Amagansett, mid-August: The lilies on the roadside have closed up. They have a shriveled, bent look, like witches’ fingers pointing, meaning no good. The black-eyed Susans are not as straight, not as defiantly yellow as they were a week ago. But the neighborhood cardinals are feeling confident. They swoop in and out among the lawn chairs like so many teenagers hanging out after the movies in front of Cartier on Main Street. The children at the ocean are no longer afraid of the waves. They squeal and jump, they ride the foaming surf on their boogie boards, with the No. 30 creamy protection someone is always smoothing over them, they move their sun-dusted limbs as if flesh were feathers and bone were made of light traveling at the speed of childhood.
Time is passing through us, unremarked as always, determined and without mercy.
The red maple, only a few weeks ago so crimson, so like a Madeira wine, as dark as cherries, has turned a sickly orange tinged with brown. There are ripening blackberries on thick brambles along the street I walk to get my morning newspaper, but I don’t dare pick them. Ticks are in the bush waiting to ambush me. The berries are dropping in the dirt. Ah, bittersweet, most gorgeous morning. Yesterday’s tornado came close but missed our town. The weather channel blasted a siren warning for over an hour and told us to stay away from windows. Stay , the TV said over and over, in the interior of your home . We ignored the urgent letters moving across the bottom of our TV screen. We went out to order flowers for my daughter’s wedding. The sky had grown black and the wind blew, bending the willow in the garden, rattling the panes, but we felt tornadoproof, immune, our enemies more baroque, more internal, more capable of malignancy, more citified than whirling air masses. As we knew it would, the tornado passed without damage to our bodies or property. Today the sky is clear, clean, born-again air, light flickering everywhere.
I step over a toad, smashed by an automobile, crushed, flattened. This is not a cartoon. The toad does not puff himself up and jump away. He lies there, half an inch of intestine showing beneath a bent, colorless leg, eyes pressed down into the asphalt. Some car with a beach chair and a striped umbrella in the trunk had his name on it. Sitting at the kitchen table, I read about the Jordanian King, newly crowned, now moving among his people disguised as a commoner, exploring the people’s streets, incognito.
Is the Jordanian King on the same sort of tour as Hillary Clinton through New York State? If he isn’t a carpetbagger like Hillary, he is, like her, at least a nouveau heir. What’s sauce for one is surely sauce for the other. It’s a good sign when our leaders, with or without reporters at their side, attempt to discover what life is really like among the hoi polloi, the lumpen and not so lumpen unroyal rest of us. Hillary we know wants us to vote for her, but what drives the Jordanian King to roam his streets?
Is he longing to escape the rigmarole of royalty, the pressure of palace politics, or is he hungry for the ordinariness of the human masses, struggling to mend the roof, to find a local dentist to pull a tooth, to avoid the tax collector, to store the grain for winter? Is the desire to travel among ordinary mortals spurred by the simple the-grass-must-be-greener fallacy or is the King simply taking up his new responsibilities as a leader with charming eagerness? I wonder if he knows that the human beings that are swarming up and down the Montauk Highway in search of a date, a cocktail, a good restaurant that doesn’t require a reservation, a patch of land, a friend or someone who would pretend to be a friend, would be content to stay on their own side of the highway and reap the rewards of a wise birth.
Are we unhappy because we think we are really princes entitled to an entourage or because we are princes who have entourages and doubt our own legitimacy, our capacity to hold on to what we have?
Perhaps one night I will sneak out of my house and, disguised as a teenager, I will prowl along the beach at night watching the shapes in parked cars bending toward each other in embarrassed erotic postures. I will smoke a cigarette or a more forbidden substance in the dunes. Perhaps I will sneak out of my house and, disguised as a single thirtysomething, hit the clam bar outside
of Montauk. Perhaps disguised as an Hispanic gardener I will write a long homesick letter to my mother in Ecuador or Colombia. Perhaps I will, in hard hat, become a Bell Atlantic telephone worker and, climbing up a pole, attach my wires and eavesdrop. Will I be able to hear the hum of exhaustion, sunburn, housemate irritation and scratchy insect bites, or see the dirty margarita glasses on the countertop?
Ah, well, God’s breath may blow the Queen Anne’s lace in the meadow, but one legitimate passport is all we can carry. How good it is not to be a Rwandan limping on a toeless foot, reaching with a fingerless hand. How fortunate I am not to have been incinerated, bombed, exiled, potbellied with hunger, mad as Lear, sick to death with kala azar or blinded by the waters of the Nile.
We have only slim information about the other lives we are not leading. We were not changed or exchanged at birth or afterward. None of us were purloined by the gypsies. Given our constitution, looks, place in the pecking order, we make our own fortune or misfortune. Luck is both kind and cruel. No one gets away without slipping on the banana peel, skinning the knee on tragedy. The prince is a prince and the pauper a pauper and, no matter who you are, the wild flowers in the field will be gone by Labor Day.
Another toad sits on the tabletop by the rosehip bush. He sucks in air and the black spots on his skin vibrate with the beatings of his small heart. I want to offer him a bite of my breakfast toast, but the species gap between us cannot be bridged. He jumps away as I reach forward. The tornado that did not have my name on it becomes, on the day after, a forewarning, a preshadowing, an unwanted hint of the one that will. August corn is still sweet and each kernel dear to the palate and August tomatoes are full of genuine juice, but time is chasing us, pretenders to the throne and princes of royal blood alike.