The narrow, winding streets of Provincetown, the small clapboard houses, and the colorful kaleidoscope of gardens captivated the two city girls.
“Oh, let’s remember every sight and sound, Minerva. This is heaven.”
They were greeted at the boat by Frank himself, who transported them in “Parnassus on Wheels” to a little cottage belonging to a local friend. There was too much commotion at his place, he told them. They wouldn’t have a moment of peace, so he thought it better to engage his friend’s house. It was on a quiet side-street off Bradford, with a bright orange door and four yellow-trimmed windows peeking out of the typical Cape-gray shingles. A picket fence surrounded it, painted the same cheery yellow. The atmosphere of the neighborhood was the antithesis of their animated Greenwich Village street, and worlds apart from the old tenement districts that both girl grew up in.
The salt air sweeping through the open windows of the cottage was invigorating, but they both noticed a rancid smell, which they later heard was common in town. Garbage was not properly disposed of and, being a fishing village, there was a lingering odor of drying fish, especially on days when the ocean breeze came on shore. But a stinky fish smell would not spoil this weekend for them.
They walked down to Commercial Street, the main avenue, where they came upon numerous colorful roadsters and the town crier, Walter Smith, who had been “crying” out the news since 1898, a good twenty-five years earlier. He brandished a big bell and broadside, from which he read the town happenings as well as world news tidbits. Minerva, as usual, had done her research and told Miriam that the Pilgrim Monument was built to commemorate the Pilgrims landing here briefly in 1620.
The looming structure became a convenient beacon by which to orient themselves. They quickly grew comfortable in Provincetown; it was only two streets wide and two miles long. They were expected at Frank’s and Fern’s whale of a barn shortly, for drinks and dinner. They would see an O’Neill one-act play performed there tomorrow. The esteemed playwright had once teased Miriam by suggesting that she should be prepared to understudy his character in the play they were about to see. She’d laughed that off but was pleased.
At Frank’s place, the girls were transported away from their worries. Still mesmerized by the glitz of their new lives, meeting famous people, and being welcomed into their charmed circle, they shed their somber mood easily and joined into the festivities.
“Girls, let me introduce you all around,” Frank said in his usual boisterous tone, swirling one of his favorite mixed drinks, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. He had obviously been imbibing before they arrived. “Meet Noel Butler, who is a true altruist. He cares for nothing more than improving the world. He won’t even have a drink with me.”
“Good evening, ladies, don’t mind your host. He’s had a little too much to drink and the night is young,” Noel whispered to Miriam and Minerva, drawing on a pipe that emitted a pleasant odor. “Believe me, I have many passions. Improving the world, as Frank says, is much too grand an agenda for me. I do my little part to make things better, that’s all.”
“Get to know Noel, girls, and he’ll introduce you to the Vicious Circle people—oh, excuse me, I mean the Round Table. All the hoity-toity culture afficionados of New York meet there daily for lunch—Robert Benchley, Alex Woolcott, Edna Ferber, to name a few. Not me, though, no. I’m not good enough for that crowd.”
“I’m not a regular at the Algonquin, by any means,” Noel corrected his host. “They’re not to my liking. Too many pranksters there. They think life is made for witticisms, that’s all. Count yourself lucky you’re not there, believe me, Frank. Ladies, disregard anything that our too generous host has to say about me.”
Big, breezy Frank took each of the girls by an arm and guided them around the ample space converted into living quarters and a theater in the round. He introduced them to each guest with a description that wasn’t always respectful. Miriam realized that Frank was not at his best when he had too much to drink.
Fern soon appeared from the kitchen, serving hors d’oeuvres while Frank refreshed everyone’s cocktails. His voice was getting louder, his laugh shriller, his walk a bit unsteady. He and Fern seemed to have had a row in the kitchen, maybe about his drinking. Maybe this explains why Fern is seldom at the bookstore gatherings.
Of all the guests, most of whom were fascinating to Miriam—artists, playwrights, actors, poets—Noel grabbed her attention. Sadness filled his eyes. He carried himself with a rigid, hunched posture, which made him appear humble. He was not someone who boasted about himself and his accomplishments as many of Frank’s friends tended to do. He asked Miriam about herself and listened attentively. She was not at all intimidated, even though she had nothing to brag about compared to all of these talented people. She finally asked him to tell her about himself.
