By Neil Mathison
Ginny’s sister, Janet, took the photo, after the first pitcher of martinis, a black and white still in its Kodak envelope that I unearthed yesterday in my old Navy sea chest. In the photo Ginny sits in an Adirondack chair, the chair with the missing slat in the back. We’re in Annapolis, the backyard of Ginny’s parent’s house. You can’t tell the chair’s color or the house’s color but I remember the chair was green and the house, once a vacation home, was a faded brown. The house sprawled along the bank of the Severn. Water moccasins inhabited the riverbank – their presence never seemed to bother anyone except me.
The year is 1969. In the photo, I reach toward a volleyball ball that Sally’s boys – Sally is Ginny’s oldest sister and her boys are nine and ten– have served over the net. The camera freezes the ball just beyond my reach. Ginny watches us, her legs crossed. She raises a martini glass, as if toasting us, and she is wearing my favorite dress – a blue print dress with no sleeves, dotted with white fleur-de-lis, although you can’t see the blue either. But even in black and white, you can see how Ginny’s arms are tanned. How she has pinned her hair back – it’s auburn colored even if you can’t tell its color in the photo – but you can see how the sunlight dances in it.
You can’t see Sally’s boys, or anyone else in the family, although the family is almost all there: Janet; Sally; Ted who’s Sally’s husband; Ginny’s mom and dad, Professor and Camellia Reisen; Ginny’s Aunt Lois; Janet’s two kids. Janet’s husband is the one you can’t see. Jim’s in the hills west of Danang, in Vietnam, a Marine Corps Captain. Nor can you hear the clamor of the cicadas from the oak trees, nor feel the weight of July Maryland heat, nor smell the chicken the Reisen’s maid, Ellie, is frying in the kitchen, nor see the charcoal smoke rising from the grill where Professor Reisen barbecues soft-shell crabs. Soon Camellia Reisen will summon us to dinner. Later Neil Armstrong will step on the moon. In the photo, Ginny and I look young.
Camellia Reisen, Ginny’s mother, has planned a buffet-style dinner. With martinis. Frosted pitchers stand on the coffee table inside the screened porch, on the redwood bench in the back yard next to the volleyball net, and on the cadenza in the dining room below the painting of Charles Carroll who is Ginny’s ancestor and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Around each pitcher green olives and silver cocktail onions and yellow lemon twists and red toothpicks, each in its own cut-glass bowl, have been arranged in the points of a star. Ginny’s mother sits on the wicker couch, the one with the pink-azalea slipcover. She wears a yellow cotton dress, at least ten years old, from Lord and Taylor’s. Her features are as fine as a Meissen-China doll, her skin tight and smooth and porcelain-white across her forehead. She has done her hair for the first time since she came back from what she refers to as “that PLACE,” which the family calls the “hospital” and the oldest Maryland families know as Shepherd-Pratt Clinic where they send their children and fathers to repent from various addictions and their wives and mothers who can no longer quite cope – that most acceptable southern tradition. Mrs. Reisen has sampled several martinis. “Ellie,” she calls, “more ice, please.”
“Why martinis?” I ask as Ginny and I walk up the gravel driveway.
Admiral Morris, a hero of the Battle of Midway, is mowing his lawn next door. He wears knee socks and Bermuda shorts. Perspiration gleams from his bald head. He waves to Ginny. She waves back.
“Aren’t you grateful?” Ginny says.
I contemplate the evening without martinis. I decide I am. We’ve come to watch the moonwalk. And to be reconciled with her parents.
We climb the steps of the porch. Two children, Sally’s Philip who is nine and Janet’s Elizabeth who is five, fly around the side of the house. Philip’s knees chug up and down like pistons in an engine. “Aunt Ginny’s here,” he shouts. “Aunt Ginny and Brad!”
Elizabeth, who is Janet’s daughter from her first marriage, rushes up and embraces Ginny’s legs. “Mommy says you’re finally getting married.”
“Catch the ‘finally?’” I whisper. “Janet shows her true colors.”
“Be nice!” Ginny says, but she laughs. She takes Elizabeth’s hand. “That’s right, honey. Brad will be your uncle.”
Elizabeth digests this solemnly. She has her mother’s reddish-gold hair. Her Midwestern freckles come from the father I never met, the missing-in-action, Indiana, father. Ginny wears the copper MIA bracelet inscribed with his name: Buck Honeycutt, Lieutenant, USN. We don’t discuss Buck, not around Elizabeth, not around Janet, and especially not around Mrs. Reisen.
