The Horror of the Hamptons

That night, during dinner and afterward, late into the night, Sachnoth told me the tale of the Dimity House and heritage. It was a story as sprawling and ill-proportioned as the house itself, being compounded out of rumor and speculation, envy and paranoia. It was gossip turned to legend and back into gossip again, for Sach himself had first learned it in bits and pieces, from those who claimed to be eyewitnesses or to have had first-hand acquaintances with some of the Dimity brood, before they became so inward and so isolated.

“I’ll never forget my first sight of the house,” he said. “I was sailing with the Golds on their seventy foot teak-and-mahogany yawl, The Kvetch. We were enjoying views of all the houses along Sound, it was a July evening much like this one, and suddenly that monster loomed into sight. I burst out laughing, but it was apparent that my hosts were not at all amused by the thing. They kept looking away, trying to hurry past as though it weren’t there, but the currents are rather odd at the mouth of Quag Harbor and it took a bit of doing for Saul, who’s not much of a captain except at the helm of his magazine, to get safely round Quee’s Jaw. Several times I thought we were going to be wrecked on that ugly reef of a place. Before he was done, Saul had cursed that house more than once; and more than the cosmetic appearance of the place itself, it was Saul’s obvious fear and hostility that raised my curiosity. At one point, I had the distinct impression that we were being drawn toward the house, and Saul, though he wouldn’t admit it, acted as though he were fighting for our lives. Whoever was up in that house, I knew they must have been watching us. I could see movement behind the windows, shuttered even in that heat. But no one came out. The place might have been abandoned…but I knew it wasn’t. Coming home, we kept far out in the bay, beyond the reach of those tricky currents. I borrowed binoculars and watched the house for as long as it was in sight.

“This was twelve years ago, remember. Martha and I were waiting for our own house to be built. The Dimity place was nothing compared to what it is now; but it was bad enough. It was even then the largest private house I’d ever seen, with the possible exception of Hearst Mansion. You got the feeling, looking at it, that the whole jut of Quee’s Jaw was about to snap away and float the thing out to sea. And it would have been a mercy. I compare it to Hearst’s place, but there was nothing grand or magnificent about it except for the size. It’s as though the Dimities stretched every one of their considerable pennies merely to add space, without the slightest thought for outward appearance. Now in the Hamptons, that constitutes odd behavior. There’s nothing unusual about making a large house larger, but everything here is done with an eye to appearances. People talk, you know. And once I got Saul going, he could hardly be silenced.”

Saul Gold had once been a close friend of Clive Dimity, the only heir to the Dimity estate. They had schooled together at Yale, joined the same fraternity, even talked of going into business together before either of them had guite settled on the course of their future affairs. But then Clive had met Clarisse LeMay, and Saul had met his future bride, and the two had inevitably drifted apart as they concentrated on business and their families. Saul’s business brought him into publishing and gradually he took over ownership of The Manhattanite; Clive Dimity had old family interests to manage, and guite apart from his youthful wishes to find his own career, the existing Dimity estate finally claimed all his time, while rewarding him with all the goods that money could buy. Clarisse Dimity soon gave birth to a daughter, Ann; who proved for medical reasons to be the last child she would be able to bear. Once the Dimities realized that they could have no more children, they lavished their affection on little Ann, with the result that the child was quickly spoiled beyond all expectations.

After Golds had produced several children, they found themselves invited to numerous functions at the Dimity house—in those days a mansion of good but moderate size, tastefully appointed, and still retaining the character of the original Dimity Manor, erected on Quee’s Jaw in 1783. It was in those days of Revolution that the Dimities had first made themselves the target of local speculation, and worse.

