A LITTLE BIRD TOLD ME...
I don't remember exactly when I heard that Fred had gone home from the hospital. They released him so that he could go home and recuperate there instead of the hospital. I heard rumors that he was surprisingly well.
I had not seen him for some time, was actually thinking he was taking his time getting his health back, so as not to lose headway and get sick again.
"Yoo-hoo-!" I heard from the front yard as Fred came toward the garage. I was right there at the garage door, patting down the dry debris from my outdoor chair cushions and pushing them up against the garage wall, high up on a shelf.
"Here, let me help you!" and he reached right out to grab the cushions before they came tumbling down. "Oh, hello there!" I said with complete surprise. He was looking so good, so healthy. "How have you been? I didn't expect to see you so soon! I heard you were doing better but that you still had a way to go!"
"I can't tell you how many people are happy to see that I am still alive," he said with a chuckle under his breath. "You know, if I were feeling better, I would be out there cutting grass for you or something." He smiled broadly as he nodded toward the back yard, now overgrown with long grasses.
I laughingly said, “Well, you can take my lawnmower and do that if you really want to, but it is a much bigger job than it looks at this point. I plan to have Chino come to cut it tomorrow, early."
I dropped the stack of slippery cushions again and he bent over carefully to pick them up for me. “Fred, you need to be careful!” I tried to stop him from making any effort, especially since he was still recovering from surgery. He brushed me off saying “I know, I know. I do need to get back to normal though.” I let him go ahead and pick up the cushions and said: “ It's been too hot to do anything at this time of day.” I added,” Record heat tomorrow too, they say.”
“I will put these up for you unless you want them on the chairs." Fred headed to the porch to put them down. "No, I will do that. These cushions are not too heavy, and I need to do things like that. Don't spoil me, Fred!" I said with a big smile as he put the cushions on the shelf again.
He looked at me longer than he had ever done. He leaned against my car, crossed his legs and folded his arms. "OK, no I don't want to spoil you, that's for sure!" Then a long look down at his shoes. “You know I never did thank you for coming to see me in the hospital. Meant a lot to me. Got me to thinking about what I still need to do before I go away. That made me really think about getting better. Took my mind off the old ulcer and the pain that I was feeling from the surgery."
I was surprised that he had an ulcer; I had heard it was cancer. I didn't want to say the word, so I said, "Oh, well you never told me what your illness was, Fred. You looked so out of it when I was there--you had just had your surgery. I was afraid it was something a lot worse than an ulcer!"
He quietly walked to the side porch and stepped up on the deck. "Look," he said in a low voice, "I don't want to be a bother, but I think it would be a good time to go to the Bay, look for scallops. They say the scallops are back strong since they treated the water for nitrogen. I thought maybe you could drive me there. You don't have to stay, but it would be great if you could give me a lift!"
Amazing, the feeling I had--just like a high school girl again. I felt embarrassed now that I was all dusty and messed up hair and all. "I don't mind, really Fred. It’s a good time to go, just before sundown."
We drove north, past the 7-11 and the little store fronts that lined the corridor between the Hampton Chic Village of Southampton and the seedy part of the other side of County Road 39, or "North of the Highway," as we call it here.
The radio played softly and the music that seeped out through the speakers was familiar only if you had lived in the 60s or 70s. We drove past the farm fields and the worn out farms that remain along the roadside, past the grungy car repair shops and the old General Store and Schmidt's Seafood Shop.
This was certainly the most depressed part of the Hamptons, East of the Canal. This is where the "help" lived at one time, but they have not lived here for many years, as only a few local businesses struggle to stay open and as potato farmers stopped operating their farms and laid off their local employees. That all happened a long time ago. Time was not a healer in this case.
It’s hard times here in North Sea.
Further north there is respite from the painful lack that is all around us, nearer the highway. There are some signs of the old days; many of the oldest houses are here, close to the Great Peconic Bay. There was a time when this part of the Hamptons was a bustle with the whaling ships coming into port. North Sea was once, very early in the 1700’s, a thriving whaling port. Most of the whale oil used to burn in oil lamps came from this area. In the 1800’s whaling was on the decline and most of it had been moved to the Sag Harbor area. There was a budding waterfront Village developing and the access there was what the whalers needed for their commerce and was better suited to the whaling trade.
Meanwhile the North Sea area became a place of tiny fishing shanties and those eventually became summer retreats for the earliest second homeowners to move here. These shanties were generally roughly built with no insulation, but they almost always had a big stone fireplace for those who chose to escape to their shanty for winter hunting and fishing.
