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Hammer Island

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Over the Fourth of July holiday in 1985, when I was seventeen years old, the film producer Morris Walls took me to Hammer Island. This is an island shaped like a hammer off the coast of Friendship, Maine. The place could have sprung from someone’s jealous dream about white people. No roads, just boardwalks. Cars, bicycles, golf carts, skateboards, and roller skates were all illegal here. Hammer hearkened back to a more decorous time, before the invention of the wheel.

In obedience to strict unwritten rules, the women all wore white or yellow or Breton stripes, and the men wore button-down shirts and khaki shorts and boat shoes with no socks. Most of the houses dated to the Civil War or so and had not changed hands since then. They were called “cottages,” and no cottage could have fewer than six bedrooms or lack at least one colonnade, turret, or spire. Wicker porch furniture was mandatory, and you had to sit in it between the hours of 4:00 and 7:00 p.m. Whenever anybody walked by, you had to call, “Hello! Come up, come up! We’re picking crabs!” Or you had to say that if you owned the house and the person passing by owned a house on Hammer, too. If you had been coming to Hammer Island for thirty summers, renting the same house for $4,000 a week, you did not get summoned to a porch for crab picking. You were still looked upon as an interloper and a thug.

An untitled photograph by Emily Stein, from her series Saturday’s Mosh

An untitled photograph by Emily Stein, from her series Saturday’s Mosh

Morris Walls was famous for a number of good movies and for blinding a casting director in one eye when he punched her cheek with a collins glass. He was despised and feared by large numbers of people, yet he was smart enough to understand that, on Hammer, his brutal prerogatives did not obtain. Walking from the ferry, towing our luggage in a wooden-spoked cart, Morris flicked a cigarette butt over the boardwalk rail. A teenage boy walking behind us retrieved it. He jogged up to Morris, tapped him on the shoulder, and slipped the cigarette butt into his palm. “No littering,” said the boy. “I know you’re new here, but we take it pretty seriously. Technically, there’s a three-hundred-dollar fine. I’m not going to report you, but just so you know, most people would.”

In California or New York, threatening Morris Walls and handing him garbage would have been a sure way to get sworn at, slapped, doused with hot coffee. But Morris understood that attacking the boy would be pointless. The boy was of the island, and he spoke with the full authority of the place behind him. Slapping him would have made no more sense than slapping a tree or a patio brick. Morris put the cigarette butt into his pocket.

The boy was sixteen or seventeen, with a long, tan head. His ugliness was of a flagrant, crate-jawed kind that was itself a form of beauty, like the face of an expensive horse. He turned that face to me. “What’s your name?” he asked.

I told him: “Maxine.”

“Todd Greene,” he said, smirking as though he’d said something remarkable. When he saw that I was not going to break into applause or tears, he strode past me, making for the wharf. I turned and watched the sinews in his orange calves bunch and vanish with each swing of his dirty leather shoes.

Morris had a six-year-old daughter named Lola. She had learned from her father that biting and screaming were good ways to communicate. My job was to spend the days absorbing her abuses so that by the time Morris came downstairs for dinner, Lola wouldn’t have anything left. Our second day on the island, Lola demanded marshmallows. Marshmallows required a trip to the mainland, an operation the ferry schedule prolonged to four hours. When I said she’d have to go without, Lola said I was “a filthy animal” and bit me on the wrist. As punishment, I told Lola to go be alone for ten minutes in the TV room, where she spent most of her time anyway.

“No point,” she said. “I’ll just walk out again.”

“I’m going to put a chair against the door and sit in it.”

“You’ll be sorry,” she said, correctly. Two minutes later, Lola’s urine was flowing from beneath the door and soaking my socks.

“I think you’d better let me out,” she sang. I told her I didn’t think she could pee much more than she had. “I’m giving you good advice, Maxine. Let me out right now.”

A credible note of warning played in her voice. I opened the door. With the point of a letter opener, Lola had carved several rough, blonde furrows into the walnut hull of an Eames lounge chair. She had moved on to a Le Corbusier daybed, from which she’d pried two cushion buttons and was working on a third. Morris yelled at me about this and he did not stop yelling until I walked out of the house.