The Hamptons had a long history of disliking the Dimities; and initially, a good reason for it. In 1776, when British soldiers had taken up occupation of Long Island, thousands of residents had fled across the sound to Connecticut, the first Dimities among them. The next seven years saw the looting and laying to waste of that narrow land, some of it done by Britain, but the majority conducted by colonial plunderers who had the explicit permission of the Governor of Connecticut. Illicit traffic was rife, and no one profited as greatly as the Dimities, whose fleet of trading ships, put out of normal commission by heavy taxation and now by war, were put to the task of piracy upon the sound. They were said to have stolen goods from their neighbors for sale to the British, and vice versa, with high profits taken on either exchange. When, in 1783, the fugitive Long Islanders returned to their homes, it was to find that Quag Harbor and much of the adjoining land had been claimed by the Dimities. Their home was already under construction; their properties were efficiently protected by the same arms that had been used for piracy.

For two centuries, the Dimities had been hated by the families whose lands and goods they had usurped; but they seemed invulnerable. They proved to have been instrumental in the activities of Hortalez et Cie, the dummy company through which Spain and France had supplied arms and gunpowder to the rebels, and few were able to refute their claim to some reward in the newly freed United States. The old Hamptons settlers never found a way to avenge their loss. But their hatred was fierce, and only slowly did its flames sink into embers of smoldering resentment, which at last, in my day, remained in the form of mere gossip—idle and only subconsciously spiteful. Most of the living did not even know why they despised the Dimities.

Even so, they leapt to prize open the first chink that appeared in the family’s proud armor, as though they had been waiting all these years for a chance at revenge. This chink, such as it was, embodied itself in the childish person of Ann Dimity.

Clive had been the last male of his line. With the birth of a lone daughter, he saw that his name could be passed no further. The Dimity fortune, on the other hand, continued to grow through conservative investments even as the family shrank. That was some consolation, or should have been.

The Golds soon realized that Clive and Clarisse sought playmates for their daughter. Ann Dimity was somewhat maladjusted, Clive confided to Saul in a rare moment. She played always by herself, speaking to numerous invisible companions, and was at times ferociously disobedient—although her parents spared her all but the most painless and trivial forms of punishment.

But in Mrs. Gold’s opinion, Ann Dimity was nothing less than a monster, despite her petite appearance and formal way of speaking. On the two occasions when she and the Gold children were put together as playmates, she attacked them with tooth and nail, bloodying noses and scarring tender brows. It became difficult and then impossible for Saul to convince his wife that they ought to visit the Dimities, and at last Saul decided to press the matter no further. After that, he saw no more of Clive and Clarisse and their spoiled daughter; but he could not help but hear the rumors, which crissed and crossed the Hamptons East and South and eventually bled across Long Island into Manhattan itself….

Apparently, Ann Dimity was a creature of voracious intellect. She literally tried to devour one private tutor, requiring that the poor woman be taken away wrapped in bloody bandages, mentally broken, thereafter to subsist in a quiet New Hampshire farmhouse on a pension provided by the Dimities for the rest of her life. The Dimities feared for their daughter’s education, but they needn’t have. She read encyclopedias from one end to the other; she read textbooks on every conceivable subject. Clive set up a private account with Barnes and Noble, providing her weekly reading in voluminous amounts. But even this was not enough. When Ann was fifteen years old, she mysteriously vanished. At first the Dimities were certain of kidnapping; the papers were full of news of the missing Dimity heiress…full, that is, until a librarian at the New York City Public Library recognized her from a photograph. She had been sitting in the library day in and day out, buried in stacks of books; but as soon as she was recognized, she jumped up and rushed out, and remained missing again for another two weeks, when she was sighted in the Voorhis Library, whereupon she vanished again….

Her parents were driven nearly mad by these sporadic sightings. Clive took up permanent residence in his Manhattan penthouse, from which he organized systematic searches of every library in the city. Campuses were scoured, as was every dingy second-hand cellar bookshop and sidewalk vendor. Soon it seemed that the whole city was on the lookout for Ann Dimity, but no sooner would she surface than she vanished again.

Ann’s whereabouts remained a mystery, and to this day only a fragmented picture of her wanderings exists. Apparently she had soon lost all taste for books and book-learning, finding herself drawn instead down the mouth of the world’s greatest vortex of human experience. Still petite but no longer in the least child-like, she must have looked like a world-weary dwarf as she roamed the bars and wharves of New York City, first through drenching summer rains and on into the first black ice of winter. At some point she came in off the street, and found herself among a new crowd. A dangerous crowd.

