In Provincetown, I felt enveloped in the shivery skin of a paranoid, all goosebumps and heartbeat. Everyone was a suspect in the brutal murders. Nothing seemed real but a sense of fear, fear as elemental and prevalent as the Cape Cod sand.
Provincetown is sand. It’s just a sandbar really, washed together by glaciers and billions of tides—and slowly washing apart. Roots hold the whole of Cape Cod together, roots of grasses and shrubbery and trees. What man has done, building windmills and saltbox houses, Coast Guard stations and condominiums, the Pilgrim Monument and Route 6, is all secondary. Provincetown and all of Cape Cod is sand, no more stable than the sandbar at your favorite beach, the one that shifts, seductively, from summer to summer. That evangelist, who intruded into our lives that summer, was right about one thing, about the temporary nature of this coast…
# # #
A ship was the harbinger of disasters to come, a ship the other- worldly white of a piece of the moon, like the Flying Dutchman dropped anchor in Provincetown Harbor. But everyone knew this wasn’t the ghost vessel of maritime legend, but the Swedish tall ship, the Vasa, sailing down the coast from Boston to Annapolis, with a crew of blond cadets with sunburnt ears, dressed in wide-collared, old-fashioned sailors’ suits. Everything that happened that hot, dry summer when the rain refused to come, when the drought inflicted a kind of malnutrition on the land, seemed to begin with the presence of that ship on the silvery stillness of Provincetown Harbor.
I teased my friend Arthur about the Vasa. “Did you order that ship? Did you order it special for your party?”
And he laughed. “If I’d ordered that ship I’d have ordered the crew to be here en masse.”
But no one needed an order to attend Arthur Hilliard’s parties. In fact, people fought for invitations. Arthur was tall, with wiry gray hair. Big-boned and theatrical, he was as bright as the Gilbert and Sullivan scores he’d sung through college at Yale. Over the years, his body seemed to grow in proportion to the extroversion of his personality. Already, on Memorial Day weekend, he was as tanned as the cordovan of his tassel loafers, and he had donned his standard preppie summer drag, an indigo jacket shot through with yellow and shrimp-pink.
Like me, Arthur was a Bostonian, but it was his summer place in Provincetown that made his reputation. Buttercup-yellow, on the harbor side of Commercial Street, this extended saltbox was one of the most lavish homes in the West End. It all but groaned with antiques: gilt sconces delicate as frost, marble lions looted from pagodas, paintings of clipper ships in seas turbulent as Jacuzzis.
Years later, I’d remember that house not as a series of rooms but as a series of parties. Although Arthur was rich, he was in no sense materialistic and never any kind of collector. He owned things, he didn’t buy them. Fun as he was, he was never frivolous. His parties—the springs of liquor and tables of food, the tequila and crab cakes, gin and lobster bisque—were always thrown to benefit a cause.
He was a fashionable yet beloved figure, which is often a contradiction in terms. “Think of the word ‘colony,’ as in ‘summer colony,’” he’d say. “What did people do when they colonized a place? Exterminate the indigenous population with a combination of prayers and smallpox, then plunder the natural resources.” Arthur worked to ensure we didn’t colonize Provincetown, didn’t treat the year-rounders as scenery or summer help, then vanish each autumn to forget the place. His parties funded good works for the town, bought computers for its schools, saved a marsh from reincarnation as a strip mall.
I suppose Arthur functioned as my “mentor,” a slightly creepy term, I’ve always thought. We were both alumni of St. Harold’s, a second-rate prep school that had expired two summers before in the Berkshires. He was my elder by a good twenty years, so we hadn’t crossed paths on the playing fields, but had met much later at a restaurant-of-the-moment in the South End. He’d scrounged up my first job at an advertising agency, where I’d extolled the virtues of software and after-shave and had seemed too earnest to be fired.
But that was over. I’d left my job, paycheck, and health insurance for a sort of bungee jump into show business. Staying in Provincetown for the summer, renting a seedy furnished apart- ment above a leather store, I’d volunteered to book gigs for our fledgling comedy troupe. We had done ten well-received shows in the basement of a food co-op in Cambridge, and were now trying to crack the Provincetown club circuit. But we were late, pitifully late, because most clubs had booked their acts months before.