Pleasantness was in such short supply at the Walls’s that whenever I was not required to be there, I roamed the boardwalks. I trod black-mussel beds. I swam in the sea, though it was laceratingly cold and great white sharks had been seen offshore. I sat at the tennis courts and watched Todd Greene destroy many strong opponents. He was a gifted player with an unstoppable net game and an unfailing defense against deep lobs. When he could not skitter back for an overhand smash, he would sprint for the baseline and put a lid on the ball with an over-the-shoulder volley that amazed the opposition and usually won the point.

After his matches he would sit beside me, stanching his sweat with a chilled towel from his personal cooler. Todd was from Chevy Chase, Maryland. His family had been coming to Hammer for “ninety-six years.” He told me I was lucky to be here but that I would never really “get” the island because I did not own a sailboat. He owned a sailboat. Did I want to be taken on a sunset cruise? I did, and the next afternoon, I appeared at the cove at the appointed hour.

Todd was not there. Lashed to the dock was a fourteen-foot boat I would learn to call a daysailer. It was very pretty, a thing of bright brass and varnished teak, lustrous as freshly poured honey. A hairy pink dwarf was ambling around the boat, freeing the sails from their green nylon socks and getting things shipshape. When he came across a dull spot on the wood or the brass, he panted at it and buffed it bright with a square of chamois he kept clipped to his belt. “Dwarf” is too much. He probably stood 5?6? and was not much less wide. His sun-broiled head was of coconut diameter. His brow, cheeks, and nose folded in on themselves with an intensity that raised questions about the shape or existence of his skull. He did not look at me. I sensed that he was a lonesome man whose only joy in this glum world was the touching and rubbing of the beautiful boat in his charge. Watching him work, I felt as though I had intruded on a private ritual.

Moments passed and the silence started to excruciate. The temptation to talk to the man was strong, but perhaps on Hammer Island you weren’t supposed to talk to the help, even if you were the help.

Finally, the man spoke: “Are you going out with Toddie today?” His accent wasn’t blue-collar New England, but faintly Southern. He didn’t drop his r’s. I allowed that, yes, I was going out with Todd.

“He’s a master. He can just about whistle at the sail and make this girl fly. There’s a few tricky rocks down by Hale’s Point, but this bay is that boy’s bathtub. He hasn’t drowned anybody yet!” Here he gave a big, spry wink. The whole spiel had a weird, fawning falseness, as though he was hoping I’d repeat his kind words to Todd. Maybe a tip would come his way, or a pork chop to gnaw in the lonesome boathouse where he slept. Todd appeared just then, fifteen minutes late, without apologies.

“All laced up and ready to go!” the little steward said.

“Good” was the one word Todd had for him. I stepped into the boat. Todd raised the sail and the little pink man slid into the distance. The winds were fresh and high. In no time at all, we’d crossed the broads to the lee side of Hale’s Point, where, under the surveillance of a derelict lighthouse, Todd talked me out of some but not all of my clothes.

Two days later, on the third of July, Todd invited me to the Greene cottage to dine on a food called tournedos. The All-Island Open, Hammer’s annual tennis tournament, always fell on the Fourth. Tradition commanded the Greenes to eat tournedos the night before the tournament, Todd explained. “Tennis-Tournament Tournedos,” he alliterated. “We’re clever people, is the thing about us.”

I arrived at the Greenes’ and was greeted, astonishingly, by the boat dwarf, who was standing at the kitchen counter slicing radishes. They had put him in an apron. Someone had let him have a beer. “They’re in the den,” he told me in a mild, butlerish tone. I was embraced by Todd and introduced to Sara, Todd’s mother, who looked like a stork made of adzed quartz. “Would you like a nice Lillet, Maxine?” she asked. “Let me make you a nice Lillet.” I met Nick, Todd’s fifteen-year-old brother. He had his mother’s pale minerality of face. A Japanese headband held his blond hair in a heavy-metal tussock. “Want to play carrom?” he asked me.

“Sure,” I said, not knowing what carrom was.

“Dad!” Nick bellowed. “Where’s the carrom board?”

The kitchen door swung open, and the dwarf stood blinking in the doorway. The little servant, apparently, was also Mr. Greene.

