East of Patchogue, the shopping malls and tract homes give way to the last remaining forest on Long Island. This is not wilderness, nor has it been for many years. From the highway, you may glimpse ruined radio towers and abandoned cars crumpled like old tin cans; you will note the gradual ruination of houses as manicured lawns turn unruly, porches slump, colonial homes begin to seem^antigue but merely decrepit. Snatches of weedy ponds flicker past. Old men shamble through hedges, clutching paper sacks. A jailhouse sits in the county seat. Sand replaces fertile mulch; skeletal firs impinge on stands of hardy oak. Grass grows longer, sharper here, like quills jabbed into the sand. And then the road narrows, clotting traffic in its constricted artery, forcing you to crawl along with fellow motorists, inhaling their bluish exhaust. You have seen the familiar world falling away for miles now, green shade giving way to inhospitable hummocks: surely the culmination of all this will be something truly alien, a scene of lunar desolation if not the ripe festering of Bosch’s Hell. Over the roofs of cars made soft-seeming by the heat, over the tipped-back heads of beer-swigging teens in convertibles, you crane to catch sight of the end of the world, the abyss into which all these cars are streaming….
Instead, thirty minutes and five miles later, you come to the first tourist boutiques. Crystal jewelry, hand-dyed fabrics, historic firehouse, ice cream, maps. There are trees again, reaching out over the shops and the street like green paws.
White haired women watch the traffic from cottage windows, as two centuries ago their ancestors watched the passage of horse-drawn wagons. The clamor you hear is not that of hooves, but of skateboards. It is a lovely place despite the honking of cars, and quaint although every well-preserved building seems to be a real estate office; but still, you feel uncomfortable here.
You feel watched, impaled on the eyes of the old women with colonial faces, studied by shopkeers and a traffic cop. Your first impulse is to retreat, to seek more familiar quarters, but a traffic sign prohibits U-Turns. So instead you speed up, praying that the road will widen, only to find yourself on the highway again, where every turn-off is a private drive to a two- or three-story manorhouse fleetingly glimpsed through the trees.
There is no turning back. You know you will not head west again until you have driven to the farthest pincer of Long Island. All these years you avoided them; now they have seized you in their claws.
Some say that the horror began with Ann Dimity; others claim it was the fault of her parents, Clive and Clarisse, who gave too much freedom to a sixteen year old girl. There is little agreement on most points of this history, though many claim to have witnessed all save the culminating terror, which I alone survived. It is a tale told in fits and starts, a nightmare woven of gossip and innuendo, those transparent but tenacious social threads that hold the Hamptons together like the separate strands of a single web.
I became enmeshed in that web during the course of one muggy summer when my good friend Sachnoth Ebbing, once a contributing editor of The Manhattanite, now retired to write the occasional essay while composing his autobiography, invited me to take a much-needed rest at his home above the beach near Montauk Point.
I had been trapped for two and a half years in an ever more complicated gyre of poems brought on by my sojourn in Lynchburg, Civil War cycle entitled Squalid Glory. Sach must have sensed from the tone of my ever more cursory postcards that I was close to psychic and artistic collapse.
“Come walk on the beach and collect seashells,” he told me. “It will do you good.”
And so it was, in my battered but serviceable Volvo, that I found myself speeding along a narrow seaside road and braking suddenly at the sight of a modest dull metal mailbox marked “Ebbing.” There was one other car in the driveway, Sach’s Mercedes. He greeted me with a pitcher of martinis and showed me to the guest house, a tiny cottage nestled in Scotch grass just above the beach.
“Of course, you needn’t sentence yourself to an endless exile in this little place, watching the waves fall,” he said. “Or scribbling the same sentence over and over again, more likely. I’d appreciate some company in the big house. Since Martha died, I feel like a bit of broken cog rattling around in a great old grandfather clock.”
Sach’s talent had never been for metaphor; the big house was no antique. It had been built for the Ebbings fewer than ten years before, and was largely chrome and glass and stained wood, its several seaward porches supported on huge reinforced concrete pylons. I preferred the more rustic cabin, but I could hardly refuse Sach’s plea for companionship.
We settled down with our cold glasses and began to reminisce, to trade stories of mutual friends, then to gripe about the state of publishing. No sooner had our conversation truly taken off than Sach paused in mid-sentence, head cocked, bewildered, as though listening to mermaids calling faintly from the waves.
“Did…did you hear something?” he said.
“Not a thing,” I replied, although I could hardly have heard mermaids over his grating tirade against conglomerate literati.
“I thought I heard a car.”
“I don’t think so, Sach. Do go on…you were deploring the new breed of cookbook.”
At that, the doorbell rang. Sach jumped up as though stabbed with a hatpin, and hurried away without another word to me. I refilled my glass from the moisture-beaded pitcher, then went to stand in the open French doors that overlooked the Atlantic. I tried to imagine the horizon bristling with British warships, like a gently bobbing forest of denuded trees. It was such a compelling image that I half-seriously contemplated recasting Squalid Glory in the time of the Revolutionary rather than the Civil War. No sooner had I set down my glass and reached for a notepad than Sachnoth reentered the room, followed by an agitated young man with dark glasses pushed up on his tanned brow, wearing a cotton sweater with its arms tied around his neck.
“Regent, this is my good friend, the poet Nathan Carlysle, just up from Virginia. Nathan, Regent Hamilton.”
Regent gave me a quick nod. “I’m sorry to interrupt you, Mr. Ebbing, but do you think you can come take a look? I just called the place and there was the weirdest sound over the phone.”
“Why don’t you just call the police, Regent? If there’s real danger then the authorities are the only ones qualified to handle it.”
