The August Strangers (Excerpt)

 

PART I

I’m sitting on the cannon, one leg dangling down each side of the cold, black, cast-iron barrel. My breathing is still deep and slightly labored.

It is a good feeling. The kind of sensation you miss when it goes away. My nylon shorts and cotton turtleneck shirt are soaked with sweat. The early-morning breeze comes up off the water and across the sand and cools me.

Several men stand up to their hips in the water, trying to catch bluefish. They look more as if they are waiting for a bus.

I could have run some other place; I know that. Lord knows, over the years I had slapped my feet on most of the main roadways in Westport.

Joggers are like alcoholics; they tend to secret away favorite routes like bottles of booze stashed in kitchen cabinets or stuffed into the back of underwear drawers.

So I had winter runs, where I knew the snowplow would be just far enough ahead for me to miss the stink of the exhaust, and summer runs that twisted through refreshing back streets where the oak trees offered shade.

But it was the beach where I enjoyed running the most and it was the beach where David and I had our best morning jogs together.

And I guess it was because of the memories that, most mornings, I headed my car toward the beach, the sleep still filling my head. It was an ungodly time of day. But there is a smugness at six o’clock in the morning, a feeling of superiority as the dark and silent homes slip past. Inside, people are sleeping. Pity the sleeping people.

They were not like me at all. I was moving, alive; the blood was pumping and soon I would enjoy the sensation of the rising sun as it splashed its warmth across my half-frozen face like aftershave. Soon my heart would feel as though it was ready to overflow my chest as I drove my pulse faster and faster.

I don’t know if I really believed all these things, but the thoughts motivated me and helped me drag my forty-three-year-old body out of a warm bed every morning. Jogging had become my placebo, my sugar pill. My attempt to outrun my birthdays.

David and I had had our morning ritual. I would wake, in the dark so as not to disturb Mandy, then dress according to the fantasies of the weather forecast and what little I could determine from looking through my bedroom window into the predawn blackness. David was always ready and waiting, and we would wordlessly enter the garage and the car. He would press the button on the automatic garage door opener and then cringe as the harsh sound broke the silence and prepared it for the automobile engine that followed.

About halfway to the beach we would both begin to wake up a bit, sometimes to horse around and laugh. We would park at the cannon that sits in the sand at Compo Beach, guarding the shores of Westport, Connecticut, from God only knows what. Probably a lesser life style that might drift to our shores from Hemp stead, Long Island, like a bottle.

By the time we had parked, we were reasonably awake and eager to lean forward and take that first and most difficult step of the run.

But that was before. Now I drive alone. And I run alone. Without David. The memories glow in my mind.

I park at the cannon, then head out in a slow, warming jog toward the lovely old clubhouse at Longshore Country Club. From the clubhouse I run down along the bordering road of the golf course and back to the beach, then along the sand to the little cafe that hangs out over the water . . . through the parking lot to make the turn . . . and then back to the cannon.

Five easy, flat miles. It is a good run. I love it for how it fights off the boredom of running, always presenting new sensations and delights. First there is the sea—actually, the Long Island Sound—sometimes rough with swells; other times, when the moon is in its perigee, it is low and thick with the smell of sea life. Then there are the boats, the fishermen, the golf course, and even a lake with ducks and white swans.

But I guess I love it most because it was David’s favorite, and even when I run alone, we are somehow together.

And each morning, when the run is over, I spend a moment or two up on the cannon, as David liked to do, looking out and thinking about him and how nice it had been. How nice it had been to sit with my son, breathing hard together. Making small talk. Watching the men fish.

“You know, Dad,” David said to me one morning, “those guys look like rubber ducks in a bathtub.”

So from then on whenever we saw a man fishing in the water, one of us would always say, “rubber duck.” It was a dumb joke, but it made us laugh.

Sometimes, when the sun hits just right, and the air is still enough, I can conjure up a picture of myself, actually see myself, hold myself at arm’s length and be with David again, sailing up the hard-packed sand with him at my side.

My son. My prince!

And the tears come.