“I’m a journalist. I write for a progressive magazine called La Follette’s,” Noel told her. “I write about what bothers me, what gets under my skin, what I wish were different about this country. Right now, I’m researching a story about the wealthy, how they think, how they spend their money, how they got to where they are. I’ve got a hunch that this post-war economy is built on rickety moorings. Everyone’s spending like there’s no tomorrow. All we seem to care about are our own little pleasures, don’t you think? Buying, buying on credit, not saving, even little guys investing in stocks.
“And I’m part of it, believe me. Here I am, drinking these wonderful cocktails that Frank concocts, enjoying the company of two beautiful young ladies . . . Oh, just stop me, please, you must be bored, listening to me rant. I can get up on a soapbox. I should do that on Washington Square in the Village, not here in this paradise. May I invite you two upstairs? There’s a little porch off the bedroom. You can see the water from up there. I promise, you’ll be safe with an old war veteran like me.”
Minerva demurred, but Miriam followed Noel up the narrow, creaking stairs to the top of the barn, never doubting his good intentions. The rooms there were small with low ceilings, in contrast to the cavernous main room. Noel stooped to avoid hitting his head. Miriam wondered how Frank could fit up here. The porch was tiny, but afforded an expansive, panoramic view of the wharf filled with boats, and the ocean beyond.
They peered through binoculars, which they found on the porch railing, allowing them an intimate view of the fishing boats and the Portuguese fishermen finishing their day at sunset, hauling fish onto the shore. Miriam could practically hear the restaurants’ kitchen people selecting and negotiating on prices for the next day’s business. To the right, in the distance, were miles of sand dunes punctuated by small bushes with red flowers—probably the rose hips Miriam and Minerva had seen after getting off the ferry. Further out, miles of blue sea turned purple as dusk approached.
“This is perfect,” Miriam said. “Just what I need. I want to tell you, I wasn’t the least bit bored with your talking. It reminded me of discussions I heard growing up. My father used to have people at our apartment often, men who talked about world affairs, about inequities, about organizing for unions to make work life better for people. They talked about the injustice of some people having so much money and others barely enough to eat. I used to love listening to them. I’d try to be there whenever my Pop’s friends came over. Of course, I couldn’t really join in. I was just a kid. But I’d serve them refreshments and eavesdrop.”
Noel smiled. “What a legacy for your father to give you. To let you participate when you were only a child. When I was in the war, I saw such degradation, such suffering. The people in France, where I was stationed, had so much strength of spirit. They had hardly any food, only what they could grow in their own little patches of land. Their clothes were tattered rags by the time I got there. It was the Occupation, beating down on them for years. The images never leave me. They turn up in my dreams at night and even by day. Sometimes it’s as if they are happening right now. I have to shake myself to remember I’m no longer there. Now, I’m a pacifist. I write about my war stories. Not with any intention to glorify, though. No, just the opposite, to show how senseless war is. How barbaric.
“Oh boy, here I go again. I apologize, my girl, but having one drink makes me melancholy. I don’t often go on like this to someone I’ve just become acquainted with, especially a lovely young girl like you. Let me take you down now to join the gay guests. You don’t want to be cloistered up here with a cranky old war vet.”
Miriam was touched by Noel’s sensitivity—sincere, yet troubled by unwanted memories. She was drawn to him and itched to relieve him of his burdens, an uncharacteristic desire for her. But once she rejoined the crowd, she was swept into the gaiety of Frank’s animated guests. She greeted each one she knew from Frank’s and Marie’s with hugs and endearments, but they were all pretty far gone on this warm summery evening.
“Miriam, there you are,” Minerva said. “I thought you’d disappeared with that interesting man—Noel was his name? I’ve met so many distinguished people, you wouldn’t believe it. I’ve just been deep in a conversation with Eugene and his friends. Gene acted as if we’ve known each other for years, isn’t that sweet? I gabbed with Mary Heaton Vorse. She calls herself a social journalist. She writes about the plight of the underdog. She’s a longtime resident of Provincetown and has written about the town. She knows all its nooks and crannies and gave me some good tips about what we can do here this weekend.
“But Miriam, I must tell you,” she confided in a whisper. “I think I overheard that Frank might be planning to move here permanently. I’m distraught about that. I’m afraid to ask him—may be just a rumor. What would we do without him?”
“Oh, I’m sure he would have told us. I’d pass it off to the booze. Don’t give it another thought.”
“You’re probably right. Still, I can’t help thinking about that possibility.”
