The first house on the road, before there was a road, before the road was Laurel Lane, was built in the 1880s and for a long time stood alone. As kids we would map out the territory, the outbuildings, cellars, stables, servants’ quarters, exposed roots of ancient trees. There were tunnels through mountain laurel, shadowed paths to woods and to the beach. Every dare terminated at the old family burial ground, torturously overgrown with ivy, honeysuckle, lilac, wisteria. There the bodies of Martha, Simon, and Christian (twelve years old) mouldered under headstones all askew, inhabited by the occasional snail.
The Retreat was a Victorian haunt, a playground of ghosts beckoning in slanted light. As kids we screamed a lot, and laughed, conjured up the living past at bonfires on the beach. The Retreat was our unconscious selves, keys, dresses, polished stones, awful claws, returning to us perennially, at great removes of place and time.
The houses that went up in the 1950s and ’60s, our houses, were an affront to the Reserve, cedar shake colonials with built-in blenders on kitchen islands, sunken living rooms, walk-in closets, landscaped lawns, rhododendrons, dogwoods, weeping willows, built-in swimming pools. New York City construction executives, like my dad, and garmentos, like my best friend Rachel’s, and their wives, our moms, mine a natural beauty newly arrived in pedal pushers and Peter Pan collars, hers long on the scene in orange lipstick and geometric prints, angular handbags dangling from skinny wrists, impossible shoes, bought up prime Long Island real estate, two-acre lots in the vicinity of the Retreat, the dirt road having then been paved.
On Laurel Lane, everything old was new again, including the Victorian Retreat, bought dirt cheap (it was said) by the Gossums, who inhabitated it wholly. Possessed it. A big family (thirteen kids), the Gossums were a pseudo-Neanderthal tribe from New Jersey with Fred Flintstone toes and fingers, square jaws, and long, wild hair, thick necks. Heavy-set. They played guitar. Some of them played electric guitar. Molly Gossum, the matriarch, smoked. She screamed at the kids: “Where’s the baby?”; “Who put tunafish in the mayonnaise?” The Gossums under ten had black teeth, having been sent to bed with bottles of sugar juice. Mr. Gossum owned a lumberyard. After their baby teeth fell out, the Gossum kids got good dental.
Moe Gossum, sixteen, sold Avon, gave out samples to her friends, and to the neighborhood kids who, in exchange for a sample vial of perfume (she called it “fragrance”) combed her hair, massaged her back to the tune of Topaz and Rapture.
Moe’s brother, Simon Gossum, the eldest son, and his girlfriend Joan, made out on the couch in the Retreat’s retreating parlor. Naked under a red blanket, Simon flashed his privates, all black, against Joan’s white sideways smile. Looking at me, all of us kids laughing, throwing things everywhere. Pillows, plastic. Me looking at her, her pushing back, her sleepy white face, strawberry hair, round brown eyes blank, sweet as an open window. Gray-white ass turning over, like a wave, him looking at me, looking at her.
The next week she’d be dead, hanging from a tree in the woods off Laurel Lane.
Simon would find her.
Me looking at him; him looking at me.