No, let me be honest. I let the tears come and spill down my cheeks and splatter on the iron cannon.

“Why are you doing this to yourself, Mike?” Mandy would ask me; Mandy, who could get watery over a paper-wrapped sugar cube from a dinner ten years ago; Mandy, propped sleepily up on one elbow, watching me dress by the light from the bathroom, and telling me to forget when she herself never could.

I had tried to explain to her that the crying feels good. That when I don’t cry, it’s like having pressure all over my body―a vague and annoying pressure that can’t be released like gas pains or heartburn. What I don’t, or rather can’t, bring myself to tell her is that I cherish my fantasy mornings with David. That I look forward to them. That they help me, especially on the days David has to go onto the machine.

It is the only relief I can get, so that by seven forty-five I can stand on the train platform with my New York Times and paper cup of coffee and gossip and joke and trade stories. The only way that I can, an hour and fifteen minutes later, enter my office on Madison Avenue, New York City, and function like some sort of human being.

Now I can feel the gritty texture of dry sweat, and the breeze that felt so comforting grows cold. The barrel of the cannon sticking between my legs must look obscene.

“Hello, Mike,” Mandy said into my ear, which was fifty miles away from her mouth. “David has a strep throat.”

“How the hell did he get that? He’s as strong as a horse. We ran this morning; he was fine.”

“A streptococcus is a Gram-positive bacteria occurring in pairs or chains and dividing in one plane only,” Mandy said seductively into my ear.

“That’s fantastic! Did you remember that from school? You really have the most amazing memory.”

“I just read it out of the home medical guide.”

“So what do we have to do now?” I asked. People were starting to fill my office for a meeting I had scheduled.

“Kess said it will run its course in a week to ten days and gave me a prescription that cost enough to give me a strep throat.”

“Listen, Mandy, I got to run. I’ve got a meeting getting started. See you tonight.” I hung up and forgot about it.

We kept David out of school for about seven or eight days. It was so unusual for him to be sick that it took us a few days to get used to the idea. Actually, keeping him out of school was more for the other students. Strep is catching.

He was a terrible patient. The first two days were on a weekend so I had plenty of time to spend with him. David was usually a snap to entertain. He loved books and crossword puzzles and television and drawing and—to tell you the truth, he liked almost everything. He also had the ability to become, when sick, a total pain in the neck. So I went downtown and picked up a few model cars and a crossword book and dug in for a long, hard weekend.

Mandy spent the day canceling all the lessons that David seemed to accumulate like I used to collect bottle caps: tennis, clarinet, judo, and art. I sometimes wondered how there was any time left over for David to grow up.

Mandy did the nursing chores for David, tending to over-dramatize the illness and spray a lot of Lysol around.

Ellen took the whole thing like any other nine-year-old sister, forgetting almost in minutes that David, her brother, had ever existed, and quickly taking over each of his territorial prerogatives—at least all of them outside of and up to the door of his bedroom.

After the weekend, the bulk of David’s illness went very quickly for me, since I spent most of the time in Los Angeles shooting commercials. So the day-to-day problems of a little boy with a strep throat fell to Mandy. My role included sending him a large package of books and things that I knew would keep him amused. I also included a sweater for Ellen, which I calculated would make things even. Siblings!

The Beverly Hills Hotel is pink. It sits up on a rise looking over Sunset Boulevard. It is also by far the silliest, most pompous, most expensive and most aristocratic hotel I have ever stayed in.

I love it. It brings back memories for me: fifteen years of staying there (to this day they rarely remember my name), of shooting commercials, of looking for houses to live in, when, twice, we were transferred to Los Angeles. Of Mandy, sitting naked in the sun on the balcony of our room, sipping chilled white wine and eating raw oysters. Of the fifty-eight-dollar room-service tab that David, then eight years old, and Ellen, age six, had built, like a monument of calories, the night they stayed alone to play grownup ―thereby saving fifteen dollars for a sitter. So many memories. And most of them clustered to the side of my life marked “good.”

