AN INTERESTING SOCIAL STUDY
CAPE May's newest summer resident settled herself as comfortably as possible in the strange stiff contours of a fanback wicker chair and awkwardly accepted a large tub-shaped glass of bourbon from her hostess.
But she was too conscious of too many things, including her wet bathing suit and bare feet, and the fine coating of sand which clung to them, to relax completely on Mrs. Powell's porch.
Noticing this, her hostess said, in her rich rumbling baritone, "You don't look a bit comfortable there." She stood up, an unusually tall and bony woman with a magnificently lined face which depicted, clearly as a graph, a mixed history of pleasure and pain.
"Here, try this rocking chair," she said in a tone less of invitation than command. "I'm sick and tired of rocking, anyway. That's all there is for an old woman like me to do in Cape May in the evenings. Sit on her porch, and rock, and get drunk."
"I always liked open porches in the summer," the new resident said. The rocking chair felt a little bit better. She began to sip the bourbon.
"Do you have a porch at your place?' Mrs. Powell's house guest inquired. She was a plump woman of vague shape and features, with wispy dyed-red hair; like her hostess, near sixty; and dressed, like her, for a city luncheon, in a silk suit, polished straw hat, and quantities of pearls. Except that Mrs. Powell's hair was uncompromisingly short and gray, and her pearls were real.
The new resident said, "Oh, no. I wish I did."
"Too bad," the house guest commiserated.
"Why on earth does she need a porch, Corinna?" Mrs. Powell inquired sharply. "She's not a housebound old relic like us." She drained her tub of bourbon. "She's young, and young people down here spend most of their time out of doors."
"Yes, but these big verandas are nice, especially in the evenings," the new resident half-sighed. Extensive galleries, some of them a block long, with pools of blue light reflected from their painted 'ceilings to inviting deck chairs; she had been eyeing them wistfully all through her after-beach walking tour of this incredible old town. Mrs. Powell's peremptory invitation, as she passed her veranda, to come up for a drink had been startling, invested with an almost-magical quality, like the instant fulfillment of a wish in childhood. Even now she could not quite believe it. She had met the older woman only yesterday, in the market, while shopping for groceries on her first day in Cape May.
"A big porch is nothing but a whole lot of extra work," Mrs. Powell declared, "especially when you have to keep it clean all by yourself. I've been down here a month now, and I still can't get a cleaning woman."
"You ought to talk to some of your colored boyfriends, Mrs. Powell," her house guest said playfully. "The trash man, or the garbage man. They might be able to get you somebody."
"Never you mind about my boyfriends, Corinna," Mrs. Powell answered in the same spirit. She turned to the new resident and said, "She's just jealous because I've kept my figure, and hers has gone to hell. I may be older than she IS, but the men still turn and look at me, because I've still got a shape resembling a female's. I don't turn and look back at them, of course, because I'm only half a fool. Just enough fool to enjoy it."
She indicated her house guest and gave a rich, wicked chuckle. “Now, it wouldn't do for Corinna to have any kind of a hope left at her age, because she's one hundred per cent fool. If a man ever turned to look at her, even if he was only a trash man, she’d fall on him and faint for joy."
The new resident said nothing, but smiled. She was surprised by her amusement at this byplay, and also by the memories it aroused. It reminded her of nothing so much of the incessant joshing that had gone on for forty years between her grandmother, who sewed for wealthy ladies, and her seamstress-helper, a mountain of a woman named Pettina Brown.
“Don’t pay Mrs. Powell any mind.” The house guest said. “She’s a fool. You heard her say so yourself.”
“It’s all right for me to say it, Corinna. But not for you.” Mrs. Powell turned her intense, somber gaze on the younger woman. “Where are you staying while you’re down here?”
“I have the Kinleys’ cottage for the summer,” the new resident said. “The little one over on Perry Street.”
“I know which one it is,” Mrs. Powell declared. “There’s nothing in Cape May I don’t know.”
Including me, the new resident thought, staring resentfully but not without admiration at Mrs. Powell’s bright restless eyes, like a large inquisitive bird’s. – Before this evening is over, you’ll know everything about me too. That’s probably why you invited me up here on your porch. You make it your business to know everything.