There are stories of how these shanties were so popular for summer getaways that they were passed on down to the younger family members generation after generation. Many of these early families lived either in the middle part of Long Island or they were from the state of Connecticut, just across the Sound in New Haven and even New London and Hartford. These were not the wealthy families that came from the New York City. These were fishermen at heart. They were all committed to fishing and clamming and came here to enjoy weekends and sometimes the whole summer. It was a perfect place for those who love wildlife and who lived for the thrill of hunting for turkey, fishing for Blue Fish and Bass and digging for clams and mussels in the brackish waters in the estuaries, near the ocean.
Just past Noyac Road by-pass is Conscience Point--the place where the first settlers came ashore to Long Island. This group broke away from the original settlers who had settled in Lynn Massachusetts and the Puritan settlers from what is now Connecticut. These first Long Islanders were befriended by the Shinnecock Indians and were helped along the way by the tribe who still exists here in the Hamptons. Their reservation is South of the Highway; some say they live in spartan conditions on the most expensive land in New York State. They are living on the water, Shinnecock Bay and its estuaries and they live as they have for more centuries than I can count.
North, right near that most historic spot called Conscience Point is an antique, historical building that was a dinner club in the 80s and at one point a hotel, I hear. Next to that huge old building is a seventy boat-slip marina, now owned by the Town of Southampton.
Most visitors remember the building as the nightclub where the infamous socialite Lizzie Grubman ran down nine people in early 2000, as she was leaving the club in a huff. That is NOT what Conscience Point is famous for. It certainly is NOT what I wanted people to remember it for.
It has been my years-long goal to do away with that latest bit of history. As I work my real estate showings in North Sea, I make every person aware of what Conscience Point really is all about. I give them a short history lesson of sorts, if they will listen!.
Not one person with whom I’ve worked knew anything about the extensive history of this area. As I was showing houses I told them all about North Sea and its whaling history, its protected status as a part of the Peconic Estuary, about the Port of Missing Men at the Salm’s estate and the shooting parties who gathered there, regularly to shoot wild game. This was my favorite part of Southampton and I never tired of telling others all about the place.
There was a time when I envisioned a spa on the water near that historic entryway to Conscience Point. But that was then, and this is now. This is not a place you could survive if you did try to open something like a fancy health spa, especially now that the old appeal of North Sea had faded and the shabby countenance of the buildings and the marina itself were so obvious.
"The Spa at Conscience Point" was a dream I had had for years, something that I had talked with Fred about doing when we had first met. He was very supportive of my idea, encouraging me along the way. But I needed to commit to it, to getting investors and to doing the research that a spa requires: A Destination Spa, with a twenty- room hotel and a seventy-boat slip marina. All this could enhance the historic nature of Conscience Point and could put a fine point on the map of this most valuable place. I could even imagine the addition of excursion boats—perhaps Tall Ships that would take loads of tourists up along the original route of the earliest settlers. This could be on the order of a museum tour, all the way up the coast to Lynn Massachusetts and then back down to Conscience Point as a weekend excursion, all the while maintaining its historic significance.
I really needed to mastermind the whole concept and put it down in a presentation that could be offered up to the monied few who I thought would love the idea. That's how I approached Fred.
I asked him to be a part of the Spa group because I felt if there was anyone I trusted for his local knowledge, his steadfast and consistent behavior, and his experience with the town zoning laws, it was Fred.
I was so excited about the idea of a spa and the Tall Ships; but I could not do it all on my own. Fred was distracted for some reason and so we dropped the whole idea, crushing my excitement and leaving me with no desire to proceed. I wanted to keep it on the back burner, but it didn’t even make that status. I looked to Fred for his ability to comprehend big projects; my expectation was also stymied because he disappeared from the area for a year or so and I never did find out just where he had gone and what he had done.
Some have said he went back to the UK to marry and settle down. But his farm here in Bridgehampton still needed his attention and he came back to bring it up to current standards as an organic farm. He proceeded to grow and sell produce to the Halsey Farm Stand and Babinski’s Farm Stand, among other merchants here on the South Fork. All the farm stand owners knew Fred and his produce. No one cared as much as Fred did about the vegetables he grew.
Through the grapevine I heard that he never married the woman he went back to see in the UK and I never heard anything more about that large segment of time. It was simply missing from his story, and I was not very good at prying into his private life.
That was so long ago now, and things have changed in a major way. The Town bought the marina and the building at Conscience Point and the “Spa at Conscience Point” was history.
GREAT PECONIC BAY
I was driving as Fred sat very straight in the passenger seat, hanging onto the handle above his passenger side window as if he would fall out of the car if he let go for one second.