“Will Brad still read me stories?”
“You bet, pumpkin.” I ruffle her hair which is as soft as silk.
Since Ginny returned from Sweetbriar College, even during her exile from the Reisens, we’ve baby-sat Elizabeth and her year-old brother John-John in the yellow row house with green shutters on Calvert Street, just behind St. Ann’s Church. The house is narrow and has three floors and was built before the American Revolution. Elizabeth won’t stay with other sitters. If the sitters are anybody other than Ginny, and now me, she will cling to her mother and scream and scream until Janet calls the other officers’ wives and tells them she can’t meet them for the Superintendent’s Tea or the “O” Club happy hour. But Ginny insists Janet needs to get out so we babysit. I don’t mind. It gives me time to work on my dissertation. And time to be with Ginny. We decided to get married while babysitting at Janet’s house. Or Ginny decided.
Sally greets us at the screen door. Sally is the eldest sister, nine years older than Ginny. She has Ginny’s dark skin and Ginny’s auburn hair but unlike Ginny, she also has Professor Reisen’s soft, easy smile. Since her boys began school, Sally has returned to college at St. Mary’s near the Advanced Flight Training School down in Patuxent. Her husband Ted is a Navy Lieutenant who teaches test pilots at the school. Ted has applied for astronaut training. Later this afternoon Sally will tell me that she and Ted argued about Ted’s application on the drive up.
She wants Ted to leave the Navy. Ted wants the moon.
Sally holds a half-full martini glass as she embraces me. I smell the gin on her breath. “Welcome to the family,” Sally says. “Formally,” she adds. “How goes the dissertation?”
“It’s getting there.” In fact, I’m worried sick about my dissertation. I doubt I’ll ever finish it. I’m writing about Moby Dick and Melville and American innocence but, so far, their connectedness escapes me.
“How’s Mommy?” asks Ginny.
“Not speaking to me. She decided I’m the one who put her into the hospital.”
Ginny looks distressed. Sally’s her favorite sister.
Ted stands behind her. He’ll fly tomorrow so he’s drinking lemonade. He has a short military haircut and a sunburned, peeling nose. Ted shakes my hand. “Nice shorts,” he says, “but you need a haircut.” This is our running joke. Today Ted is wearing the same madras shorts and wine-colored loafers I am, but I have long hair – to establish empathy with my students, I tell him. This is 1969. Hair length proclaims allegiances as much as Ted’s lieutenant’s bars, if he was wearing his Navy uniform, declare his rank.
“I hear congratulations are in order,” Ted says.
“Thanks,” I say. Except I’m not sure about congratulations. I’m not reconciled to marriage. I’m still deciding. Even though Ginny I have supposedly agreed about the marriage.
Mrs. Reisen, who is sitting on the porch couch, spots Ginny. “My baby girl!” Her accent has become southern, which it does when she drinks, or when she reminisces about her Annapolis girlhood. She doesn’t rise from the couch but she extends her arms toward Ginny.
Ginny rushes into her mother’s arms. “Mommy!” she says. I hear southern-ness in Ginny’s voice too.
They haven’t seen each other since the week Mrs. Reisen returned from Shepherd-Pratt. That week, after Mrs. Reisen was firmly home, Ginny’s parents confronted Ginny with “secret” evidence that she was sleeping with me. “We have our sources,” they said. Ginny and I neither acknowledged nor denied it. Although the accusation is true. When Ginny refused to stop seeing me, the Reisens withdrew Ginny from Sweetbriar. I suspect Professor Reisen’s motives. Sweetbriar is expensive. Professor Reisen hasn’t yet won Chairmanship of the St. John’s College Languages Department.
Ginny kneels before her mother. Mrs. Reisen gives a regal nod, as if Ginny is a pilgrim, returning home to a feudal mistress. Actually, Ginny has been staying with me, less than a quarter of mile away in the summer cottage I rented from Dr. Wardman, my academic advisor. Ginny has hung baskets of impatiens above the cottage porch and placed cut gladiolus in the wine decanter on the kitchen windowsill. I’m certain the Reisens know this. They have their “sources.”