Sitting on my host’s chintz sofa, I reminded Arthur I was hungry for introductions to the club owners sure to flock to his party. “We just need a break,” I said. “We’re ‘almost there.’”
“I’ve been ‘almost there’ for most of my life.” Arthur gave me an aquarium-sized gin and tonic. “Don’t worry, Mark, all the contacts you need will be here today. Everyone knows I inaugurate the season.”
“Roger Morton is especially important.” Roger Morton owned Quahog, a restaurant known for its so-so food—flour-filled chowders and “scallops” that might be skate—and top-rate entertainment.
“He’ll be here, they’ll all be here.”
“I’ve invited our best actor, Roberto Schreiber.” I shamelessly added, “He’s very attractive.”
Strangely, the single Arthur let this remark pass, saying, “I want you to see my newest treasure.” Some jade bodhisattva or Staffordshire spaniels a maiden aunt had given him, I assumed. Then this guess imploded when he said, “He’s in the kitchen, making the bouillabaisse. I asked you early just so you could meet him.”
Arthur led me through the low-ceilinged rooms, most painted a muted pea-green and containing enough nautical artifacts— scrimshaw, engravings of battles involving the Constitution—to make me think the treasure could be a sailor shanghaied from some earlier time, complete with pigtail, tarry fingers, and clay pipe.
“This is Edward,” Arthur said. “Edward Babineaux.” Edward was short, five-six or so, with buzz-cut, honey-colored hair and the snub nose of a child or a Hummel figurine. His blue eyes matched the shells of the mussels he was cleaning, and the alertness of those eyes fought the sensuality of his other attractions—the muscular column of his neck, his full lips. He was twenty-five at most, half Arthur’s age, in one of his host’s monogrammed shirts, and, evidently, nothing else. The long, pin-striped expanse of Brooks Brothers cotton just covered the tawny hair of his thighs.
“Mark is a star of the stage, just as you are a star of the kitchen,” Arthur told him. Then the doorbell rang and he drew a long slug from his gin and tonic before kissing Edward, then rushing to greet his guests.
A blush stained Edward’s face. Was he was ashamed of being kissed by a much older man or by his sparse, borrowed wardrobe? Sometimes I’d worried that Arthur compensated for being single by loving all of society through doing good works. Edward might literally signal a change of heart.
Edward drew the vast abundance of fresh fish toward him over the polished granite counter. Here were clams with shells sturdy as castanets, crab legs, bloody pieces of tuna…It prompted me to remember a story my mother had read me when I was a child about a Chinese boy who swallows the sea, exposing its contents on the ocean floor: whales, shipwrecked junks, corals, and mermaids. When I mentioned my mother and the story, Edward didn’t bother glancing in my direction. “My mother wasn’t a reader,” he said. Clearly, Arthur hadn’t chosen him for his conversation.
“…So you’re a friend of Mark’s,” Arthur was booming from the dining room. “He’s in the kitchen, talking to my treasure.”
Roberto Schreiber cursed the Southeast Expressway in English and Hebrew. San Juan-born, the son of an astrophysicist, he was an actor bristling with a scientist’s efficiency. Wearing a T-shirt silkscreened with a pair of kissing lavender dinosaurs, he scruti- nized everything: the kitchen, his host, and especially the cook. Since he could meet a person and map their essence—voice, posture, walk, then “do” them—I was dreading that he might do Edward, or, worse, Arthur, but he was civil.
“This is my treasure,” Arthur said to Roberto. “Besides being beautiful, Edward is a chef. He’s been at the shore all day, harvesting the ingredients of our feast. He’s been very careful to remove all the pearls from the oysters, so none of us choke.”
“There are no oysters in my bouillabaisse,” Edward stated.
Arthur certainly hadn’t chosen him for his humor either.
“We must let Edward work his witchcraft in peace,” Arthur said. “Michelangelo didn’t carve the David in public.”
