The Scavenger

We sailed down the inter-Cape highway in her mother's baby blue Lark, me and Joan and the boy in the backseat. Joan drove the middle lane of the three-lane road, the one supposed to be for passing, so we got plenty of horns honking and swerving-out-of-our-way action. Not that Joan cared. One hand on the wheel, the other on a tall plastic parfait glass of Neapolitan ice cream, a bottle of cheap wine clenched between her thighs. Cigarette dangling from her lips. She'd just turned sixteen, gotten her license at last.

"You girls are crazy," the boy said but he didn't seem scared.

We'd picked him up on the beach in Provincetown two days before. He'd been earning his money scavenging pinecones and driftwood by the bushel, selling them to local tacky-souvenir artists who wrote--"Welcome to Provincetown" on the cones and used the wood as a base for little picturesque piers complete with white-painted gulls. The boy wasn't exactly a genius but was he something to look at with his white teeth and shaggy brown hair all hanging in his eyes. And tan, of course, it was summer and his skin was velvet over the kind of wiry muscles we favored.

We were on our way to a picnic for Aunt Violet's birthday. Besides the parfait, we had strawberries and sausages from the Portuguese and cheese and a roll or two. And two more bottles of wine. Enough for all of us since wine made me sick.

"Will your aunt mind me coming?" the boy asked.

"Not in the least!" Joan replied merrily, lifting her wheel hand in a reassuring manner. She nearly missed the cutoff for Truro when she turned to flash a smile at him sitting in the backseat with the wrappers and leftovers from other outings. She jerked the car off the main road and it went up on its right side a bit. "My mother's whole family is very accepting." In fact, her mother had been disowned for marrying a Jew from Baltimore.

My parents were also Jews, but poor ones, socialists, the children of immigrants. The FBI had come for my father back in the '50s and now he was blacklisted, often unemployable. We had no summer home.

"Mom's family would have kicked your father off the Mayflower," Joan said to me, waving in the general direction of the ocean. "In sight of that beach. He would have bobbed up and down until he sank and never reached the promised land." Her father would have been kicked off, too, just as a matter of principle, but she didn't mention him.

Joan's dad had brought us up to their summerhouse, that's why I'd agreed to come. Not that he was Jewish but that he was so old, in his seventies, half-blind and half-senile. With him we did what we wanted--just that morning we'd been downstairs at breakfast and the boy, the stupid boy, dropped something upstairs where he was hiding and Joan's father said, "What's that?" and we said, "The dog" and he never noticed the dog next to him slurping water out of its dish.

We pulled up at a fence on the other side of town. Joan grabbed the neck of the wine bottle and hopped out, cigarette ash flying. The half-eaten parfait tumbled to the ground to melt among the weeds in the cracked asphalt.

"This a shortcut to her place?" The boy looked between the railings of the fence to the long grass and the trees beyond. It was a lovely spot under the limitless blue sky.

We didn't answer. We visited Aunt Violet often and weren't going to be late for her birthday picnic.

The basket wouldn't fit through the fence so I squeezed through first and Joan tossed it over. Nothing fell out; it was too beautiful a day. The two of them slipped through and joined me. Joan darted off, yelled, "Aunt Violet!"

No one answered. I handed the basket to the boy to carry, figuring I wanted something out of his presence besides his looks, and we followed.

"What's this?" he asked, hesitating when we caught up with Joan.

She was kneeling by the gravestone, patting the carelessly trimmed turf.

"Aunt Violet," I said though it should have been obvious.

"I don't know about this." He made a move to leave but when we spread the picnic cloth and Joan unscrewed the top of another bottle of wine, he shrugged and sat down.

An hour later in the sun and heat and alcohol haze, Joan began to cry. "I miss Aunt Violet! This isn't really a birthday celebration without her here."

"Poor baby." My stomach rolled and gnat-like spots danced before my eyes.

No one mentioned Violet's headstone was dated 1846.

"That's it!" With a sudden movement, Joan raised the silver teaspoon we'd used to eat the parfait, one of a set her great-grandmother had imported from England. Raised it like Jeanne d'Arc raising the cross to lead her soldiers into battle. "I'm digging Violet up!" She stuck the spoon into the tough grass before the marble stone and sent a tuft flying.

"You can't do that!" the boy said. She ignored him and continued to hack at the grass. The cemetery was silent except for the droning of bees. My stomach rolled again and I got up to move off. It was our tradition never to vomit on Aunt Violet.

A few rows away, I sank down against the cool stone of a Mr. Thistlewaithe, gone since 1868. The world spun faster in its orbit, threatening to fling me from this peaceful place. But it didn't and when it slowed I arose and returned to Joan. She was lying on her back smoking another cigarette. The boy was on top of her, his dirty khaki shorts around his knees. Only six square inches of grass were disturbed.

"That'll give Aunt Violet something to think about," I said.

Joan smiled.

We drove home to Philadelphia the next day, leaving her father to putter around Truro with his dog, the two of them, the old Jew and the old dog, mascots of the town. We took the boy with us, but only for a while. Joan kept him in the basement of her apartment building, where no one ever went, brought him food every night and smuggled him out every morning when her mother left for work. By the time summer ended she'd tired of him and of me and sent us on our way.

About the author:

Judith Beck is a physician in California. Her fiction and non-fiction have been nominated for the Pushcart and won awards, including the Bernice Slote Award from Prairie Schooner. That essay was also given honorable mention in Best American Essays of 2004. She is presently working on a novel.