They called themselves poets, but they were simply madmen. Abandoning all attempt at rhythm other than that provided by idly slapped bongos and shaken castanets, these were the scum that float on art, the scabrous dragging underbelly of Manhattan’s sleek and scaly literary Ouroboros. I will not grace them with the name they gave themselves, for they had no concept of “beat,” unless one means by this, “worn-out, useless, dead.”

But somehow they suited Ann Dimity. With their marijuana cigarettes and cheap wine, their midnight incantations to the whores of poesy, Ann must have thought them a perfect counterpoint to the traditions of her family and in fact to the foundations of our United States. At any rate, she picked a lover from among their ranks—or he picked her.

The first news the Dimities had of this development was the sudden reappearance of their daughter at the Dimity doorstep, accompanied by a lean, leering young man with a yellow cigarette dangling from his lips, dressed in odorous black tatters and worn sneakers. Ann herself had been transformed to a hollow-eyed, grey-toothed creature with greasy hair, scraped elbows, and suspicious puncture wounds on the inside her arms. She informed her stunned mother that this was her boyfriend Callahan.

Clive was summoned from the city, all searches were cancelled, and now the Dimities devoted their energies to the task of separating Ann from her thin, grinning, leechlike beau. The “poet Callahan,” as he styled himself, proved tenacious as a cancer. The poet and his audience of one were wont to inhabit the rooftops of Dimity House, where he would rant until dawn with his eerie cries making a mockery of American poetics. He claimed that on their journey out from the city, they had taken a detour to urinate on the stoop of Walt Whitman’s birthplace. Several years later, as though fertilized by these foul nitrates, a gray and dismal shopping mall sprang up on that very spot.

Scandalous whispering rose up immediately around the new resident of the Dimity house. Quag Harbor and the prim jut of Quee’s Jaw became the target of much local speculation, and a popular detour for evening ramblers. It was one such stroller who gave mouth to the critical rumor about Callahan. He claimed that he was walking the coast road past Quee’s Jaw when a summer storm broke without warning. Lightning exploded around him, cracking the dark sky into a million pieces, turning the pine trees into Sabattier silver-print negatives of themselves. He ducked into the trees for cover, and before the next roar of thunder, heard what sounded like inane jabbering not far away. Peering through the rain that swept in from the sound, he saw a figure dressed in black rags struggling in the surf below. It was Callahan. Beside him was a huddled grey shape, like a toad or a barnacled searock or something washed up from a wreck; but then it moved, and he realized that it was Ann Dimity. The two embraced as lightning electrified the ocean. A high-pitched whistling drifted from Ann, who with a flute at her lips, accompanied the ravings of her deranged sweetheart. Callahan danced about in the foam and kelp, shouted at the sky, gestured at the sea, and finally tore off his clothes and threw himself upon Ann.

The observer couldn’t help but watch what followed, as those two conjoined in the surf like grunion or horseshoe crabs, writhing and slippery, the poet still howling. Lights blazed from all the windows of Dimity House, but they took no measures to hide themselves. The storm had closed over them like a canopy, pouring down a rain warm as sweat; the thunder now sounded like barrels of dynamite exploding all around them, simultaneous with the shocks of light, the trails of ion-etched plasma. Down on the beach, the two lovers seemed oblivious to the elements—but they were not invulnerable. A cloven shaft of lightning split the dark air—not reaching from above to stab the lovers, but seeming to emanate from their bodies and jab at the sky. Callahan’s screams were mingled with the thunder; they seemed one and the same. In the next instant, twitching frantically, he leapt backward into the waves, leaving Ann limp and unconscious on the sand as the surf bore his slack body away. The lights had burned out in the Dimity house. The terrified onlooker fled, fearing to tell this story until long after Callahan’s disappearance and Ann’s pregnancy had become common knowledge.