So Arthur ushered us out into The View: the terrace of gray-blue flagstones, the garden, the water. Here were spiky mauve delphiniums, masses of daisies, irises in varying blues and ivories, and peonies heavy with globular flowers, creamy pinks and whites cool as moons. Interspersed with these were ferns and grasses, and a fishpond with waterlilies and wrestling putti. Shading the garden was an immense silver maple, while beyond stretched the great bowl of Provincetown Harbor, where the tide was out, the dories resting on wet ribs of sand. Off in the distance was the Vasa.
Other guests began arriving as we wandered through the garden. Some Siberian irises were in bloom, their flowers so delicate they looked torn. Roberto broke off a blossom and wedged it behind his ear, changing himself from the young Samson into a Polynesian. “What’s that ship?” he asked, so I told him, then said, “Remember, we’re on a mission. Bookings, bookings, bookings.”
We would be breaking a sacred Provincetown taboo. You weren’t supposed to network at Arthur’s parties. Nobody brought business cards or even carried a pen. It was an unwritten rule that everyone was off-duty. People celebrated the coming summer and surviving the long New England winter.
Guests with drinks were drifting out onto the terrace, twins with moustaches they might have borrowed from one another and the Unitarian minister in her orange dashiki. Somebody was complaining that the Vasa’s captain was heterosexist, keeping his crew “quarantined” in Provincetown after giving them liberty in Boston. The twins began spouting statistics about the Vasa, how it was a full-rigged ship built in 1930, 253 feet long, with a steel hull, carrying a crew of 80.
“Someone said it was Hermann Goering’s yacht. It was impounded after the war.”
“Yes, it’s considered unlucky. Cursed.”
“It ran aground off the Isle of Wight. A cadet died of a ruptured appendix off Madeira.”
“But it’s so beautiful!” “Like a mirage!”
From a corner of my eye, I caught sight of Ian Drummond, laughing as he swigged a bottle of beer. “I hope they let visitors on the Vasa,” one woman was saying as Ian maneuvered past her to punch my arm. “Long time no see!” he said, and immediately I noticed that he’d bulked up, added muscle, lots of muscle.
“Roberto,” I said, “I’d like you to meet the man who rescued me from the Atlantic.”
Ian laughed, but Roberto wanted the details.
“Nothing dramatic,” Ian said. “A childhood adventure gone wrong. Two brats in a rowboat during a storm.”
“I thought you’d moved to San Francisco.”
“Yes,” Ian said. He’d spent “two wasted years out west,” involved as the lawyer in some real estate deal. But he decided that San Francisco “wasn’t serious,” and the geology bothered him. “The earth moved, then so did I.”
“Ian and I were at prep school together. At St. Harold’s,” I told Roberto.
“The late, great St. Harold’s,” Ian said. “Late?” Roberto said.
“It closed. It had a rather small endowment. A problem I’m sure none of us share.”
“It’s a health spa now, isn’t it?” I was fighting the image of dowagers in towels sipping carrot juice in our ex-classrooms.
“Something like that.” The subject was painful for Ian. Unlike me, he’d always loved the school.
The terrace was now filling with people, a cross section of Cape Cod and Boston, people of all ages and sexualities. A party was taking shape, a warm weather animal with the short intense life of something born in a vernal pool. Already, I was regretting my giant gin and tonic because my thinking felt compromised by the alcohol.
“I saw your troupe on a visit to Cambridge,” Ian said. “I didn’t have time to come backstage.” He took a swig from his Heineken, then swirled it through his mouth, as if rinsing his teeth. “You’re quite the performer,” he said to me. “You too, Ricardo.” He enjoyed sabotaging names, and the way he’d said “performer” was crisp with condescension. Ian had been quite the performer in prep school, quite the ladies’ man at dances at St. Harold’s, whirling his dates, dipping them low while holding them at the small of their backs.
“So what do you think of Arthur’s treasure?” Ian said. “Personally, I’ve never seen anyone cooking bouillabaisse half-naked and sniffing amyl nitrate!”
“Dinner is served!” our host was calling.