“Are you still jogging?” Bert asked as he slid into the booth next to me. Bert Dubrowsky was, and I guess still is, my best friend in California. Whenever I am in town I call him first thing. Then we meet at the earliest possible chance, usually in a dark corner of the Polo Lounge, and sip good, cold Chablis and talk until Dino closes up the place at two A.M.

“You bet your sweet ass I am. In fact, well jog tomorrow at UCLA. Crack of dawn,” I joked, knowing full well that Bert hadn’t jogged a step in two years.

Bert was a small man and his weight-loss over the past few years gave him a gaunt, bony look. His head was nearly bald, but he had a thick beard and mustache. His jet black eyes sat deep in their sockets and added to his overall look of intensity.

When the wine came Bert raised his glass and said, “Here’s to what we want.”

“Yeah, and to what we need,” I added, finishing our familiar salute.

There was more than a hint of poignancy in our little toast. Bert Dubrowsky has cancer. He was in remission but was always walking on the edge, never knowing just when his cells would decide to go berserk again. He handled it okay. At least, he seemed to. His wife, Jane, was Mexican. She was also one of those nurses who is made out of some strange combination of elastic and stainless steel. The result was a nice, soft, armor-plated shield that protected Bert and kept him thinking about other things.

“How’s Mandy and everybody?” Bert asked. “Fill me in.” Then he settled back with a little grin that I could, from experience only, detect forming inside his beard.

For the next half-hour I skimmed him like a good, smooth stone over the surface of what had happened for the past year in the everyday life of Mike August.

So much of what I was that moment had to do with Bert Dubrowsky. It had been four years ago when we first met. Mandy and the kids were back in Westport and I was looking over Los Angeles trying to decide if I wanted to come back to live here again.

I had even looked different when I met Bert. I was carrying about 185 pounds on my five-feet-nine-inch frame. The parts of me that weren’t filled with food, I managed to infuse with about three packs of cigarette smoke each day. At thirty-six the tensions of the advertising business hadn’t bothered me too much, but trying to decide on the move plus the hectic state of a few of my accounts were beginning to show. And I really wasn’t feeling too hot. One of the people I met had recommended I see Bert Dubrowsky. Bert Dubrowsky, M.D. He scared the crap out of me. We became friends.

Back in those days Bert was a morning jogger, megavitamin consumer, and general health nut. He showed me the door and I walked through it.

I quit smoking and dropped thirty-five pounds over the next two years. I guess Bert and I had a friendship built on fat and sweat and sprinkled over with thousands of vitamin pills.

When you watch four or five hundred sunrises with someone, you build a pretty good rapport. I knew a lot of Bert’s secrets and he knew a lot of mine, but I don’t think we gave it much of a thought. We just enjoyed being together and had the rare ability to pick up the pattern of our friendship exactly where we had left it the last time around.

So now Bert was relaxed and partially attentive as I brought him up to date. He alternately listened and watched beautiful girls come into the lounge, occasionally returning a greeting or giving one. It was only when I got to David’s illness that he completely focused on the details of what I was saying.

“How do they know it’s a strep?” he asked rather loudly. “Did they take a culture? How long has he had it? What’s he on? You got to watch those damn streptococci mothers! All kinds of crap can start from those beauties. Lung, spinal cord―”

I looked at Bert in amazement and said, “What the hell’s gotten into you?”

Bert looked a little embarrassed as he realized how his tirade must have sounded. Several people at the nearest tables twisted around toward us. We sipped some wine and waited in silence as the waiter filled our glasses again and I gestured for another bottle. When he had left I asked Bert gently, almost soothingly, “What’s the matter, Bert? I know something’s wrong.”

Bert took a deep breath. “It’s been acting up. Gall bladder, you know. I started chemotherapy again, just to be sure. I’m still getting it up so Jane assures me that means everything is okay.”

“What about the medicine you were taking from Mexico. …”

“Leatril. Yeah, well it was okay but after three decent years I seem to be building an immunity to it. Goldman, you remember Jack, the big guy who used to run in those cut-off sweat pants. . . . Anyway, Goldman thinks I should be back on chemo. He’s one of the best in the field.”