We drove up North Sea Road, up the winding roadway flanked by endless black-eyed Susan’s and huge tufted heads of wild carrot or Queen Ann’s Lace.
We were heading right up to the very end of North Sea Road, past the big blue sign and the plain entryway to the sandy road where Conscience Point is located.
My disappointment was evident in my voice as I said, "That's where we talked about doing a spa, remember?" I pointed at the sign that told the brief history of Conscience Point and then looked back at the winding road.
Fred said nothing. His eyes moved over the marina and the many boats docked nearby. “Well, we are lucky we didn't do it back then--never would have made it.” Fred said with a relieved sigh. I was surprised and yet I remembered that was when he left, when he went to visit his friend in the UK. I quickly said “Why do you say that? For all we know it would have been another Canyon Ranch sort of place--could have been quite successful, I think!" I said that just to keep the conversation going, hoping he would shed some light on just where he had gone at that time.
I knew all the walking trails around the area and the plan included getting permits to use those trails for morning walks, just as they do at Canyon Ranch, in Tucson, Arizona.
"This area is ready for a big change, but not commercial,” he said. Then he stopped and, totally off topic, said, "Why didn't you move back to the city? You told me several times you were going back to Manhattan. I thought you were long gone back then."
That question told me that Fred didn’t really know what I was setting out to do with my life. If I was going to go back to live in the city, that would surely mean I was making a life change that did not include him. At least I thought that, as we drove the curvy road heading to Peconic Bay.
I told him that I thought about it a lot, but it was never the right time.
Now, these hamlets are in my blood. The Hamptons is a place that I know like no other. "I can't leave this place now, Fred. It’s like a best friend to me. Loyal and forever telling me stories...it has never disappointed me, and I will never get over that. No, I will never leave it!”
Fred nodded and went totally silent for the rest of the trip. We passed the magnificent mansion of the Salm’s Estate, past the Port of Missing Men, the hunting lodge on a huge lake where private parties would gather for their sport of game shooting on the estate. The estate had been a favorite of wild game hunters and shooting parties from Europe for many years and it continues to entertain those who are “to the manor, born” to this day.
The game farm was an oasis amid the bucolic pastures and farm fields. A place where men could gather, go shooting and then afterwards feast on the game in the huge dining hall of the historic Salm’s mansion.
The place was popular with the Brits who were members. They would come for their annual gatherings, disappear for weeks at a time and then go back to their staid existence in the UK.
“The Port of Missing Men” got its name for the very reason that the members joined. It was a storied place for more than two centuries, and it made for great historic value for North Sea. The place could handle large groups of men, each with the idea that a few weeks “lost” in this sort of macho heaven was a tonic for the soul. The Salms family still owns the lodge and its well-stocked game farm. It is still used as a retreat for traditional shooting parties from Europe, even though it is currently owned and operated by the only remaining family member, Sallie Salms.
At the very end of North Sea Road, on the right, was the wonderful little community of North Sea Beach Colony, one of my favorite places in the Hamptons. Tiny cottages are grouped together, protected by the number of them and by the families who owned them. This was the old fishing shanty, taken to the next level and each one had its trademark fireplace, usually made with fieldstone. Narrow streets and roads enfolded the community in a tight-knit environment that resisted the massive growth that was happening south of there. Many families continue to own these rustic cottages to this day.
…And there, at the end of the road, was the Great Peconic Bay.
Fred was so quiet I thought he may have fallen asleep, but then he brightened as we pulled into the parking space at the very end of the road.
"Here we are," I said. "At the end of the road." We chuckled and pulled our belongings together to go wading into the bay. As we pulled on our waders, I noticed that mine were split near the pulls and, as I pulled them on, they ripped even further. “I can’t go in the water with these, Fred.” I looked in the trunk to see if there may be another pair of waders—none!
“It’s OK, Fred, I will just wait for you here.” I flung the waders into one of the trash barrels there near the sign. Town pickup would take care of them for me, or maybe someone else could repair them. I decided to wait for Fred on shore and maybe search for sea glass among the pebbles on this long stretch of beach.
I would let Fred see if he could locate the best scallops and bring in his wire basket full of the most delicious fare of the bay. My mouth was watering as I sat there waiting for the results of his search. I was sorry I had not been able to join in the fun, but I also thought it was important that Fred got his wish—to be able to capture a large basket of his favorite shellfish, the famous bay scallops.
When he came back from around the big rock in the bay, he had a full basket! It was so surprising that he could find that many-- must have been the first to get there to that spot.