His guests on the terrace, a hundred or so people, chatted and laughed a bit more loudly in anticipation of the food as they began filing into the house, toward the dining room. Edward was now clothed, in a T-shirt tie-dyed like the aurora borealis and gym shorts made of an ice-blue material like Mylar. His “masterpiece,” the bouillabaisse, was steaming in three deep pottery tureens painted with squid swimming through garlands of seaweed.
“It smells just like Provence!” somebody remarked.
We helped ourselves, buffet-style, from a candle-lit table in the dining room. People began sawing the fragrant loaves of Portuguese bread and pulling at the mountain of salad—spinach, endive, dandelion—with silver tongs. Soft party sounds rode the warm wind, gossip, the rattle of ice cubes, the scrape of espadrilles and deck shoes along the carpet. Everyone seemed happy—except Arthur.
“Does anyone else think it’s too hot for these candles? Aesthetically, they’re fine, but it makes me hot just to look at them. Of course without them this room is just so murky…”
Everyone averted their eyes. Our host was known to be bipolar and had just stopped taking his meds cold-turkey. He fidgeted with the candles, shifting them and pinching at the dribblings of hot wax.
Then, seizing the moment, Edward elbowed through the crowd, and, with a dancer’s grace and what seemed to be a single elegant gesture, snuffed out the candles and raised the window shades. Quickly, someone applauded, defusing the tension.
“It’s just like Edward to let the sun shine in!” Arthur laughed. “I can’t wait to taste this.” Ian cut in line to attack the bouillabaisse. He sampled it, then remarked in a loud, distracting tone, the assured voice that is a sure sign that all is not well: “This is absolutely wonderful!” Everyone focused on Edward’s masterpiece, Arthur freshened their drinks and we all gradually migrated back onto the terrace.
There, I was embraced by a stately woman with something of the young Vanessa Redgrave in her physique, a kind of hippie majesty. She wore a long paisley dress and amber beads like pieces of butterscotch. This was Arthur’s cousin, Miriam Hilliard.
I told Roberto that Miriam made jewelry, beautiful things set with strange stones, not the haphazard Afghan or Tibetan junk, dull as old jackknives, predominant in so many Provincetown shops. Miriam confided that she was already having trouble with customers, this early. “There are so many street kids this year! It’s worse than the Summer of Love.” In her mid-fifties, Miriam was old enough to have experienced Haight-Ashbury in its prime, but back then she had been at boarding school in Lausanne, a Nixon Republican addicted to skiing, before the Peace Corps, social work, and motherhood altered her views. Miriam had burnt out doing social work, bringing the job home, taking the cases to heart. Making jewelry, dealing with gemstones and precious metals instead of broken lives, was infinitely less burdensome. She reported that Chloe, her three-year-old, was growing like the proverbial weed, spending the day at her shop, where the cashier was doubling as babysitter.
“I see you’re enjoying the bouillabaisse,” I said to Miriam. She tended toward vegetarianism when not lapsing into chicken or fish, but found the bouillabaisse “heaven.” And she had been reluctant to try it. “I got sick eating mussels once, in Barcelona.”
“Edward made it,” I said.
“So the treasure can cook,” Miriam whispered. “Does anyone else know Edward? I mean, he just came in with the tide. Arthur found him sleeping on the beach in back of the house.” She reverted to social work jargon, to M.S.W.-speak: “Marginal people can have issues.”
So many guests were congregating on the terrace that plants in the garden were being damaged, some impatiens flattened, some hibiscus crushed. On Arthur’s silver maple, the leaves, upturned in the wind, looked dusted with metal.
“Oh, there’s Roger Morton,” Miriam said, as a man as thin as his malacca cane came weaving through the crowd. His bony fingers were crowded with rings, with onyx, black opals, and rectangles of turquoise, and his vest from India was sewn with dozens of tiny, round mirrors.
“Do you know him well? Could you introduce us?” I asked Miriam.
Just then the twins, suddenly sporting strands of pearls, swooped onto Roger and began a conversation which threatened to be long.
“We have this improv troupe,” Roberto told Miriam. “We need a break so bad!”
“I think Roger books his acts by March.” Sensing our desperation, Miriam had become a little distant, and was also gazing distrustfully at her bouillabaisse.