Regent gave a tremendous shrug of his shoulders; it was more of a reluctant squirm really. “I might be wrong, Mr. Ebbing. I don’t want anybody thinking I’m crazy.”
“I don’t…well, all right. Nathan, would you care to take a spin over to Quee’s Jaw?”
“Certainly,” I said, although the prospect of embarking on another car-trip made my hindquarters ache.
But Regent was distressed by my friend’s invitation. “Him? Does he have to go?”
“He’s my guest, Regent. I can’t very well leave him here. Besides, he’s a stranger to the Hamptons. He won’t go telling anyone’s deep, dark secrets. Will you, Nathan?”
“Of course not,” I said, my curiosity whetted. Perhaps there was a poem in here somewhere, something minor to distract me from Sherman’s inexorable march.
Within moments, we were flying along past beach houses in Regent’s maroon convertible BMW. He blew his horn at children dragging air mattresses and fluorescent “boogie boards” perilously near the shoulderless road. It was early evening, and the beginnings of a coolness swarmed the atmosphere; I was feeling perfectly at ease in the streaming air, like a dog with my head out the window. Suddenly, young Mr. Hamilton stamped on the brakes and spun the car onto an isolated drive among grey-barked pines. Just ahead, through the trees, I saw a tall fence of black iron and spikes; the waters of the sound glimmered in the distance.
“Quag Harbor,” Sach told me. “That spit of land there is Quee’s Jaw.”
As the BMW idled, I studied the promontory, which looked slight enough to have been flooded at high tide or washed away completely during any storm. Yet there was a house at the end of it—and not just any house. It was monstrous, a mansion of incredible proportions, hunkering there on the tip of Quee’s Jaw like an enormous wooden boil about to explode from internal pressures. For while vast and impressive in its way, it was also unquestionably an eyesore. It must have had several score of deranged architects at various times, and hundreds of inexperienced carpenters following those mad blueprints. It looked like something a child might have built; a child with a great deal of money.
“That’s the Dimity House,” Sachnoth said. “Seems quiet enough now, Regent. What sort of sounds did you say you heard?”
“I heard someone pick up the phone and then there was this incredible roaring.”
“Roaring? Like a lion, you mean?”
The boy’s face was white despite his tan. Sunglasses hid his eyes, but I imagined that they were bulging, froglike. “No, more like the wind.”
Sachnoth sighed and opened the glovebox of the BMW.
“What are you looking for?”
“Designer drugs, my boy.”
Regent snapped the box shut angrily. “You don’t believe me?”
“I didn’t say I doubt that you heard what you think you heard. I only question whether you actually heard it in any but a subjective sense.”
“Do you want to walk home, Mr. Ebbing?”
“Nonsense, boy. You dragged us out here. If you’re that concerned about the Dimities, we can always ring the bell and say we’ve dropped in for a social call.”
Regent’s mouth trembled; he looked ashamed. “Forget it,” he said, almost whispering now.
“No, really, I think we should look in.” Sachnoth stepped from the car and sauntered up to the locked gate at the end of the drive. There was a button at one side of it, and a speaker.
“You don’t have to do that,” Regent called. “It might not be such a good idea. I’m not ready yet.”
“Nonsense,” Sach said, his finger hesitating over the button. “We’re all neighbors here, aren’t we? We’ll make a friendly gesture. I’ll say we’re here on Nathan’s account; that he had stopped to admire the house and wanted a look at the interior.”
I wasn’t sure I liked the idea of being offered as bait by my friend, so I called out to stop him before he could press the button. “Why don’t we get back, Sachnoth?” I said. “I can see the house from here, and Regent was obviously mistaken….”
“I was not,” he snapped at me. “You don’t know anything about it.”
“I’m exhausted from my drive, Sach,” I said. “Maybe another time, eh?”
Sachnoth chuckled. “Clive is an awful bore anyway,” he said, coming back to the car. “He doesn’t even have any money these days.”
“Must have had once,” I said, “to build a place like that. I suppose it drove the property values down a bit, though.”
“The Dimities have old ties here, very old ties; somehow they managed to slip past the usual regulations.”
“Old ties,” Regent repeated, as he sped us homeward. “You can say that again.”
“Surely you don’t believe all those stories, Regent? The ones your mother scared you with?”
“I’m not talking about ghost stories, Mr. Ebbing. I’m talking about history.”
“Stories?” I asked. “History?” I was certain that I had found a fit subject for my next cycle of poems. The memory of that house seemed to grow stronger as the minutes passed; soon it would reach mythic proportions, forcing me to put my reactions into words. I could see it now, a poetic history of the Hamptons, reaching back into and past colonial days, summed up in the story of this degenerate family and its Quag Harbor habitation.
“You must tell me some of these, Sach.”
“Delighted,” he said. “Over dinner, then. Would you care to stay, Regent? I’ll scare up some cordon bleu dinners for the microwave.”
Regent gave an exasperated sigh. “I’m not afraid of that place, Mr. Ebbing.”
“Good. Because those stories are nothing but superstitious nonsense; if you think otherwise, it’s because they’ve gotten tangled up with your drug psychoses. Any reputable psychotherapist would tell you the same.”
Regent slammed on the brakes; I thought he meant us to walk the rest of the way, but then I realized that we had come home again by a different route. Sachnoth and I disembarked, and the Hamilton boy tore away without another word. The sun was setting, the humid air had turned to a copper mist in its low-lying light.
“Thanks for inviting me, Sachnoth,” I said, as a station wagon whizzed past us on the narrow road. “I think this is exactly what I needed.”