“Let’s plan what we’ll do tomorrow. Find the ‘nooks and crannies’ that woman told you about,” Miriam said.
“I have to shake myself to believe I’m here. From the North End of Boston, living in a postage-size tenement apartment, to this fantasy playground, jutting out into the ocean.”
“I’m taking it all in myself. It’s wondrous for both of us to land here. I think I’m going to call it a night, though. Do you want to stay? I can find my way back to the cottage. It’s just a few blocks away. You stay, Minerva. Enjoy yourself. Meet the new love of your life, okay?”
The next day, the girls explored the countryside surrounding the bustling village. A trail that Mary Vorse suggested went directly into a wooded area filled with scrub pines—small pine trees only about twice as tall as the girls themselves. Blueberry bushes lined the trail, lush with fruit, not yet ripe. They sniffed the tender lilies of the valley, so fragrant one didn’t even need to bend down to enjoy the scent. Suddenly, they left the trees behind and the famous Outer Cape dunes were ahead, some so steep that they could never hope to scale them. They sought out a gentler grade to the water.
They dug out a comfortable recliner in the dunes and lay there, basking in the warm sun, listening to the gulls as they swooped overhead, smelling the salt air.
After a luxurious snooze, hot from the sun, they decided to do something completely unusual for them. Since there wasn’t a soul around, they stripped off their clothes and ran into the ocean. Miriam hadn’t a clue how to swim, but Minerva was athletic and had taken swimming lessons at the North End YMCA. The older girl swam way out into the water, bouncing and floating on the incoming waves, her laughter contagious. Miriam waded with the water up to her knees, dipping here and there to cool off her sun-drenched body, appreciating her friend’s pleasure.
Satisfied, they ran out, ready for the next adventure. It was none too soon; a group of teenaged boys hastened out of the woods and snickered, pointing at the ladies as they quickly pulled their clothes on over sticky, wet bodies. The boys were dark-skinned, with great, shining eyes. “Bravos,” originally from the Cape Verde Islands, Minerva said, offspring of some of the original settlers.
“I want to dress to the nines tonight, Minerva. Do you think people dress up out here like they do in New York? I brought one of my Minerva-inspired outfits. Shall I wear it?”
“You always look gorgeous, whatever you wear.”
“You’re my champion. I didn’t grow up hearing anything from my parents about my looks. Maybe Ma would warn me to cover myself up more, because Pop’s coming home. As if Pop would look at me that way. She was always jealous of my love for my pop, I think, and his for me.”
“Be happy your father never looked at you that way—Papa used to leer at me sometimes when he was drinking. It’s not a good feeling, that’s for sure.” Minerva changed the subject. “What do you think of this play of Gene’s? I’m afraid I won’t be able to discuss it intelligently tonight. The way people here are, analyzing everything with so much knowledge and sensitivity, I feel like a dummy. It’s a one-person play, I’m told, of a woman berating her husband, who’s off-stage. He never brings in any money. He’s a slacker, but he’s one of the Village literati. He tries to make a living by his words.”
“That doesn’t sound hard for me to comprehend,” Miriam said. “Of course, Ethan was not shiftless, by any means, but I was always berating him. Sometimes, I wonder if I provoked him to hit me. I guess I didn’t have to say those mean things about his religious beliefs.”
“Don’t let yourself believe such nonsense! No man has the right to hit his woman.”
The guests, including Eugene O’Neill, gathered at Frank’s barn to view the performance of Before Breakfast, a play that had not been well reviewed by New York critics. Miriam and Minerva were tickled that the setting was Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, which made them feel as if they were on the inside looking out.
Frank said he wanted to recreate the old days, in the 1910s, when friends at Provincetown Players introduced their plays to each other for critiques, Minerva explained. Back then, they immersed themselves day and night in the creative life of the theater. Their personal lives were entwined with writing and performing.
The two sat in the front row to experience the immediacy of Susan Glaspell’s performance. People talked about Mary Pyne and thought that she would have been terrific as the lead tonight, but she had died young from tuberculosis. Miriam, who’d been studying the Stanislavski-inspired Chernoff method for months, was mesmerized. She could well imagine herself in that role, although she, of course, didn’t want to say this out loud, lest she appear arrogant. Later, when they broke for drinks and refreshments, she felt confident enough to discuss the play with the best of them. Minerva was more reticent.
“What did you think, my dear?” Frank asked Miriam. “Has the great Chernoff been training you to be the next Susan Glaspell? You know that Susan has been here from the start. We could never have run our little theater without her and her husband.”
