It was an antique brass telescope. Nicholas extended it, put it to his eye, and looked east to the open sea. He saw whitecaps, parading clouds, and the horizon line, where one limitless blue met the other.
He scanned westward, toward Ipswich Bay, and saw two fishing boats returning to the salt river. In an hour they would pass through the canal and reach harbor. Seagulls dove for scraps on the decks and in the wakes. They fretted on the cabin roofs and on the net booms. There was a flapping of wings and flying up and coming down again to the fracas.
He scanned further west and saw the sun and had to turn away from the light. It hadn’t yet met the treetops, but soon it would, and the captains were timing their return so they would tie up as evening came and unload beneath the lights on the docks. And some of the crew would walk to the tavern and drink and others would go home to shower and eat with their families, and the captains would write in the logs. Then it would be night and the harbor quiet except for the lapping of water and the creaking of floats.
“It’s not yours.”
Nicholas lowered the telescope and turned to his left. He recognized the girl but couldn’t identify her. Nicholas was old enough to be old. The girl was young, with nothing womanly about her yet. She squinted and pursed her small mouth. He didn’t like her.
“How would you know that?” he said.
“It’s from the display at the village hall.”
“That doesn’t mean it’s not mine, does it?”
She hesitated at his logic trick, although she knew she was right.
“I saw you take it on Saturday.”
“That still doesn’t mean it’s not mine.”
“You hid it under your coat. If it was yours you wouldn’t hide it.”
She hated the way he sat on the rock, one knee up and the other leg flat, a forearm on the upright knee, a condescending expression on his face, as if he thought he owned the rock, too. When he spoke a gold tooth showed on the left side of his mouth, and because of this she didn’t trust him.
“I’m telling.” She turned and pushed through the field scrub, then strode up the sand path, her hands in fists. She turned at the bottom of the lawn of a shingled house with a long view. It was the summer house of a large family that had come for generations. Nicholas knew some of them, but most not well. Most were younger now.
He stood and looked east again. He collapsed the telescope and walked to the house. He started toward the back door, set in the porch that ran the back length of the house, then turned and walked to the front. After he knocked he straightened his jacket and brushed twigs from his pants. A small insect had discovered the back of his neck. He put a hand back to brush it away, but it had gone beneath his collar.
A woman of about 40 opened the door. She appraised him. She smiled slightly and removed a pair of work gloves.
“I’m . . .”
“Mr. Drury. I know. We’ve met. I’m Alexandra.”
“I believe your daughter . . .”
“. . . may have just delivered some exciting news.”
Alexandra smiled and cocked her head, so that Nicholas knew the news had been delivered. He lifted a hand and gestured with the telescope. He didn’t know what to say. She waited. The weather was unhurried. There was the sound of a car passing, hidden by the trees behind Nicholas, and the sound of something being pulled across a floor behind Alexandra.
“Did you know her?” he asked.
She raised her brow. Then she leaned against the open door frame.
She looked down at the gloves and shifted them from one hand to the other. “I met her once or twice years ago, but in passing. Heard all about her, of course.”
Nicholas nodded. He wanted to say, “The Hell with it,” and wander away. She would lean against the door frame and watch. He would wander down the drive and wave the telescope behind him. He could feel the bug just inside his collar. He didn’t want to reach back for it while he talked to her.
“Who’s that?” called a voice from inside.
“Mr. Drury,” Alexandra called back.
“Yes. Come say hello.”
In a moment an older woman came to the door. Nicholas recognized her. He nodded. “Elizabeth.”
She looked at him for a moment. Then she turned to the younger woman and said, “For God’s sake what are we doing standing here?” She turned back to Nicholas and said “Come in, come in.”
Alexandra held the door aside so he could pass her. She still wore the slight smile, now somewhat Giaconda, knowing something was afoot.
“We’re just packing up,” Elizabeth said. “Excuse the mess.”
Packing boxes, old sheets with which to cover furniture, bags of objects to be discarded, and other flotsam and jetsam lay about. “Let’s go to the porch,” she said.
She opened the screen door and held it for him. “Coffee?” She turned and looked toward Alexandra, who stood among the work in progress. “Is there any left?”
Alexandra had put her gloves on. Now she began to take them off again.
“No no. Sorry. I’ll make some. You keep working.” She turned to Nicholas and gestured to the Adirondack chairs still on the porch, facing the sea. “Make yourself at home. Sorry to abandon you. It’s packing day, and I need another cup.”
He nodded and said, “Don’t go to any trouble on my account.”