Meanwhile I had sifted through the pebbles on the beach and had found some of the most interesting sea glass. There was a soft pink piece that I was sure had been a decorative perfume bottle at one point in time. It was the very bottom of the bottle if that is what it came from. There was a circular shape to it and a faded mark that appeared to be a Fleur de Lis embossed deeply on one side of it.
I also had a blue piece of glass that was the color of the water, but it was smoothed over to a feeling of blue velvet. Treasures from this beach are always available---some come from a century or more ago.
The sands of time and the fine pebbles had made all these pieces more beautiful than the next, polishing as they washed over the glass. I even had a piece of clear brown glass, as if a seafarer had dropped a smoky quartz rock into the water centuries ago, and here it was, ready for cutting and setting.
Dusk was moving in now, and as the sun started its descent below the horizon, I pointed to the breathtaking sight of a large shaft of light coming up (or down) from behind Robins Island.
"What is that??" I gasped, feeling a chill, like I was witness to the hand of God or something just as ethereal. I noticed that not one other person of the dozen or so standing there to witness the sunset, looked to see what I was pointing at—as if it was as common an occurrence as the sunset itself!
Fred told me that with the reflection of the sun on the clouds and the refraction off the water, these "light phenomena" happen often, especially here on open bay waters where you can see the sunsets almost every day! "You can see them all the time when the weather is clear, and the clouds and sun are in a certain position."
I was astounded at the effect of that shaft of light on my state of mind. I felt a serenity that was quite profound. I was surprised that I had never heard of this phenomenon before. But, it was not really surprising that it was not well known—these local folks rarely spoke of the most mundane happenings; why would they even think to mention such a sight as what I just saw?
Fred and I had never spent so much time together as we did that day. We stopped at Babinski’s Farm stand on the way back to my place.
The bright red tomatoes and the brilliant greens of the lettuces, basil, and parsley looked like a picture in a magazine. We poked through all the lettuces and all the tomatoes for the very best depth of color, "the deeper the color the more flavor,” Fred said, as we walked along the huge bins. The basil was nearby, tied in bunches so that we could just pick out the most uniform one with leaves that were dark green and almost shiny. The scent of that basil still comes to mind today as I think about it. “There is something about the sunshine here on the East End that gives all the vegetables their depth of color, their scent and their taste,” Fred said as he pulled his fingertips together and sent a big kiss into the air, just as a chef might do.
Fred made me laugh with his casual play on the worldly influences that he picked up in Europe. It was almost as if he grew up there, a member of the sophisticated population. He offered up a rare mix of American country gentleman and the European debonair. I guess it had to do with being exposed to that part of the world as a very young man.
We drove quickly to my house with our fresh fare and Fred cleaned the scallops on the back deck while I prepared a tomato, basil, and mozzarella salad and the butter and wine sauce for the scallops to cook in.
That was a wonderful day and it was a healthy outing for Fred. The color was back in his face and he looked almost robust.
We sat on the back deck, enjoyed the lemonade I had made and ate the pasta with fresh Peconic Bay scallops. As the light started to fade from the sky I could see lightning bugs starting to gather in the back yard.
We talked way into the evening and as we talked, we moved closer.
He held me tightly for a few moments and I stayed still as his lips gently touched my cheek. He lingered, and I turned my face so I could feel his lips against my own. My mind was in a race with my heart as I felt the softness of his lips, the same tender touching of our mouths, without a forcefulness, yet a slow revelation of the longing we both felt. So balanced were we as we slipped back in time and for just a moment I thought I was going to fall off the chaise. I felt his large hands pull me closer to him, touching me in the most familiar way.
There was a moment that I knew his feelings were still there. He still had the strength that was his hallmark. I could feel his muscles, so strong if now thinner. My heart was pounding, and I was hoping he couldn’t hear it as I could.
What I wanted more than anything else was to let him move against me, but there was time for that. We sat sideways there in each other’s arms and I could feel his breath against my cheek, much like so many times before. Then I said in a whisper “Can you sing the Prayer for me, Fred? I want to hear it again—you sang it so perfectly before—it sounded like an alleluia to me!” He stopped short of letting me slip backwards, his arms cradling me as if I were his child. He kissed me tenderly and softly, wanting nothing more than to be as close as he could get. He hummed a bit of the aria from Rienzi, making me cry for the beauty of it, and then he pressed me closer than he ever had.
Without moving away from me, he stopped and just looked into my eyes. For many moments he looked into my eyes as he spoke. “I have never, ever let you in, you know? It has been my biggest regret that I was so unprepared for you!”