“The Kinleys,” the house guest mused. “Aren’t they those people from New York?” She answered her own question, “Yes, of course, that’s who they are. I always wondered why they picked Cape May to spend their summers. It’s a long way for them to travel for a little bit of ocean. Most of the people who own property around here come from nearer by. Baltimore and Delaware and the South.”
“They come from all over now, Corinna,’ Mrs. Powell corrected, in her booming voice of authority. “Cape May is getting some new blood in it, thank God. It’s about time – It’s about time I sweetened your drink, too,’ she said, and poured two generous slugs of whiskey into the new resident’s glass before she could say, “No, thank you.”
“Well, I’m new here, but even I can see the town is changing,” she heard herself say instead. “Some good changes, and some bad.” It had been obvious today, for instance, that there was no longer any clear pattern of segregation on Cape May’s beaches. A strong tide seemed to have scattered the varicolored bodies of bathers as randomly as shells. But last night she had noticed the stately old hotels floating at the edge of the water like giant ghost ships, empty, yet lit from stem to stern. They had given her an eerie feeling, and she had turned her back on the ocean wind and hurried home, shivering.
“I think it’s a shame the way no one seems to go to the big hotels for dinner,” she said. “They must have been popular once, but now everyone seems to be flocking to the ugly new nightclub down on the beach instead. The yellow one that looks like a mushroom.”
“You have to consider Cape may as being two towns,” Mrs. Powell explained. “The old summer people, and the new summer people. The old people are kind of wooden-headed and slow, and it takes them a long time to make up their minds about new thing. But once they do make up their minds, they’re set for life. The new people, now, they’re like water, just flowing into any new open space that appears. Only, they don’t stay anywhere very long. Just like water.”
The new resident thought, And I’ll bet you’re the one who tells all the other old people what to think. I’ll bet you run the whole town by yourself, you old dragon.
“One thing, once the old people get to know you, there’s no a thing they won’t do for you,” the house guest commented. “Southerners are like that. Hospitable.”
“I think you’re ready for another drink,” Mrs. Powell announced, in that tone of a general giving incontrovertible orders.
The new resident said, with a quick automatic politeness, “Oh, no. I’ve got to be going.”
“Well, where in the hell have you got to go?” Mrs. Powell demanded. “There’s no place to go in Cape May.”
“Well, maybe just half a drink, then.”
Satisfied, Mrs. Powell nodded sharply, and snatched the glass away.
“You seem very young, child,” the house guest commented while their hostess was gone. “Are you a student?”
“Yes,” the new resident replied, “and thanks, but I’m not that young. I finished college eight years ago. Last year I went back to graduate school.”
“It’s so hard to get in a good school these days,” the house guest complained. “When I was a young girl, it was easy. I went to two good schools, one right after the other. I went to Find, and before that I went to the National Cathedral School, in Washington, D.C.”
“If you went to all those schools, how come you’re still so dumb, Corinna?” Mrs. Powell demanded, returning with a bottle from which she poured two brimming tubs of bourbon for her guests.
The house guest accepted the bourbon as good-naturedly as she accepted Mrs. Powell’s tyranny, as if both were divinely ordained circumstances, and replied, “When I was growing up, girls weren’t supposed to train for careers. We went to school to become young ladies. The schools I went to, National Cathedral and Finch, were mostly finishing schools.”
“Well, this one’s a young lady, and she’s smart, besides.” Mrs. Powell turned her fierce dark gaze on the new resident. “Not that anybody gives a damn around here, but where did you attend school?”
“Spelman College, in Atlanta.”
The house guest reflected a moment. “I don’t believe I’ve heard of that one. Is that a finishing school for girls?”
The new resident paused, then said in a somewhat surprised tone, “Well, yes it is, actually. It’s funny, I never thought of it that way, but actually, that’s what it is.”
“Well, I think a finishing school education is still the best sort for a young girl. At National Cathedral, we had teas every Friday afternoon for the faculty and our guests.”
“So did we, at Spelman,” the new resident said eagerly, “Funny, I had forgotten all about those faculty teas. All the girls were so anxious to get away for the weekend, we hated staying around for them, but really, they were kind of nice. Everybody got all dressed up, and in good weather we were served out of doors, on a big porch.”