He had been there sporadically over the decades, with friends on endless summer evenings when he was a boy, with Ingrid for the annual parties as a man. He sat in the deep chair and stretched an arm behind him to find the bug, but it had stopped moving and he didn’t locate it. He lay the telescope beside him on the wooden floor. He watched the distant water move and the distant sky fade until they were almost the same color. By the tone of the distant voices inside he knew Alexandra and perhaps the girl were telling Elizabeth about the telescope. No matter.
Elizabeth came to the porch and set a plate of butter cookies and paper napkins on a low table. “All we’ve got, I’m afraid.” She sat in the chair beside him.
“Much appreciated,” he said.
She tilted her head so that she appeared to be looking up at him conspiratorially and murmured low, “Alexandra insists on grinding the beans to make fresh coffee.” She raised her head then and asked, “John and Sarah?”
His children. “Well beyond expectations. I am lucky and grateful. Truly.”
“And the grandchildren?”
“The same. Don’t start me. I don’t bring them up unless asked, don’t want to be a bore, but once you push that button it’s hard to stop me.”
“I never carry any with me. For the same reason.”
She reached for a cookie and ate it. She then listed her children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews and provided a digest of events and milestones.
Alexandra came through the doorway with a tray holding all the equipment for coffee. She had boiled water in the electric kettle and put the coffee in French presses. It needed to steep. She set the tray on a low table and lingered for a moment. Nicholas said, “Stay. I may as well entertain you both.”
She pulled up a chair. They busied themselves with looking at the sea and eating the butter cookies, then with pressing and preparing their coffee, and then they settled. Nicholas reached down and picked up the telescope, looked at it, then looked at them.
“I gave it to her,” he said. “We were in college.”
He set it in his lap. “A few years ago she wrote, out of the blue, to say she wanted me to have it. She was, I gathered, moving from one place to another and, I think, knew that her illness was serious. She thought she was putting things in order.” He stopped, looked away, and pondered the idea.
Elizabeth finished his thought. “And then it turns up in a display in the village hall. The artifacts of the astounding Lydia Johansson, at least those not under lock and key in the collection of one museum or another. And for us, local girl made good.”
Nicholas nodded and looked away. Yes, he thought, that about sums it up.
“She really broke your heart, didn’t she?” A light smile ran across Elizabeth’s lips. This family was good with their light, knowing smiles.
“She did that,” he said.
“Well, she left a lot of damage in her wake,” Elizabeth went on, in her knowing way. “What was it, four husbands?”
“Three. One she married twice.”
“And a couple of estranged children. It was a wonder she had time to write grants and conduct research and win awards and write books and circle the earth and paddle up the Amazon and sled across Antarctica and so forth.”
Nicholas spread his hands. Yes, it was a wonder.
“Sorry,” said Elizabeth. Then, “No, not sorry. At this age we can say what we want.” She looked to Alexandra for confirmation, then turned to Nicholas and whispered, “You may gather I didn’t like her.”
Alexandra said to Nicholas, “I still miss Ingrid.”
“Ah,” he managed. Ingrid. Yes, she was a wonder. He wondered what she’d ever seen in him. He owed her a good life. And here he was with Lydia’s telescope.
“So,” he said, “What now?” to the others only inasmuch as they were part of the land- and seascape before him.
They sat quietly for a moment. Then he felt a touch on the back of the neck. He turned abruptly. The sour-faced girl had come in quietly and stood behind him, and she was holding a hand up, rubbing the fingertips together. “A bug,” she said.
A single bark of a laugh burst from him, startling both the women and himself.
“Well,” he said when he’d recovered. “What now?”
It was decided that they would walk to the village hall and return the telescope. As evening had arrived, they wouldn’t be doing it in bright daylight. It would be closed now. Alexandra had a key, because she was in charge of the props and paraphernalia for the upstairs amateur summer theater. The weather was balanced between September’s daylight warmth and the cool of night. It was a good time for a walk. Walking was a traditional evening ritual here, but the season had ended. Few other people would be out.
“Let me get a jacket,” Elizabeth said. And when she had her jacket the four of them set forth.
It was dark beneath the village trees but still gray in the sky. The only people they encountered were a group of boys with a football. The field beside the lighthouse was a good place for games, and boys always took pleasure in playing until they couldn’t see.
Alexandra led the way to the side entrance of the clapboard village hall and unlocked the door. Inside, they turned right and entered the display room, which generally displayed the same village artifacts year after year but occasionally gave way to special exhibits, sometimes accompanied by talks or films in the auditorium.
“I’m going to duck upstairs,” said Alexandra. She turned, and Nicholas heard her tread on the oak steps.
The girl—Nicholas had now silently nicknamed her the Bug—wandered among the display cases, no doubt looking for other missing objects and wrongs to right, Nicholas thought.
