Washington Apple Red
His name is Skip and he is a mild asshole. He has a leather-strap watch, and suede New Balance sneakers, and brains which almost excused his arrogance. He is in the habit of scrunching his graham-colored hair when he jelled it, so he looked half like Scott Fitzgerald, or Tom Hiddleston’s version of him in the movie.
He plays tennis and is happy only on Thursdays, when he digests the New Yorker with Chips Ahoy on his father’s Princeton plates and thought himself distinguished, and is only funny on Fridays, when he recycles the wit he acquired by osmosis.
She had brown school oxfords and dark hair and hadn’t been referred or spoken to for four months outside of the surname she shared with her Boy Scout Valedictorian Scholarship to Yale but Studying at West Point to Apply His Mind to the Good of His Country Instead of to His Individual Person older brother.
Spencer Brennan the Boy Scout had had the exception of being incarnated as three forms in one life; as the leaves changed each fall those years, so had he. In the fall of 2007, he shapeshifted from a West Point cadet with a lover named Emily and a passion for the cafeteria’s ravioli into a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, deathly afraid of water. In the fall of 2008, the transformation was from soldier whose premier boyhood habit had been collecting and filling boxes, to being collected in and filling a box himself.
Georgetown friends, they are sitting in a bar called Einstein’s. It is one of those bars which tries too hard to be smart. Two white raspberry brandies they bought for $9 each and which resemble milk diluted with ice sit before them in pear-bottomed glasses. The drink is called a “clouded mind” and the cups are repurposed lightbulbs.
Einstein’s diluted-milk smartness is lost on Skip. Much has been lost on Skip in his nineteen years. Two prep-school virginities. The relevance of Chaucer. Friends’ BMW keys.
He moves his napkin to the table.
“Hang on,” says Beatrice, pen posed mid-check.
“It’s not an autograph,” says Skip.
“Not yet.” She signs her name. The B is oversized. The Beatrice is trying to escape the Hartshorn. Skip would make something of that, she thinks, like that she’s trying to evade the Boy Scout. She can’t say that. Not even in thought. The escape has taken eighteen earthly years, and six months of this fall-tinted in-between time. “He’s not yet cold,” she thinks, but she’s really speaking.
But Skip doesn’t hear. He’s courting himself in a mirror. It is a Guinness beer mirror and the Guinness toucan jeers at him from the corner. Skip is smug both in flesh and reflection. He has a pretty face.
He tugs his ear.
“Skip,” she repeats.
“You don’t think—”
“What?” Skip starts for the door. It is raining outside and the white petals of dogwood trees cluster outside the Einstein’s sign, smelling sickly of death and looking like dampened confetti.
“Rudolph,” she says. “That Asian box in the—”
Skip hails a cab. It pulls up splashing. “Would it have been a problem if he had?
“He was seeing someone, Skip.”
Skip entered the cab with a tap on the hood for a wave and ducked inside. He was consumed first by an apparent discussion with the cab driver, and second by the raincoated masses of the street. The driver maneuvered the cab onto Philadelphia, and Skip Corrigan back home.
The week prior Beatrice Hartshorn and Skip Corrigan drove up to New Hampshire to revive a corpse. The Boy Scout had died over water and not over land, but he was a land creature from start to end, and all his earthly accoutrements contained in the 2500 square feet of a wood shingle house and barn-converted-office.
Beatrice hadn’t been to New Hampshire since the incident which had magnetized her brother there. In high school, he’d been invited by a cousin for an overnight in Hanover—to the parents, a trip justified by a tour of Dartmouth, to the children, by the case of Bud Walter had produced—and had been enraptured by a Dartmouth sophomore named Aaron Hill.
Aaron Hill had been a rower and a Biology Major. His coloring was black Irish, his humor hinged on the grotesque, and Saturday of the Hanover sojourn he defied both gravity and the oxygen requirements of a functioning body in the Corrigan’s pool.
“I was looking at myself ten years premature,” the Boy Scout had scribbled on a napkin in the Navy hospital. He’d drawn leaves around the note.
Driving up, they listened to Pink Floyd and ate peanut butter crackers. It is damp though not raining and the trees slick with leftover dew. The chestnut shingling of the Boy Scout’s house emerges from the trees.