His sea-blue eyes widened, tears were starting to slip over his lids, and he let them slip down his cheeks. His facial roughness was such a mark of his natural way of being and he was careful with it, always careful not to scratch me or to rub too roughly. It was by way of his awareness of my soft skin; unconscious respect of my womanhood. Fred had always been that way with me, and it made me want him even more.
He looked away then and sighed deeply, “You turned me inside out back then. You made me see what real family is. You made me feel more human than I can ever remember—No one has ever made me feel so much!” His breathing let me know that he needed to say all of this to me and it was not easy.
“I just want you to know that I am so sorry I stayed away for so long! We had SO much! We had it all and I walked away from you as if it meant nothing. I didn’t want to hurt you; that’s why I called you that day—and you were so angry with me!” His voice dropped to the lowest octave and he made it seem like he might just slip away from me, again. I could not let him do that; not now, not ever again.
My head dropped against his chest and he held me more tightly as he said softly “I want you to know, you mean everything to me. I just could not handle the depth of it all back then. Too much was going on in my life then. Too deep! Too complicated. My life was so messed up!... I was so messed up!”
My heart stopped. He was taking the whole load on his own shoulders. He was making me feel that same feeling again. I moved my head to his shoulder, a cradle that I remembered from an eternity ago and a place I now needed so badly.
I could no longer hide what I felt for him. I let the sobs fall out of me as if I were ridding myself of some deadly poison. And it was poison, as I saw it. It was as deadly as any poison out there, my blocking of Fred so completely that I almost lost him. I put my arms around his neck and let myself release all the emotion that I had over him, about him and my fear of losing him forever.
He picked me up with his big hands. His arms surrounding me, he led me into the house, where our bodies magnetically joined, just as they had so long ago. We pulled each other’s clothes off as we moved to the bedroom and stood with bodies melded. It had been so long since we had enjoyed this. We needed it more than life itself now. I fell backward onto the bed as he separated my legs with his knees; we wrapped our bodies around each other, and we were one.
It was not the intensity of our youth, but it was a completion that was so called for. We held and touched each other, slowly re-acquainting ourselves. We kissed endlessly, and we talked. We shared our most important life stories, and for the first time, we declared our love for each other.
Afterward, we held each other as we slept, exhausted beyond words. We stayed that way while the night was coming to an end and early dawn began to seep into the room.
Fred did not leave. We needed to talk. We spoke quietly about how we were going to move in together. We would live in my house until we could decide where we would live permanently.
Fred’s house was very old and needed major work and that may be an option in the future. But for now, we had lost time to make up for. We needed to join together in a household, a place, any place that we could share as our love now became our very basis for living.
I sat there on the deck in the first morning light, after Fred was gone, and thought about how vulnerable he was. He seemed to be in another place, yet I have never felt so close to him. I will be helpful to him, I thought. I have enough of the “stuff” in my mind that it will take to get through all this; I had already seen a crumbling of the wall I had built around my heart. Now it was time that I put my years of study to work for another soul in need, Fred Stevenson would hopefully be the beneficiary.
It would not be long now that Fred had opened up to me, that I would learn the whole story about his family, his life and find the missing pieces that I needed so badly. A resolution was coming, and I could feel it beginning, right here in my room.
It all began with what I would find out in the coming days. Revelation after revelation would tumble forth as Fred and I restarted our lives. His willingness to tell me things that would create an even deeper bond between us was spilling out into the open and there was no going back now.
I listened to the silence and watched the morning light building into a new day.
I saw a large bird come up off the ground, a mockingbird of sorts.
It was almost total daylight now, with a fog of morning dew still hanging in the yard. The bird stopped at the foot of the steps on the deck and looked at me, turning his head from one way to the other as he took me into his view.
Strange that this bird should appear out of nowhere and present himself as he did right then. Then he made a long wailing sound that trailed off into the morning air.
It was a wailing sound, but there was a melody to it too—an elegy that made me catch my breath. Another wailing sound followed as the bird let the sound out without taking a breath.
The bird bobbed along the ground as if doing a dance. It was as if he was looking for something from me. He kept turning his head toward me, then looking away, looking at me then turning away, again and again, this went on for a few minutes. Suddenly he stopped, went right toward my steps, then into the Copper Beach tree to my left. He sat on the branch for some time. I sat there listening to that sad song for what seemed like an eternity. Then he flew off, made a steep turn into the layer of morning fog and disappeared completely.
I went into the house thinking about Fred, wondering if he was OK. Then I slipped back into bed, and sleep.