“I am so happy for you,” Mrs. Reisen says. She begins to cry. Ginny and she hug again. Ginny begins to cry too. Now that we’re engaged, Ginny will return to this house. Her suitcases are in the trunk of my VW. We argued about her returning this morning.
Ted hands me a martini.
Janet, Ginny’s second sister, steps out of the house. She is tall and trim and only twenty-eight, but darkness hollows her eyes. Although not much older than me, Janet lives in another era. I can picture Janet in a fifties-style skirt with a felt poodle on it and see it swinging as she be-bops to Jerry Lee Lewis. She has a full mouth, her lips smeared red with lipstick, and she is wearing Capri pants and one of her husband’s un-tucked white dress shirts. “Bradley,” she calls out, throwing an arm around my shoulders and kissing me on my cheek. Her other arm supports John-John who teeters toward me.
I shake John-John’s hand. John-John is Janet’s son, a big, happy, one-year-old, Janet’s son by her second husband Jim, the Jim who is in Vietnam. He’ll grow as large as his dad and one day, seventeen years from now, he’ll attend the Naval Academy and become a linebacker on the football team. In John-John’s senior year, Navy will beat Army.
Mrs. Reisen turns to me. “My next son-in-law!” she says. “Give me a kiss!”
Hypocrite, I think, but I kiss her anyway. She smells like talcum powder and vermouth.
Janet sits on a stuffed chair next to Mrs. Reisen.
Janet sometimes calls in the middle of the night and will not hang up until Ginny agrees to drive over to Calvert Street. Janet is afraid to be alone, afraid for Jim in Vietnam, afraid the phone will ring as it once rang for her first husband Buck. Can you blame her? Ginny says. The other officer’s wives wonder – why did Janet ever marry another military man? The least charitable whisper why did she marry so soon. Her first husband is only MIA, they say. How does she know he isn’t still alive?
But Buck is gone forever, as Ginny so often tells me. Gone in the flaming wreckage of his F-8 Crusader, shot down sixteen miles northwest of Haiphong Harbor, no chute sighted. Ginny cries every time she tells me the story.
A photo in a sterling silver frame stands on the cadenza below Charles Carroll’s portrait. The photo is of Janet and Buck. The couple stands on the Naval Academy Chapel steps: he in dress whites; she in her wedding gown. They stoop below an arch of swords formed by Buck’s classmates. I see laughter in Janet’s eyes. A second picture stands next to the first. In the second picture, Janet and Janet’s present husband Jim and John-John are at John-John’s christening. Janet smiles. But her eyes have changed
I’ve had three martinis and I’m dizzy and lustful. I slump in the Adirondack chair, admiring Ginny who is playing volleyball. Janet and Sally form one team, Ginny and the boys the other. I watch the rise of Ginny’s breasts under her blue cotton dress and the turn of her legs. She looks wonderful to me.
Aunt Lois who is Camellia Reisen’s younger sister watches Ginny too. Aunt Lois takes a drag on her cigarette and blows the smoke out of the side of her mouth. “Nice legs!” she says. She winks. Aunt Lois is the black sheep. Aunt Lois doesn’t care about appearances, unlike Mrs. Reisen, or Janet, or even Ginny, who guard the Reisen family propriety with a fierce southern honor. Is she the Reisens’ secret source?
“Who squealed on you and Ginny?” Aunt Lois asks.
“I have no idea,” I answer.
I love Aunt Lois for asking.
Later, we surround the big walnut table in the dining room. The debris of dinner, drumstick bones, crab shells, baked-bean pots and cucumber-salad serving dishes, wine glasses half full, are scattered over the table. Upriver, thunder rumbles. We hear Walter Cronkite on the living-room TV. He interviews the astronauts’ wives, the Apollo Flight Coordinator, President Nixon. He explains the spacecraft trajectory. Ted and the boys sprawl in front of the TV.
Mrs. Reisen still presides at one end of the table; Professor Reisen sits alone at the other. Professor Reisen has soft hands, a round face with vague, tired, eyes. He is slightly plump – a sedentary scholar. His hair is mostly black except for wings of silver that touch his ears. Above the king-size bed, in the Reisens’ room, where Ginny once insisted we make love, there is a framed photo, one of those painted studio portraits, of the Reisens and the two oldest girls. Professor Reisen smiles confidently, his arms around the girls. The painter highlighted Mrs. Reisen’s cheeks with pink. In the picture Mrs. Reisen looks like Ginny.