“Well, I don’t think they teach you a damn thing in those young-lady schools, especially in the South,” Mrs, Powell declared. “I went to Spence, myself. And I was never allowed south of the Plaza.” She elevated a stupendous column of wrinkled, warted, hairy throat, like a camel’s, and laughed outrageously, adding, “I was a brilliant student.”
The house guest winked. “Mrs. Powell means she just barely got through with passing grades. That was brilliant for her.”
“Oh, Corinna, hush,” Mrs. Powell said amiably. “Your large mouth just indicates to everybody how small you brain really is.”
It was that hour in Cape May, between seven and eight in the evening, when the light turns lavender and liquid and the huge Mississippi-steamboat houses, each with two or more tiers of balconies, seems about to case off in it and float downstream. The air was also heavy with honeysuckle, and the new resident, two days away from the city, yawned deliciously, then caught herself and returned to her stiff posture, as if she had no right to relax. “I just love these big old houses,” she said.
“Well most of them are so old and run-down they’re falling apart,” Mrs. Powell said. “You should’ve seen this old wreck when I first bought it. Looked like a nigra house that hadn’t been painted in forty years.”
In this strangely colored twilight that falls on the southernmost point on the Jersey shore, the newest resident’s hands, as they caught the arms of the rocker were tinted a soft mauve, while the faces of the older women, who had already spent a month in the sun, were deeper variations of the same shade.
“Where did you say you’re attending school now?” the house guest inquired.
“Bryn Mawr, in Pennsylvania,” the new resident said. She spoke now in clipped, factual phrases. For a master’s degree. In social work.”
“Well, we could use some social workers down here,” Mrs. Powell said. “Cape May is full of fretful old people, all useless and mostly alcoholics.”
The new resident said softly, almost to herself, “I wanted a quiet place to work on my thesis this summer. That’s why I picked Cape May. Besides, I heard it was a pretty town.”
“Well, you came to the right place if you wanted quiet,” Mrs. Powell said, pouring herself another double slug of whiskey. “This town is so damn quiet it gets my nerves sometimes.”
“Oh, no more, please, thank you,” the new resident said, too late.
“If you like pretty things,” the house guest said between sips, “you ought to get Mrs. Powell to show you the inside of her house. It’s the prettiest house in Cape May.”
“It is not,” Mrs. Powell said firmly. “It’s just a huge, old run-down wreck. Like me.”
“Bryn Mawr’s a good school, I hear,” the house guest said in her weak, but penetrating voice, with a register like a piccolo’s. “It’s so hard to get into a good school these days. My grandson had to apply to seven schools before he got accepted into one. Princeton was one that turned him down. The other day I met a boy who had gotten accepted into Princeton, and I looked at him and said, “Just stand still a minute and let me touch you. You’re so smart, I want some of your brains to rub off on me.”
Mrs. Powell laughed raucously. “Well, it didn’t work that time, Corinna. You’re still as dumb as hell. But you’re lucky. You’ve got another chance. Here’s another smart one sitting right here. Why don’t you touch her?”
She offered the bottle to the new resident, who shook her head.
“The damn thing’s empty, anyway,” Mrs. Powell observed. “I have a reserve supply in the house, though. Even if you won’t have another drink, at least come inside and see my old run-down house. It’s the worst wreck in Cape May, so you might find it an interesting social study.”
This invitation, or command, was accompanied by a powerful tug on the young woman’s hand by the other’s gnarled and splendidly jeweled one.
--- All right, the new resident thought, let’s get it over with. I didn’t come here looking to be accepted, anyway. She took a deep breath and said, “Thank you. I will.”
“Welcome to my hovel,” Mrs. Powell said. “Fixing it up almost broke my back, and it’s still a mess. But I love it.”
She flicked on an overpowering chandelier, illumination a thirty-foot dining room with the cool, unreal beauty of an undersea cave. White curtains billowed at its tall French windows, and pale green paint had made its quantities of massive old furniture seem floating and fragile. The only ornaments were a portrait over the sideboard and, on the long, frosty-green dining table, a centerpiece of tall green candles in silver holders and bunches of real green grapes.
