Emperor of Ocean Park
Stephen L. Carter
Deux fous gagnent toujours, mais trois fous, non!
(Loosely: Two fools always win, but three fools, never!)
(Note: The chess piece Americans call the bishop, the French call le fou.)
When my father finally died, he left the Redskins tickets to my brother, the house on Shepard Street to my sister, and the house on the Vineyard to me. The football tickets, of course, were the most valuable item in the estate, but then Addison was always the biggest favorite and the biggest fan, the only one of the children who came close to sharing my father’s obsession, as well as the only one of us actually on speaking terms with my father the last time he drew his will. Addison is a gem, if you don’t mind the religious nonsense, but Mariah and I have not been close in the years since I joined the enemy, as she puts it, which is why my father bequeathed us houses four hundred miles apart. I was glad to have the Vineyard house, a tidy little Victorian on Ocean Park in the town of Oak Bluffs, with lots of frilly carpenter’s Gothic along the sagging porch and a lovely morning view of the white band shell set amidst a vast sea of smooth green grass and outlined against a vaster sea of bright blue water. My parents liked to tell how they bought the house for a song back in the sixties, when Martha’s Vineyard, and the black middle-class colony that summers there, were still smart and secret. Lately, in my father’s oft- repeated view, the Vineyard had tumbled downhill, for it was crowded and noisy and, besides, they let everyone in now, by which he meant black people less well off than we. There were too many new houses going up, he would moan, many of them despoiling the roads and woods near the best beaches. There were even condominiums, of all things, especially near Edgartown, which he could not understand, because the southern part of the Island is what he always called Kennedy country, the land where rich white vacationers and their bratty children congregate, and a part-angry, part-jealous article of my father’s faith held that white people allow the members of what he liked to call the darker nation to swarm and crowd while keeping the open spaces for themselves.
And yet, amidst all the clamor, the Vineyard house is a small marvel. I loved it as a child and love it more now. Every room, every dark wooden stair, every window whispers its secret share of memories. As a child, I broke an ankle and a wrist in a fall from the gabled roof outside the master bedroom; now, more than thirty years after, I no longer recall why I thought it would be fun to climb there. Two summers later, as I wandered the house in postmidnight darkness, searching for a drink of water, an odd mewling sound dropped me into a crouch on the landing, whence, a week or so shy of my tenth birthday, I peered through the balustrade and thus caught my first stimulating glimpse of the primal mystery of the adult world. I saw my brother, Addison, four years older than I, tussling with our cousin Sally, a dark beauty of fifteen, on the threadbare burgundy sofa opposite the television down in the shadowy nook of the stairwell, neither of them quite fully dressed, although I was somehow unable to figure out precisely what articles of clothing were missing. My instinct was to flee. Instead, seized by a weirdly thrilling lethargy, I watched them roll about, their arms and legs intertwined in seemingly random postures-making out, we called it in those simpler days, a phrase pregnant with purposeful ambiguity, perhaps as a protection against the burden of specificity.
My own teen years, like my adulthood dreary and overlong, brought no similar adventures, least of all on the Vineyard; the highlight, I suppose, came near the end of our last summer sojourn as a full family, when I was about thirteen, and Mariah, a rather pudgy fifteen and angry at me for some smart-mouthed crack about her weight, borrowed a box of kitchen matches, then stole a Topps Willie Mays baseball card that I treasured and climbed the dangerous pull-down ladder to the attic, eight rickety wooden slats, most of them loose. When I caught up with her, my sister burned the card before my eyes as I wept helplessly, falling to my knees in the wretched afternoon heat of the dusty, low-ceilinged loft-the two of us already set in our lifelong pattern of animosity. That same summer, my sister Abigail, in those days still known as the baby, even though just a bit more than a year younger than I, made the local paper, the Vineyard Gazette, when she won something like eight different prizes at the county fair on a muggy August night by throwing darts at balloons and baseballs at milk bottles, and so solidified her position as the family’s only potential athlete-none of the rest of us dared try, for our parents always preached brains over brawn.
Four Augusts later, Abby’s boyish laughter was no longer heard along Ocean Park, or anywhere else, her joy in life, and ours in her, having vanished in a confused instant of rain-slicked asphalt and an inexperienced teenager’s fruitless effort to evade an out-of-control sports car, something fancy, seen by several witnesses but never accurately described and therefore never found; for the driver who killed my baby sister a few blocks north of the Washington Cathedral in that first spring of Jimmy Carter’s presidency left the scene long before the police arrived. That Abby had only a learner’s permit, not a license, never became a matter of public knowledge; and the marijuana that was found in her borrowed car was never again mentioned, least of all by the police or even the press, because my father was who he was and had the connections that he did, and, besides, in those days it was not yet our national sport to ravage the reputations of the great. Abby was therefore able to die as innocently as we pretended that she had lived. Addison by that time was on the verge of finishing college and Mariah was about to begin her sophomore year, leaving me in the nervous role of what my mother kept calling her only child. And all that Oak Bluffs summer, as my father, tight-lipped, commuted to the federal courthouse in Washington and my mother shuffled aimlessly from one downstairs room to the next, I made it my task to hunt through the house for memories of Abby-at the bottom of a stack of books on the black metal cart underneath the television, her favorite game of Life; in the back of the glass-fronted cabinet over the sink, a white ceramic mug emblazoned with the legend BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL, purchased to annoy my father; and, hiding in a corner of the airless attic, a stuffed panda named George, after the martyred black militant George Jackson, won at the fair and now leaking from its joints some hideous pink substance-memories, I must confess in my perilous middle age, that have grown ever fainter with the passage of time.
Ah, the Vineyard house! Addison was married in it, twice, once more or less successfully, and I smashed the leaded glass in the double front door, also twice, once more or less intentionally. Every summer of my youth we went there to live, because that is what one does with a summer home. Every winter my father griped about the upkeep and threatened to sell it, because that is what one does when happiness is a questionable investment. And when the cancer that pursued her for six years finally won, my mother died in it, in the smallest bedroom, with the nicest view of Nantucket Sound, because that is what one does if one can choose one’s end.
My father died at his desk. And, at first, only my sister and a few stoned callers to late-night radio shows believed he had been murdered.