So maybe the hat was ridiculous. June had placed it on her head tentatively, and was studying her reflection when her sister came into the hall.
“Coming?” asked Vera.
June’s hand was still on the straw hat brim, indecisive, when she turned towards Vera. Vera would not come out and say, “Do you really mean to go to town like that?” Still the judgment was there. June saw it: the tip of Vera’s tongue darting out to disengage an unseen speck of crumb from the corner of her lips, a gesture so subtle only a sister might notice.
Had Vera smiled, June might well have smiled, too, and slipped the hat back on the peg in the hall rack, where, with its pink band and cluster of fake apple blossoms it looked more like a decoration than an article of attire, but something stopped her and she patted the hat firm on her head, instead. It was the voice inside her head, entirely unbidden, the voice of Steve from years ago, before they were married, saying, “Why do you always let her bully you?”
She walked out to the jeep with Vera and got in the passenger side. The seat’s headrest knocked the hat brim, so June took the hat off and placed it on her lap. Her palm against straw, she felt the smugness of defiance, a feeling from childhood, when all her triumphs over her sister were small, secret ones. The four-year gap between them had made all serious competition impossible then. There was nothing she was better at than Vera, except that she was the prettier one. Vera, secure in her superiority, had been a generous big sister, oblivious, it seemed, to the rivalrous feelings June harbored.
The summer house they shared now, a house they had vacationed in as girls and inherited jointly, was on a dirt road, but the jeep was more an affectation of Vera’s than a necessity. June was content to let Vera do the chauffeuring when they went to town, and left her own car at the end of the driveway. In the first years after Steve died she had continued to drive their large sedan. Last year she had traded it in for a new, small import, the first car she had ever bought herself in her life, and she was protective of its newness. The road was narrow, one lane with occasional turn-outs, and brambles grew close to the sides, scratching up her beautiful blue finish. When June had suggested they ask the highway department to cut them back, Vera was horrified. The brambles, the ruts in the road, the absence of a sign at the entrance, helped discourage people from driving down it. Though the beach at the end was town property, Vera regarded it with even greater ferocity than had she held title to it herself.
Clouds of road dust billowed up behind them, but June knew it was pointless to comment on Vera’s driving. Of course, Vera bullied her, and she allowed it. What occurred to June now was that though Steve pointed this out to her, he was unaware that he bullied her himself, and she allowed him, too. Vera, though unaware about herself, noticed it in Steve. “He doesn’t take you seriously,” she had said to June more than once. “He doesn’t take women seriously.” Men had always taken Vera seriously. No doubt her unswerving determination to be taken seriously had impeded her ability to fall in love, a trade-off she seemed content with, if she was aware of it at all.
It was only nine fifteen and already town was throbbing. You could tell the day was going to be hot and everyone was scrambling to get errands done and head to the beach. It was just as well she hadn’t taken her own car, June thought, since there were no parking spaces left. She arranged to meet Vera in front of the fish store at ten thirty.
As Vera’s jeep disappeared around the curve of Main Street, June felt a giddy relief, like a kid set free from school. She set the hat on her head and crossed the street, where the Wellfleet Library’s annual used book sale was spread out on the lawn beside Town Hall. Her light mood was short-lived, for the crowd thickened as she got close to the sale. People were pressing against the ropes, waiting for the opening, straining to see the neatly lettered signs, which spelled out “Music,” “Psychology,” “Mysteries,” “Children’s.” For ten minutes there was an air of belligerent anticipation, competitors checking each other out before a race. And it was a race, for as soon as the rope was untied people charged to their favored table and immediately began grabbing books.
June, although positioned well for a chance at “Rare,” paused too long and lost her place, so she headed to “Fiction,” instead. The cogniscati had brought their own bags or boxes. They scooped up books and selected them afterwards, like trawlers discarding the undesirable from the catch. Some worked in pairs. June had forgotten to bring a box, but she was glad of it: she would not be tempted to acquire more than she could carry. She already owned far too many books—in fact she had given away several box loads to this very sale—yet she could not turn them down. In the piles of books she recognized some of her own. A fat man with a sunburned bald spot had her cast-off (duplicate) Borges in his stack. She wanted to touch his arm and say, “That book was mine. I hope you like it,” but of course did not.
After the first hour, the crowd relaxed. The dealers and collectors had skimmed off what was truly of value, and the early arrivals had gotten more books than they could carry. People were even stopping by the bake and plant tables at the periphery of the sale, or standing on the sidelines to chat, straddling their boxes of treasures.
June bought a book on pruning, some paperback mysteries, and a small collection of short stories by Elizabeth Bowen. She already owned the Complete Stories, but had not actually read it. The book was too large to hold comfortably, and overwhelming, 750 pages long. This little volume, The Cat Jumps, was one-hand size. And it was a lovely red cloth-bound book with a gold three-leaf clover stamped on the cover. She bought a cookbook for the house, and a book on architecture for her son Danny, even though it would be a year before Danny would be in the States again, and it would make no sense at all to send it to him in Hong Kong, where he was working now.
Vera was late. She blamed the traffic on Route 6, but June knew better. Vera was never early because she did not want to be the one waiting, and she habitually cut things too close. The back of the jeep was filled with bags of peat moss and dehydrated cow manure, and a Scotch broom, which had been marked down.
“Any good finds?” asked Vera.
“Nothing special,” said June. Vera was not interested in books, and it was clear she was eager to head straight home. The jeep was too noisy for a decent conversation.