“I think it’s in the attic, Nicky,” he said. “I can look for it when I finish cooking.”

“Okay,” said Nick. “But the thing is, we kind of want to play right now, and I’m just not sure how we can do that without the fucking board.”

“Sure, sure, of course,” said Nick’s father, who, pocketing the radish knife, went to climb the attic stairs.

The man’s name was Alton. The cottage and the money were the wife’s. How someone like Alton had managed to land a rich, porcelain spouse like Sara Greene was not immediately clear. Or it was. He did everything, without thanks from his family or expectation of it. Retrieved the carrom board. Tonged fresh ice into Sara’s Lillet when the old cubes thinned. Trotted into the room every quarter hour with a sack of Cajun niblets to refill the boys’ snack bowls. He became an object of general notice only when he begged the family to shift to the dinner table, where the tournedos had been served.

“What’s up with this?” Nick asked, looking at his tournedos, which turned out to be coaster-size pinwheels of beef loin coiled around minced greens and bleu cheese. “Why are you skimping us, Dad?”

“Yes, why are there only two tournedos, Alton?” Sara said. “Where is the third tournedo, Alton? There is always a third tournedo. We always serve three. Are there more in the kitchen?”

“I thought the package felt a little light when the butcher handed it to me,” said Alton. “I asked him for fifteen. I paid for fifteen, but when I got it home and opened it up, lo and behold, he only gave us ten.”

“If you thought it felt light, then why didn’t you open the package and look?” asked Todd.

“Two tournedos apiece?” said Nick. “This is a screwjob, is what this is.”

“I’ll talk to the butcher when I go over tomorrow,” said Alton. “I’ll give him a piece of my mind.”

“That’s no help at all,” said Sara. “The boys are playing in the morning. How are they going to play if they didn’t have a proper dinner?”

“I can’t play a tournament on two tournedos,” said Nick. “I might as well drop out now.”

I offered to surrender my two tournedos to the tournament contenders. This provoked a riot of refusals from Mr. and Mrs. Greene. Sara said she would surrender her tournedos to Nick and Todd had she not been diagnosed with an iron deficiency earlier in the year.

For a number of seconds, we listened to the Atlantic abusing the rocks below the dining porch. Then Sara said, “Alton, I think the best thing would be for you to give your tournedos to the boys and go see if Cora has got anything left up at the Patchwork.” The Patchwork Café was the island’s only restaurant. For $18, the proprietress could be persuaded to put aside her quilting and load a hot-dog bun with mayonnaise in which flecks of lobster meat could sometimes be found.

No one looked at Alton Greene. I got the sense that if Alton were to start wearing lipstick around the house, it would be a week at least before anyone noticed. I and only I saw what happened to his face when his wife asked him to give up his beef.

His was such a compressed face that you would not have guessed it could compress itself still further without turning inside out, but that is what it did. His cheeks went white, his eyes shut to bloodless asterisks, and the muscles of his jaw bulged out. The fit passed in half a second. Alton smiled and forked over his tournedos. Then he walked into the night and was not seen again on Hammer Island during the summer of 1985.

If Alton’s disappearance troubled Todd and Nick, you couldn’t see it in their performances on the court the following day. In single-elimination, one-set matches, Nick took second in the boy’s division. Todd, at sixteen, cut a swath through most of the men’s bracket and placed a very respectable third.

After the trophies were disbursed, Todd told me all there was to tell about Alton’s departure. He had left for the mainland on the 9:00 p.m. ferry. To the son’s great chagrin, Alton had driven off in the Mercedes that had been promised to Todd for the fall.

To my mild wonderment, Todd kept in touch over the following year. Once a season or so, he phoned from Maryland with news about tennis, test scores, adventures with alcohol. He also gave me such details as there were in the developing mystery of Alton Greene. The family had had no word from him since the night he left. They knew only this: after his departure, Alton had set a straight course for Chevy Chase. He had packed his clothes, books, and vital documents. He had stopped by the law firm where he’d been a partner for fifteen years. There, he had cleaned out his office and resigned. The private investigator Sara hired turned up no very useful information, only that the Mercedes had been sold for scrap in Great Falls, Montana, and that, in April, Alton had passed the Wyoming bar exam.