“Oh, I could never approach Susan’s sublime performance. So real. I could feel just what it was like to be in a marriage like that. I could step into her skin.” Minerva inched closer to hear Frank’s response amid the crowd.
“Well, Gene wrote that from the husband’s point of view. And in the early days, he was the off-stage husband. Tonight, he wanted a bit of distance. It was performed before with the wife as a shrewish woman, constantly berating her poor, sensitive poet husband, aka Gene. This was directed from a different perspective, more sensitive to the woman. You felt that, it seems, yes?”
“Indeed, yes, I did. I felt sympathetic with the wife. Oh, here’s Noel. What did you see? Were you sympathetic toward the wife or husband?”
“Toward the wife, to be sure. But they’re both flawed characters and entirely unsuited to one another.”
“Yes, I agree, but the important thing for me is that this play was experimental in its day.” Frank could be a little pedantic, but Miriam enjoyed learning from him. “It was a precursor of his more developed piece, Emperor Jones. But Gene was influenced by Strindberg, and Before Breakfast was an attempt to discover how an audience reacted to seeing just one actor on stage. Audiences loved it, but the critics were brutal.”
“Forgive my ignorance, Frank,” asked Miriam. “In what way does this reflect his Stringbergian interest?”
“Strindberg’s work had a sharpness of focus. And the characters were portrayed from a psychological perspective, rather than a moral imperative. Theater was very moralistic in the past, bent upon teaching the poor masses what’s right and wrong. Stanislavski was the first to bring this naturalistic, realistic perspective to Europe and the States. But Strindberg also used extreme sensuality, even lewdness, in his plays, unthinkable in an early time. Look at Susan’s performance—”
Miriam had been preparing herself for this kind of conversation since she was a child, under Pop’s tutelage. She was comfortable here, even asking questions that she knew were naïve. She knew that no one would censure her.
On Monday, the girls attended the parade on Commercial Street, with dozens of colorful floats and marching bands. Since Provincetown had a sizable Portuguese population, people whose ancestors were from the Azores, the Cape Verdean Islands, as well as the mainland, were there in abundance. The Portuguese were Catholic, and their New England and Nova Scotian counterparts were Protestant, so there was a friendly rivalry between the two groups, vying for the best floats, concerts, and barbecues. On this day, each group invited all revelers to their events and everyone joined in the frivolity.
“Shall we partake of one of the Portuguese barbecues, Mimi? It’d be interesting to take in the local culture.”
“Let’s do that. I’m enamored of those boys with the gorgeous eyes and lovely, dark complexions. And the food might be unusual. I know they use a lot of pork in their cooking. Ma didn’t keep many Jewish traditions, but she never bought pork or seafood. I’d love to taste it.”
They headed to St. Peter’s Catholic Church, where there was a bonfire in the vacant lot next door. The Portuguese men, mostly fishermen, had been slow-cooking a suckling pig for hours, and it was now ready to be cut up for guests. They only asked for a donation to cover costs. The girls loaded up their plates with pork, couscous, and the traditional Cape Verdean stew, called catchupa, made from hominy, beans, and shrimp. They were enjoying the island’s bands on the lawn when they were startled by a huge explosion on the other side of the church.
Everyone ran to the area. A large cross was burning on the front lot. Three terrifying men with white hoods were running off in the distance.
On the way home, Miriam and Minerva couldn’t stop talking about the cross-burning—what an end to what had been a perfect holiday; the violence—the shock of seeing the lovely picnic defaced; how vulnerable they felt.
Poor Frank felt personally responsible for ruining the girls’ weekend, as if his fellow citizens deliberately frightened his guests. The two friends assured him that they’d known plenty of violence. It disappointed them that people like that existed in New England, a part of the country they’d assumed was more open-minded. How could anyone do that to these Portuguese people, who’d been in America for generations? Didn’t all of their families come from somewhere else?
Miriam’s mind was so filled with Provincetown that she almost forgot about Pop’s urgent call. She called Morris first thing Tuesday morning and explained her predicament—how panicked Ma was about Mrs. Bing having any visitation rights with Aaron; how it had changed Ma’s life to care for Aaron.
Morris was reassuring, explaining that it was usually up to the surviving parent to give permission for grandparents to see the grandchildren. He would do a little research to make certain that she didn’t have to do anything she didn’t want to do.
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