He smiled. “Let’s face it, Mike, this shit is insidious. It’s like bailing out a boat. Once the leak springs, man, you just roll up your sleeves and start bailing.”

We sat in silence, each of us wrapped in our own grief. Mine for him; his for himself.

Bert broke the verbal fast. “For Christ sake, don’t do this to me. Jane is bad enough. From you, at least, I expect a few laughs. Are you still working on that dumb soap account? Tell me about it. I want to laugh and drink and hope I get a house call from a beautiful starlet with a minor thigh injury, so I can kiss it and make it better.”

I laughed. From the line, from the tension, from the frustration and anguish. I laughed, also, from relief―that it wasn’t me with cancer.

“Hey, buddy, how are you feeling?” I brushed my hand across David’s forehead and through his long, thick hair. I did it gently, trying to bring him from sleep in the softest and least disturbing way. I would have let him sleep, but David insisted that whenever I came home from a trip, I wake him, no matter how early or how late.

My daughter, on the other hand, really didn’t want to be bothered. Ellen would make up for the inequity by waking me later in the day. I professed to prefer David’s method, but actually it was a toss-up.

So I stood there, still in my coat and holding my attaché case, trying to wake my son as gradually as possible.

A smile spread across David’s face, and then he was on me with his arms locked around my neck. We held onto each other, just feeling the happiness. I could smell the sleep on David mixing with the smell of jets and travel that had made this early-morning reunion possible.

“I’m glad you’re home,” David said into the area around my neck. He was holding on tightly, almost desperately.

“I’m glad, too. Very, very glad.” I held him a bit away from me and looked at him. He was fantastic. Big and strong. His long hair fell easily into place over his large but well-proportioned head. His hands and feet were large as well, and like a puppy’s, they anticipated his greater size that was to come. Even after the strep, his color was good. There was a strength about him that even the sleepiness and the NFL pajamas could not hide. I loved him so much it sometimes scared me. He was everything I had not been as a child, and I loved him all the more knowing that.

“You look like you’re ready to get in a little plain and fancy jogging. How do you feel?” I asked.

“I think Doctor Kessler will let me go back to school Monday,” David said. “Maybe he’ll let me get a little workout with you this weekend. Ask him tonight, Dad. Please?”

I knew that now David would get down to the important stuff. Not only was he a physically strong child; his mind was something quite unique. We had discovered early that David learned rapidly and retained what he learned. He was able to deal with abstractions, and above all, he had the interest and attention span to apply himself to those things that interested him. The combination of his abilities made me very proud.

David would now show me the books he had read since I was gone, giving me a short synopsis of each, then run me through every model car he had built. If I had let him, he would have played the clarinet. David did all of this with total pride and not even a hint of eleven-year-old shyness or embarrassment.

“I didn’t hear you come in,” Mandy said. She was standing in the doorway.

I stood up and we grabbed at each other. I could feel her through my coat in that very special way Mandy had of making herself, no matter what she was wearing, feel naked to me.

“I missed you,” she said simply.

“Me too.”

“The dog didn’t wake me when she barked.”

“Bibbie didn’t bark. I made as much noise as I could but she just lay there.”

Mandy and I untangled and she stooped down to kiss David’s forehead.

“Why do all mothers take temperatures like that?” David asked.

“I don’t know,” she said. “My mother did and so did my grandmother, if I remember correctly.”

“Then, I would bet,” I said, unable to resist, “that it must have been a man who invented the rectal thermometer.”

Mandy laughed and punched my leg. David cracked up and rolled around the floor. Some sort of milestone is reached when a child can understand jokes. It’s like finally understanding humor in a foreign language―a matter of idiom.

A half-hour later my bags were unpacked and I was sitting in the kitchen sipping coffee, watching Mandy tend to breakfast.

Mandy in the morning was a special thing to me. First of all, she was beautiful. Her long, dark hair was tousled just right and she always wore soft, faded denim work shirts instead of nightgowns. These folded and clung and hung to her body in a way that never failed to excite me.