Back in Ventura, my father got married, my mother divorced. I became involved with a confused drug dealer who had very good LSD and strong sexual guilt. Orgasms made him cry. I was accepted to the University of Arizona. I was rejected by three exclusive music camps that did not agree I was good with a viola. When Morris Walls called, asking whether I would accompany him and Lola to Hammer Island for the week of July 4, 1986, I had no real reason to say no.

Todd Greene’s junior year had sent him into middle age. Soft weight had gathered on his belly and his jaw. His cheeks had paled and thickened. The flesh around his eyes had gone assholish and dark. In wordless moments, compelled by a new tic, his front teeth clicked incessantly, as though they were cracking small grains. But the sailboat was still operable, though blue-white raisins of corrosion had sprouted on its brass parts, and the varnish on the brightwork had begun to whiten and peel. Yet it still carried us quickly to the cove beneath the Hale’s Point lighthouse. There, we smoked and drank beer. Todd now had a girlfriend back home, and he scrupled to subject me to anything more than some jolting hand-coitus that he might have trained for on the coin-return buttons of broken snack machines.

That year, without Alton to prepare it, there was no tournedos feed in the Greene cottage on tournament eve. But the All-Island Open went on just the same. At 8:00 a.m. on the Fourth, I found Todd and Nick among a horde of people in white, examining the bracket posted by the courts. Todd was chuckling. For the first round, he had drawn William Casaubon, who’d once been a big wheel at the CIA but who now could barely walk for the rods in his hips. Nick was not laughing. Someone had pranked him cruelly. For Nick’s first set, the bracket said, he would be playing Mr. Alton Greene.

The boys spotted their father at the farmost court unsheathing a flashy white racket laced with pink strings and violently breaching the dress code. His shorts were not tennis shorts but new-style urban denim: knee-length, with pounds of zippers and straps. His shirt was a swagged-out V-neck tee, its whiteness not unmixed with yellow stains. On his head sat a black tam-o’-shanter with a large orange pom-pom. Sara Greene had spotted him, too, and was sprinting his way. The boys joined the chase.

They ganged around him in a plaintive little scrum. They couldn’t keelhaul him properly with so many neighbors in earshot, though. “Talk, fucker,” “How could you,” and “Jinxy died, if you even want to know” were some things I heard them say. Through all of this, Mr. Greene patted his many pockets and secured his zippers in a general display of battening down. At last he told his wife and sons, “There is a lot to discuss. There are many complexities to explain. Everything that needs to be said we will say to one another when the tournament’s over.” He pinched a quarter from a pouch on his hip. “Call it, Nicky. Heads or tails?”

Nick won the coin toss. He yelled at his father with his serve, playing not to score but to punish. Balls hurtled past Alton’s head and bellied the chicken-wire fence, never touching the ground. In seventy seconds, Nick double-faulted five times. The serve passed to his dad. Alton’s serve was a thing of very little ceremony: no high, slow toss during which time halts until the strings smack the ball. Alton’s toss happened at his belly button, and it didn’t send the ball above his sternum. Just a negligent bit of wrist business, as though the ball were pocket lint he was flinging away. His racket moved with a curt flick, an underhand chop that sent the ball loafing over the net like a soap bubble on the breeze. Nick, flat-footed, watched the serve land in bounds and dribble to a stop at his feet.

“Fifteen–love,” said Alton.

“Bullshit!” cried Nick. “I didn’t even know you were starting! What even was that? I thought you were just fucking around!”

The line judge called the point for Alton and promised to eject Nick from the Open if he heard more sailor talk from him. Awaiting Alton’s next, Nick hunched and grimaced, swaying alertly on the balls of his feet, a coiled spring of wrath. Again, the homely little chop, and again, the ball goofed slowly for the center of the service box. Nick charged it, squealing. But the shot was laced with secret, noxious spin. The ball corkscrewed hard-right off the bounce. Nick lurched into the net. On the next serve, Nick tried to lead the ball and ran to the right, but this one touched the ground and leaped left. Nick’s racket swept air.