It wasn’t until late that afternoon when June discovered the inscription in The Cat Jumps. In a hasty script it said: “Saturday 23rd May For Susan, In memory of a lovely afternoon.” The signature was unclear, but June was experienced at deciphering student handwriting. The first name was “Elizabeth,” the second began with a “B.” Why “Bowen,” of course, thought June and laughed at herself. She had found the book in an ordinary pile on the table of fiction. When they set up the book fair no one had noticed it was autographed and had saved it for the “Rare” table, and all those collectors had passed it up.
June settled back in her lounge chair and shut her eyes. She thought about the lovely afternoon that had occasioned the dedication. She pictured an English country house, tea out in a gazebo, a walk through gardens and down a wooded path to a gentle river, a small boat—yes, they would go boating. There would be swans, and a dragonfly would alight on Elizabeth’s arm, the sun shimmering on its wings.
A memory. The whole afternoon reduced to a few words. Gone absolutely in spite of all its languor, all its loveliness.
June laid the book aside and went inside to fetch Vera.
Vera had taken the back parlor as her study. She was retired now from her municipal job, but she still worked hard as ever. She was on the town board of health and a consultant, pro bono, for several conservation groups.
“I thought it might be nice to go for a swim.”
“It is time for a break,” said Vera, pushing back her chair. “Let’s have some iced tea in the garden first, and then a swim. But not too long. I want to get that broom planted.”
After five summers sharing the kitchen, they worked well together. Vera automatically got tea, ice cubes, and lemon slices ready; June got the tray, napkins, and plate of cookies. June brought the story collection to the table.
“I wanted to show you something I got at the book sale that was rather a find. Here, look,” June said, opening to the title page, “it’s an autographed copy. Elizabeth Bowen.”
Vera patted her fingers dry on her napkin and took the volume. “Are you sure that’s Bowen?” she asked.
“What else could it be?”
“The ‘B’ is clear and the ‘o’ but the rest just trails off,” said Vera. “It could be anything. ‘Booth,’ maybe.”
“But the book is written by Bowen.”
“That doesn’t mean she was the one who gave this ‘Susan’ the book. It doesn’t say, ‘with the author’s best wishes.’ No, it’s your fancy, June,” said Vera and she smiled. “How much did you pay for it?”
“Fifty cents. It wasn’t with rare books, just among the fiction.”
“See!” said Vera, “It couldn’t be the author’s autograph, then.”
“They missed it.”
“You think the women who sort those books are dumb? They probably pluck off the best for themselves.” Vera laughed. “And if they are honest, since this is a fund-raiser, they’d try to get as much for every book as they can.”
“I don’t know,” said June. “I think it slipped past them.” But she felt disappointed as a child. She had been too quick, too wishful. The little red volume looked more faded, less glorious. “Let’s have our swim,” she said.
It was a long, hot walk to the beach. A station wagon full of kids and inner tubes came barreling past them where the road was so narrow they had to squeeze against the brambles, and they were covered with road dust. The beach was more crowded than ever, and some guy with unstylishly long hair had brought his dogs, two undisciplined Cape labs. When Vera reminded him dogs were prohibited on the beach after May 15, he told her to “fuck off.”
June didn’t wait for Vera to conclude her altercation. She waded across the rocky shallows, grateful for her aqua socks. The tide was half out and the sandbar was under a foot of water. June squatted and plunged forward into the water. She swam out far as she could on one breath and then turned and floated on her back. Only then did she feel calm again.
She had been angry at Vera for spoiling her pleasure in the book, but now she realized she had let Vera spoil it. What did it matter whose signature it was? And what did it matter who was right? Let Vera think herself right, since it gave her pleasure. What pleasure did she have in life, after all?
This was the line of reasoning June had often used in defending her sister’s ways to her husband. Marrying Steve and having Danny had given her pleasures Vera never knew, never would know. June actually pitied Vera, and her pity softened her, made her more tolerant, though Vera would have been incensed by the pity, if she had not found it incomprehensible.
The swim, the promise of a cool evening, made their walk home more pleasant. June made dinner and gave Vera a chance to plant and water the broom. Vera was an energetic, though not particularly imaginative gardener. Someday Danny, if he decided to keep the house, would inherit the product of Vera’s labors.
They retired early. Vera slept in a small bedroom off her study; June had the upstairs bedroom, a dormer at the back and a skylight that gave her a rectangle of stars. June brought the Bowen collection upstairs with her. She read a few of the stories, and before she put the book down for the night she studied the inscription again. Of course it was Bowen. What else could that be but a “w” and an “n”? She laid the book on the wicker nightstand beside her bed and turned out the light. Downstairs she could hear Vera running water in the sink and then closing the bathroom door behind her as she left.
Two women, each alone in bed in a house at night. So they had ended up the same.
In memory of a lovely afternoon.
The past was no more tangible than air, no different from dreams. In spite of the fact that the memories were of things that had actually happened, now, in the present, they were no different from things that were only imagined. All that was different between her and Vera was what they had once had and not had—Vera, no one; she, her husband and her son. But Steve had been snatched from her by death, and Danny had been taken from her slowly, insidiously, by time, by manhood, by independence (the very independence which she had fostered in him, never believing completely that it would turn traitor). So all she felt now was sadness at her son’s remoteness, and sadness for the loss of her husband’s love.
A memory, fresh, unremembered before, came to her suddenly: a memory of being in bed with Steve on a night like this summer night, a memory of his tongue in the hollow of her neck, and as she wriggled close to him, her legs against his warmer ones, the sand from their beach walk against his ankles.
But there was no pleasure in the remembering, only a sickening feeling of loss. That was the way with memories, they brought you only the sadness of the present.
Vera, downstairs, innocent of such pleasure, free of such pain, slept. And who was to say which was the more enviable life?