It was this mental picture of Mandy, tall and warm and inviting, that brought me back from business trips so quickly. Lots of other men would stay on—men I knew and worked with—for an extra night, a stolen weekend by the pool of a plush hotel. Me? I flew home. Or drove home or took a train or a boat or a bus or whatever it took. But I got home.

We had a ritual when I came home from a long trip. Mandy would make breakfast: coddled eggs and crisp strips of bacon, a brick of creamy farmer’s cheese and toasted homemade black bread, yogurt and fresh fruit, and a huge pot of coffee.

Mandy would carefully place these favorites of ours neatly onto Georg Jensen china, flanking the plates with flatware. We would carry all this to our most favorite room, the bedroom, on wicker trays, and, locking the door behind us, we would try to spend the morning eating and making love and catching up on what had happened to each other. It was very special. Mandy had learned somewhere, maybe it was a wild bit of heredity that the way to a man’s heart was not through his stomach but through his pores.

This time, after we had eaten, we were interrupted a lot―once by Ellen banging on the locked door and demanding “to see my Daddy, dammit!” and other times by phone calls and, finally, the dog barking.

Eventually we pushed the remains of the breakfast aside and discussed the events of the past week.

“David looks pretty good,” I said, yawning. The trip and the time change and the fact that I had flown through the night were starting to catch up with me.

“Kess thinks he can get back to school Monday.”

“Are we seeing them tonight?”

“If you’re not too tired I said we would catch a movie.”

“Remind me tonight and 111 ask Kess if David can start a light workout with me tomorrow. I’m tired of running alone,” I added.

“How is Bert doing? Did you stay up all night and drink wine with him?” Mandy asked laughingly.

Mandy loved Bert as much as I did, so I told her. She nodded and closed her eyes for a second. She didn’t cry, just held me a little tighter, as if the very act of squeezing might push out the pain we were both feeling.

After a few moments of silence we continued with the trivia that makes up the household news. Listening to Mandy meticulously recounting these events was warm and reassuring, and I felt myself relaxing and drifting into my fatigue.

At times like this my happiness actually had a third dimension, like a ripe apple or a birthday cake, and I smiled at the thought of biting into it just to taste the sweetness.

For the next week I gradually got David back into some sort of a routine. Kess said it was okay. He looked fine; the strep was gone and he could, within reason, get back to his normal activities.

We took it very slowly. In fact, that first week we even got Mandy out a few mornings. Ellen swore each evening she would join us but never made it out of bed the following morning.

As the weeks turned into a month, then another, I realized David wasn’t getting back into shape. He was missing about every third or fourth day, pleading exhaustion and balking at the early hour.

I never pushed him to go, even though we were still well below our normal distance, never breaking two miles. Even that didn’t bother me as much as the almost plodding style he began to develop when he ran. It obviously was work now; it never had been before. David always ran with a spring in his step that any old-man jogger like me would envy. That was gone.

“I really can’t go any more, Dad,” David said to me breathlessly one morning.

We had just barely reached the clubhouse at Longshore, which was, I knew, not even a mile and a half from the cannon. We slowed to a walk.

“Really wiped out,” David continued, panting. “Go on ahead, f 11 catch up,” he added weakly.

A shiver shot through me from the cold air as my body furnace stoked down. I put my arm around his shoulders and we walked along the road that bordered the small lake. It was a beautiful dawn. The sun coming up was beginning to erase the thin frost from all but the shaded patches of grass.

“Once, when I was out with the flu,” I said, “it took me almost a month to get back into shape.”

“Really?”

“Sure . . . why, once I was running loops at the beach in Malibu, and I noticed a baby crawling past me. It was then that I realized what bad shape I was really in.”

David smiled at the obvious baloney. “I’ll bet in a couple of days I’ll be back to five,” he said, but with little conviction.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said very seriously, “it doesn’t make any difference how far we run. A half-mile, a mile, the main thing is to train, not strain. What’s most important is that we’re doing it and being with each other.”

David looked up at me and smiled. We then broke into a very slow, loose run but had to stop within a hundred yards. We walked the rest of the way back to the car.

Sometime over the next three weeks, David’s kidney function dropped to forty percent of normal.