Sally has just told us about Ted’s job offer from an Atlanta computer company. The company hires only former military officers. The employees must wear white shirts and blue suits and skinny ties, a dress code as strict as a military uniform. Profanity isn’t tolerated. I’ve read of the company’s eccentric founder who has been in the news lately, offering to negotiate the POW’s release. “I want Ted to take the job,” Sally says.
“You mean Ted should leave the service?” Mrs. Reisen utters her question breathlessly. Until now, until this moment, she hasn’t spoken to Sally, hasn’t acknowledged that Sally is even sitting at the table.
“I don’t see why not,” Sally says.
“And how does Ted feel?”
“He wants to wait until the astronaut selections. But it’s the same life. Waiting to see if Ted’s the one who crashed.”
Augering in, is what Ted and the other pilots call it, as if they’ve lost some boys’ game.
“I wish Jim would quit.” Janet says. She speaks through a martini haze. Do I hear tears beneath her words? Earlier she and Ginny swayed back and forth singing, Too many martoonies / Gently Like a dream/ Merrily, Merrily, Merrily, Merrily/ Life is just a scream.
“I will never know,” says Mrs. Reisen, “how I raised such selfish girls. It is your duty to wait for your men. That’s a woman’s role.” Her cadence emphasizes know, selfish, duty, role.
“I so love Atlanta,” Ginny says. What she really loves is Gone with the Wind. Ginny likes to imagine herself as Scarlett O’Hara. “Frankly, my dear,” Ginny says in a low, Clark Gable imitation, “I don’t give a damn about duty!” She attempts to stand, nearly tips over. “Too many martoonies,” she croons, a happy, prodigal daughter.
Aunt Lois laughs.
Mrs. Reisen glares at Aunt Lois. The she glares at Ginny. “I don’t know what has happened to young people’s values.” Her accent is growing thicker, ever more southern. “Girls sleep with boys, like harlots. Boys don’t love their country. Women don’t honor their men’s careers.”
I stare at my plate.
“For heaven’s sake, Camellia,” Aunt Lois says. “Values have nothing to do with it. These girls fear for their husband’s lives. And if you’d been a little more the harlot and a little less a stick-up-your-ass southern belle, you’d never been dragged off to Shepherd Pratt.”
“Now hold on Lois…” Professor Reisen says. His tone is reasonable as if reason still has a chance to restore civility.
Mrs. Reisen’s face has transformed to steel. She holds a desert fork in one hand. She wields the fork like a scepter. “Buck wouldn’t leave the service,” she says, waving the fork above her head. “Buck loved his country!”
“Camellia!” says Professor Reisen. “That’s enough!”
Janet emits a tearing sound from somewhere deep inside her. Sally stands up. Ginny stands up. Ginny moves behind Janet’s chair and places her hands on Janet’s shoulders.
“You shut your mouth, William Reisen!” Mrs. Reisen brandishes her fork at Sally. “These girls have been ruined by your spinelessness. When I tried to do something about it, you tried to shut me away in that awful PLACE! Don’t deny it!”
Nobody moves, nobody says anything.
“And Miss Ginny needn’t be so high and mighty. Janet told me about her tawdry behavior. She’d still be waiting for Bradley’s proposal if Janet hadn’t found out she was sleeping with Bradley. Like I helped Janet with Jim, she two months pregnant, and Buck not even decently buried!”
Ginny’s hand jerks from Janet’s shoulder.
Janet sobs, head bowed, shoulders shaking.
“Let’s go,” I say to Ginny. We will marry, I decide. But not here. Not with this family, but Ginny seems frozen in place, as if she and her sisters and her mother have transformed into stone.
Ted enters the dining room. His eyes shine. “An American walked on the moon!” he says. “Neil Armstrong stands on the moon!” He surveys the family. “What’s going on?” he says. “What’s wrong?”
Through the door to the living room, I see the flickering image of Armstrong at the spidery base of the lunar module. The cicadas scream in the oak trees behind the house. The moon shines through the clouds, casting the Adirondack chair, and the volleyball net, and the river in black and white, like the photograph I will discover years later in my Navy sea chest, the only proof I was ever there, like the footsteps Neil Armstrong has left on the moon.
It begins to rain.
Copyright 2019 Mathison