother. “They are worse than last year.”
“I’ve never seen them this bad,” offered Mrs. Hanley. Their grandkids lived in Arizona and every birthday, they gave us a set of small Russian dolls and a $5 bill.
“Does Peter hunt?,” asked Mr. Hanley.
“Not really,” she said. “Pete never took him out much.”
“Mr. DeCusio hunts,” said Seton. The room pivoted at the sound of her voice: I did most of the talking for both of us.
“What do you mean?,” said Bammie.
“Mr. Decusio hunts,” she said. “We saw his guns.”
“Where?,” said Bammie, directing the question at me. “Where did you see the gun?”
My lungs felt pressed, like I was tumbled by a big wave in the ocean and swallowed a gulp of salt water on my way up.
“Over there,” I said, pointing. Seton looked up at me and I gave her my best mean-eyed look. I had the floor.
“In their house.”
“Where in their house?,” said Bammie. “You’re not in trouble, just tell me.”
“In the living room. In a cabinet,” I said.
“He let the boys hold it,” said Seton.
“We didn’t want to,” I added.
Bammie was stationed in her armchair, hunched over her legs so that when I looked up all I could see were her breasts, pushed forward with a gold cross stuck between them. In the winter, we would visit Bammie for sleepovers once a month and she would make us baked beans and hotdogs with the skins peeled off. We watched “Murder She Wrote” while she painted our fingernails one of three magenta shades she owned.
I could see the swing outside blow slowly back and forth, rocking like a boat at anchor. We weren’t allowed to play on the swing alone; my grandmother had a family friend whose child accidently hung themselves on a swing.
“Alexandra, Seton. I am serious. You are not allowed to go to that house again.”
“But it’s Chris and Michael’s house.”
“I don’t allow it,” said Bammie. “Girls, I am serious.”
Although Bammie threatened to tell our parents, she never did, as long as we never went back. We hardly saw the boys after that. It was one of our secrets, like when Bammie would give us the small-boxed sugar cereals.
The crows bothered Bammie. I could hear her voice in the mornings, shouting at them to get off her lawn. She tried everything: scarecrows, sprinkler timings, even poison, despite the neighbor’s small dog. After she died, they stayed, tyrannizing large patches of grass and turning them into dust.