“Lovely,” the new resident said, and caught her breath again as Mrs. Powell’s enormous diamonds flashed in the light from the chandelier.
“Oh, it needs a lot more work,” Mrs. Powell said, with a deprecating wave of hands like blazing claws. “But I’m too old and tired to be bothered with like blazing claws. “But I’m too old and tired to be bothered with it any more. One of my guests said to me the other day, ‘Mrs. Powell, there isn’t a think in this house to let a person know they’re at the seashore. Couldn’t you at least add a few seashells to that damn centerpiece?’ And I told her, ‘Yes, I know, it’s a good idea, but by the time I’ve finished breaking my back cleaning around here, I’m too tired to go down to the beach and lug back any God damn shells. I’m too tired, and I’m too damn old.’ – Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going back in the kitchen for another drink. I’m the biggest lush in Cape May, but I’m so old it doesn’t matter to anybody. I love old age.”
The new resident moved closer to the long carved grape-green sideboard to study the portrait that hung above it, of a tall, gaunt man with the same deep restless ultimately somber eyes as Mrs. Powell’s.
“That’s Mrs. Powell’s daddy there,” the house guest piped. “I’ll bet you don’t know who he was. For a number of years he was the United States Senator from North Carolina.” Her voice grew more shrill. “Mrs. Powell is just about the most important lady in Cape May.”
“Corinna, hush,” Mrs. Powell said sternly, returning with a bottle and an ice bucket and the three titanic glasses on a try. “If there’s anything I can’t stand, it’s big-mouthed people who go bragging about you to other people.”
“Well, how would people know anything about you if other people didn’t tell them, Mrs. Powell?” the house guest inquired, with shrill logic. “She’s a student, she’s interested in history. I thought she might like to know about your father.”
“Well, maybe she’s interested in history, and maybe she isn’t, Corinna,” Mrs. Powell rebuked her. ‘here, don’t stand on politeness. Help yourselves to a little nightcap.”
The room seemed suddenly full of fireworks, exploding from the brilliant chandelier to the diamonds on Mrs. Powell’s hands to the ice cubes she was handling with flashing silver tongs.
“Cheers,” Mrs. Powell said, gulping her drink and patting her stomach. “Ah. Nothing goes down like good old country bourbon. – I’ll tell her one thing about my family, though, if she’s interested in history. She may not like it, but I’ll tell her this one thing anyway, and maybe she’ll find it interesting.” She set her glass down on the sideboard and assumed a graceless stance, chin elevated and feet widely separated, like some defiant, battered colossus. “My great-grandfather was the biggest slaveholder in our state. He had over nine hundred slaves.” She stared unblinking at the new resident. “I hope you don’t mind hearing a thing like that about my family.” Holding the pose, she looked monumental and splendid as the old beach front hotels, and as lonely.
“Not at all,” the new resident said. She set her drink back on the tray without tasting it. “I have to run how now, though.”
“What’s your hurry?” the house guest asked. “Finish your drink. It’s only eight o’clock.”
“Now, Corinna,” Mrs. Powell said without moving, “let her go if she wants to. That way she won’t be afraid to come back here again.”
“I should have changed out of this wet bathing suit hours ago,” the new resident said. She paused carefully, waiting to find out what else she wanted to say. When she knew, it surprised her, as had nearly all of her reactions on this odd evening.
“Besides,” she went on, “I picked up a lot of lovely shells on the beach yesterday. It was my first day on the beach, and I was so greedy, I took home more than I could keep. I want to bring some of them back here, so Mrs. Powell can pick out the ones she like best, for her centerpiece. That is, if she would like me to.”
Mrs. Powell still held the pose, like an old edifice too proud to yield to its awful, imminent tendency to crumble.
The new resident moved quickly to the door and said, “Well, good night. Thank you for an interesting time.” She was halfway outside when Mrs. Powell found her voice, a faltering croak that soon expanded to its normal bass-tuba resonance.
“Well, come back when you can,” she said. “I have a lot of interesting old relics around here, if you like history, and I’m the biggest old relic of them all. Although I don’t care much for history, myself.”