“You know Salinger used to live up here,” says Skip, as they near the driveway.
“Spooky,” says Beatrice, flatly.
“One time I was up here with Geoff,” says Skip. “dead night. Thought this black cat was crossing the road. Stopped twenty minutes to wait for it to cross. But it ever crossed, of course. It was really a plastic bag.”
“Is that supposed to be some kind of koan?”
“I don’t like this anymore than you,” says Skip.
“I know, I know. I’m just—”
“Angry.” Skip trades out his glasses for a new pair. The song moans, and he flips it off. He reaches across her with his sweater, the loose arm of it hanging down over Beatrice’s lap like a water-weighted limb, and flings open her door. “Survivor’s privilege.”
Beatrice sits, still-faced. Skip reaches forward to kiss her, and she accepts him, the wetness of his mouth reminding her of the aquatic nature of the Boy Scout’s death. She pulls away and walks the cul-de-sac driveway to her brother’s haunt.
There are papers, files, pillows, books. Everything is gray and brown and leather and wool. Tucked in the cabinet which was a dumbwaiter before the Boy Scout bought the house, however, is the exception of a box the size of a letter. It is lacquer box, rectangular, and a shade the color of red Washington apples. Along the cover and sides deep gold and black-specked cranes and peonies leaned and overlapped. Skip extracts the box from the dumbwaiter, sitting cross-legged with it beside him on the carpet.
Beatrice folds beside him. Soundlessly, she begins to cry. “He was seeing someone. Emily, Skip, he was—”
But Skip is staring intently at the box.
“Skip.” Beatrice brushes back his hair. His right ear folds under her hand.
The cranes and peonies begin to move in his plane of vision. To clash into each other, along the box’s red Washington apple skin. His thin mouth is resolute, his gray eyes paused in equanimity. “Maybe you want to hide beauty,” he says, in pure English Major form. “Maybe you want to chip off a piece of the world for yourself.”
A week later, they return to the Boy Scout’s haunt to orchestrate a yard sale. Walter Corrigan has bought them tickets to a Dartmouth regatta, as a sort of consolation for this effort, and they are first to stop at the local post office, local drugstore, to close what affairs remain of the Boy Scout’s in town.
The drug store is a white affair still stuck in the middle 30s. The counters are lined in galvanized metal, the older of the shelves chipped white marble, the shopping bags lunch-bag imitative paper sacks which might have concealed green glass during Prohibition.
“Just these,” the boy behind the counter brings out a pill-bottle after Skip’s inquiry.
Beatrice is distracted with the spacey packaging of Hall’s cough drops: computer-generated fruit clashing into similarly generated frost and ice crystals. Wintergreen. Berry-Blast. Cherry-Mint.
“Hart,” says Skip.
“We just have these,” repeats the boy, handing the bottle to Beatrice. It is an opaque cylinder in a clementine reminiscent of the “Road Work Ahead” signs they encountered up the parkway.
“Zingiber officinale,” she reads from the label. It is dated with alarm-clock-like colon lettering indicating last December. “Zingiber?” she turns to the boy.
“Ginger pills,” he reports.
Skip is laughing.
“What?” stammers Beatrice.
“An Asian home-remedy for the sinuses,” Skip says, with doctor’s-son’s authority.
“Do you think this has something to do with—”
“It’s called Chino-philia,” Skip says. He is ecstatic. “It’s—don’t you see? He—An aesthetic infidelity. Not a physical one. An aesthetic—”
“It’s just a sinus treatment.”
But Skip has the pill-bottle locked intently in his glare. It is the mutual subject of his wonder, his boyish awe. “Not on Emily, Hart. On Western culture.”
Beatrice leaves the drugstore trailing Skip and watching the bottle of ginger pills, half understanding. In Aisle Two they buy some wrist-tape, though Beatrice doesn’t remember the tennis match in which he’d manipulated the tendon. She holds the box of wrist-tape as he drives. His pullover sweater is a green she can’t peg as definitively jade or wasabi.
In the Boy Scout’s cul-de-sac she lets Skip in ahead. In the passenger seat she remembers how Skip had been looking at the feet of Roger Brennan’s date last week on the Metro, and how her name had been Elizabeth Shin, and that she had gone to Horace Mann.