Elizabeth meandered, enjoying the not-quite-illicit visit to the room. She said, “I hope nobody sees the lights and calls the police.”
“A thief wouldn’t turn on the lights,” countered the Bug from across the room.
Elizabeth nodded her head from one side to the other to acknowledge the truth.
Nicholas walked to the far corner, where a table displayed old navigation tools. Lydia had once famously crossed the North Atlantic using only a sextant to guide her. There was a long bare space for the telescope. The absence looked obvious if you knew it was gone but otherwise unnoticeable. Nicholas set the telescope in its place. He was glad to be rid of it.
Then came a loud outcry from upstairs and a sound as if something had fallen and then more than one voice.
The three of them hurried to the stairs, Nicholas and Elizabeth not as quickly as the girl, and then up the stairs and into the auditorium and in the dim houselights saw Alexandra and a man facing each other below the stage. The man turned and looked at them, but Alexandra did not turn away. Then all five of them stood still and waited, and after a period of stillness Alexandra said over her shoulder to the others, “Lucien.”
Lydia had given both her children exotic names, at least exotic to the ears of those who lived on the cape.
Then Alexandra made introductions: “My aunt Elizabeth, my niece Eliza, and our neighbor Mr. Drury.”
Lucien, about the same age at Alexandra, nodded. Then they waited again. Finally, Elizabeth said, “I’m sure there’s a good story here.”
Relieved that she had not said she was about to call the police, Lucien nodded again. He stepped backward to the edge of the stage and leaned against it. The three at the doorway moved forward so that they formed a group with Alexandra, who remained where she was. It was clear she knew him and thought of him as an oddity. Nicholas saw this in her cocked head and slight smile. Nicholas had never met Lucien; he must have accompanied his mother on one or more of her rare returns to the cape, the summer or two when Nicholas and Ingrid decided not to attend the annual party at the large, shingled house where he’d been a half hour ago.
Alexandra raised a brow.
Lucien said, “I came for this.” He walked to one end of the stage, reached across the elevated floor, and lifted a book, large enough that one would assume it was filled with art photographs. “It’s mine.”
Nicholas thought it would now be fair if the women asked themselves, “What is it men want?”
Lucien brought the book to them and opened it to the title page, and there was an inscription “To Lucien” from the author, his father.
“You stole it from the lectern in the display,” accused the Bug suddenly.
“It’s mine. Look.” He pushed the open book toward her face.
“Were you going to hide here all night?” the girl accused.
“Yeah, well, I came up here to read it—my book—and got locked in. OK?”
“Enough,” said Elizabeth. “It’s time to go.”
“I’m taking it with me,” Lucien said.
“We’re not going to tackle you,” she replied.
“What are you going to do?”
“When the exhibit closes and the owners reclaim the materials we’ll tell them you have the book. You can duke it out with them.”
Lucien sucked on his upper lip, then nodded.
“Well then, go ahead,” Elizabeth said, and Lucien looked at them, tucked the book under his arm, and left the room. They heard his tread on the stairs and then the door open and close. The four of them looked at each other.
“Quite an exciting late afternoon,” Nicholas offered.
“We’ll be telling this one for years,” Elizabeth said. Then she patted his arm, “Don’t worry, we’ll leave you out of it.”
“I think I’d rather be remembered. Maybe you could have me tackle him.”
She let a clap of laughter burst. The girl, he knew without looking, shook her head at him.
“Time to close up,” said Alexandra.
They turned out the houselights, descended the stairs, and looked a final time at the telescope in its place across the room. Then they locked the door behind them.
They parted at a turn in the road. The three women turned up the hill toward the house. He asked if they would like him to see them to it, and Elizabeth said, “Such a gentleman,” but they assured him that they were capable of returning to their home, which they would close for the season the next day. If he accompanied them, he would face a longer walk home alone.
After they had gone he felt the lack of company as a kind of nostalgia, in which he indulged as he walked alone. When he came to his lane he walked past his house and came to the dark sea at the end. There was no beach here, and the water came against the rocks. He stood for a while before turning back.
In his house he made a cup of herbal tea but drank only half of it. He turned on music then turned it off. He walked among the rooms and looked at the things that remained. Then he went to bed with a book, but he awoke in two hours with the light on and the book open on his chest. For a moment he couldn’t remember having undressed and gone to bed.
He picked up the phone from the night table. Elizabeth’s number was in it with the thousand other numbers that lived there. Probably he had called it no more than five times over many years, and usually at Ingrid’s request to inquire if they should bring a dish to a party, to which the answer was invariably no, bring only yourselves.
She answered at the first ring, meaning that she too was awake.
He wasn’t sure what came next. Finally he said, “It’s late.”
She said, “I know, I know.”