At the end of game two, Nick adopted a strategy of passive resistance. If he could not beat his father, he could at least cheat him of the pleasure of a hard-fought win. He gnawed hangnails or pinched his teeth as Alton’s shots went looping past. His own strokes mostly met the fence. When the set ended, Alton went to the net for a handshake. Nick stalked off the court and threw his racket into the bay.

By eleven o’clock the sun was a disk of white bone. The thermometer outside Cora’s Patchwork Café broke ninety-four degrees. The heat was hard on Alton Greene, who had spent his year of seclusion in a summerless clime. In his set against Jack MacCaslin, he turned the color of a cranberry. Between points, he jogged to a cooler on the sidelines to pack his hat with ice. But he still won, 6–3. In his quarterfinal match, with Merritt Prince (Greene, 6–4), his wheezing was so loud and musical that Prince asked him, aptly, “What’d you eat for breakfast, Alton, a harmonica?”

When Todd made his way to court six to face his father in the semifinal round, Alton looked too boiled and wilted to tie his own shoes without risk of collapse. Todd’s new shorts and shirt still bore their factory creases. The coin toss went to the son.

Whatever rage Todd held for his father during Alton’s absent year, it didn’t contaminate his arm. His first two serves were straight cannons, nipping the corner tape with an audible fwak, spurting past Alton before he could raise his racket above his knees. I wondered if this was the father’s apology. He would take a terrible beating, or keel over on the court, and Todd would hate him a little less for the months he’d been away.

But at 30–love, Alton shifted strategy. He retreated deep into the backcourt. Todd’s serve resembled his erotic maneuvers: heavy on power, short on variety and nuance. Standing close to the fence, Alton clenched his racket two-handed and refracted a feeble return.

The set should have been a slaughter. Todd was playing tennis. Alton was wheezing, turning purple, clutching his racket as if for good luck. Yet somehow, wherever Todd’s shots went, Alton always seemed to be in their way. Alton’s role on the court was not so different from his role in the Greene household. He played like a butler, fetching everything, dumping it back without heat, without force, without error. He managed not a single brilliant stroke but a hail of maddening ones: limp drop shots, unctuous slices, graceless deflections that often blorped haphazardly into the one square inch of clay Todd couldn’t reach in time.

Miraculously, Alton hung on through twelve games, 6–6. The single-game tiebreaker stretched to a gruesome cycle of deuces. Alton’s face turned lavender. A dense foam of saliva whitened the corners of his mouth. He staggered. He spat dryly. He begged time to wheeze between serves, while Todd said, “Ready? Ready? Ready?” and then served before his father had a chance to nod. On deuce twelve, Todd double-faulted. Advantage Alton. The old man took off his shirt.

Todd’s next serve was explosive, and it hadn’t cooled much when it reached Alton, who was cowering at the fence. He dinked it back. Todd whipped a deep forehand, then charged the net. The ball bounced off Alton’s racket in a high, dumb lob, a great fatuous grapefruit of a shot Todd was poised to sledgehammer. But the ball was dropping deep, and Todd was too far forward to manage the overhead smash. Todd turned, ran for it, and, cocking his racket for his famous over-the-shoulder volley, hit himself hard in the face.

I heard his nose break with a bright little snap. He collapsed in the clay not far from where I was sitting on the bench. I went to him. The blood was extraordinary. I wiped at it with a tiny napkin, inanely chanting, “It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.”

“Stop talking, please. Your breath stinks,” Todd said. “I need a towel, not a Kleenex. It’s going to shreds on my face.”

I fetched him a towel and brought it to the bench where he now sat with his mother. Sara took the towel and mopped at his lip. “He beat me?” Todd moaned. “He’s in the finals? Where is he? Go get him. I need to talk to him. I’m not fucking waiting until after the game.”

Alton was not on the court. He was not at the clubhouse, and no one answered when I knocked at the men’s room door. I ran up to the Patchwork Café, thinking Alton might have gone there for a lemonade. The only customer in the place was the man who worked the ferry dock. I asked him, and he told me, Sure, he’d seen Alton Greene, leaving for the mainland on the one o’clock boat.

is the author of Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a story collection. His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “Own Goal,” appeared in the June 2010 issue.

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