Then Roger Morton, his cane stabbing the flagstones, nudged the twins, Roberto, and me aside to greet Miriam, saying, “How wonderful to see you! I’ve refurbished the White Gull from top to bottom. You’ve got to see it!”
Besides Quahog, Roger Morton owned the White Gull, Provincetown’s most elegant guest house, with its deep pillared porches, cobalt-blue hydrangeas, and an iron fountain of Triton blowing a horn of water. Roger recounted the improvements he’d made to the White Gull, then asked Miriam, “Have I mentioned the Great Furnace Catastrophe?” Roberto and I hovered at Miriam’s side, our smiles fixed on our faces, waiting for the caboose of Roger’s long train of thought. Miriam glanced sympathetically in our direction, but the color was draining from her face.
“I hope I’m not boring you,” Roger said.
“No, I think it’s this bouillabaisse,” said Miriam, whose slouch Roberto was imitating until I glared to make him stop.
Then something clattered, like a trashcan tipping over. It came from Arthur’s direction, by the back steps to the house. Arthur was laughing, and so was Edward, at his side and holding something circular that shone like brass.
“Excuse me, excuse me!” Arthur was shouting in his stage voice. “I have an announcement! Whoever sold me this Chinese gong owes me a refund. No wonder the Empress Dowager wanted to get rid of it!” While Edward hung the gong back on its teakwood rack, Arthur continued to speak, smiling and twisting his signet ring, his polka-dot bowtie askew, but his enjoyment of an audience undiminished.
“Of course, I gave this party to welcome you all to Provincetown—and to inaugurate the season. And I’m happy to report that attendance is near one-hundred percent, except, I regret, we are missing the crew of our visiting tall ship, the Vasa. I refuse to believe they are confined to their hammocks with scurvy. And besides, our bartender has a plentiful supply of limes.”
People laughed and glanced at the Vasa, floating far offshore.
“There’s a lot of excitement in town this year, in addition to the solitary Swedes. Roger Morton has redone the White Gull, making it more beautiful than ever, if that were possible.”
The twins started the applause, which Roger acknowledged with a limited wave of his hand.
“And we have talent galore here today, theater talent, in the form of Mark Winslow and his friend…” Arthur had forgotten Roberto’s name. “…Mark and his amusing companion, who’s just too witty for words…”
To my embarrassment, my amusing companion shouted across the crowd to our host: “My name is Roberto, Roberto Schreiber—and we’re looking for gigs in Provincetown this summer, doing improv comedy! Hey, we’re fabulous, honest!” “So hire these poor troopers!” Arthur laughed, missing a perfect opportunity to suggest Roger Morton do exactly that. “Now for a more serious note,” Arthur said, beginning his Swim for Scholars pitch. Though teeming with summer people and summer jobs, Provincetown suffered the highest winter unemployment rate in Massachusetts. Arthur was proposing a Labor Day swim across Provincetown Harbor to fund a college scholarship for local high school students. Most of the people on the terrace were listening to their host out of good manners or middle-class guilt. Except Ian Drummond. He was laughing and swilling beer with Barton Daggett. I tried to snag Roger Morton’s attention, but he was fixed on Arthur, avoiding eye contact with Roberto and me.
“…It will be a worthy cause, with lots of beefcake,” Arthur was saying, as someone tugged at my elbow. It was Miriam, white and distressed. “Do you have a car?” she whispered. “I feel sick. I thought local mussels might be, you know, more benign. I guess I’m allergic.” Her shop was a short ride away.
“I hope I don’t faint.” She clasped my arm as Arthur rambled on, and we slipped through the crowd, passing Ian, who got no response by cracking, “Chin up, Miriam, the party’s not that bad.”
In the house, Miriam retrieved a shawl stitched with llamas from the dining room, then, shuffling in her thick leather san- dals, led me toward the door to the street. She pushed open the screen door, wobbled, then screamed—a ragged cry of shock and rage. Then she fell against me and I caught the door as she began gasping and sobbing.
There, on the granite stoop, lay the corpse of a dog, its belly bloated and slashed open—the first blood of that summer of death.