Read an excerpt from John Casey's new book, Compass Rose, out this month in bookstores and online.

By John Casey
September 21, 2010
Photographer Ben Hoffman

May sat on the first row of the bleachers watching the boys warm up.  Tom was the second-string catcher, might get in if their team got ahead by a lot.  He was good behind the plate—all that practice catching for Charlie in the backyard—but he couldn’t hit as well as the first-string catcher.  At least Charlie and Tom got to play on a team this year.  Before Dick got his boat built he’d kept them busy during the summer doing chores.  No games.  And while Eddie Wormsley was fixing the house, they’d helped with that.  Now there was some pleasure in their lives.  Dick still expected them to work at something that brought in some money, but since he was at sea more than half the time, Charlie set his own schedule.  He used the work skiff the same way Dick used to—had his tongs, pots, hand lines.  Tom at 14 was an off-the-books boy at the boatyard, but they didn’t keep him half so busy as Dick used to.  No question about it, the boys were better off.  If you just counted material things so was she.  She took some comfort from the boys.

Across the bright green grass she saw Miss Perry walking with her cane.  The woman beside her was holding a parasol over Miss Perry’s head.  May didn’t recognize Elsie Buttrick at first because she was wearing a white dress and looked a little plump.  May’s memory of Elsie was in her tailored green uniform or in a swimsuit.

Miss Perry and Elsie moved very slowly.  Part of May’s mind was piecing together how and why they were here.  A more powerful feeling rose through her, making her back and arms rigid.  The feeling was nonsense but so strong that she couldn’t stop it—she felt that she was the one who’d done something wrong.  And everyone was about to see it.

Miss Perry stopped to switch her cane to her other side.  Elsie switched the parasol from one hand to the other and moved around Miss Perry.  Elsie saw May and opened her free hand—perhaps to show she couldn’t help being there.  Then she looked down.  May was released from her upside-down feeling.  She looked to see if Charlie or Tom had noticed Miss Perry.  No.  She was alone for more of Miss Perry’s and Elsie’s slow progress.  She herself was throwing off thoughts faster than she could gather them back in.  She was trying to gather them so that she would leave no part of herself outside her.  But there was another: a white dress.  Had that woman worn that white dress when she was with Dick?  Or was it to pretend she was Miss Perry’s nurse?

May’s thoughts were like a dog’s bristling and barking at something coming towards the front yard where it was chained up short.

She’d caught a glimpse of Elsie Buttrick one summer at a clam bake on Sawtooth Island, the local gentry walking around in next to nothing while Dick and the boys were fixing the clam bake.  May didn’t stay.  Something she hadn’t remembered till now: Dick had said afterward he thought Charlie had a crush on Elsie Buttrick.  That was an idea that was so barbed and tangled that she pulled it inside her and covered it.  And sat still.

Miss Perry and Elsie arrived.  May got up, shook hands with Miss Perry, nodded towards Elsie.  Miss Perry said, “I told Charlie that I doubted that I would be able to go fishing this year, but that I hoped he and Tom would come for lunch.  He then very nicely asked me to the baseball game.”  May concentrated on the slow rise and fall of Miss Perry’s voice.  Miss Perry’s eyes widened as if with surprise behind her eyeglasses.  She said, “And here I am.”  Miss Perry put both hands on the crook of her cane and added, “I’m afraid I dragooned Elsie into driving me.”  She put the tip of her cane behind the bench and began to sit down.  Elsie got behind her, turned her and lowered her by her elbows.

May felt calmed by Miss Perry’s stately sentences and by the way her presence lessened the Buttrick girl, maybe even contained her.  Then May blamed herself for not thinking of Miss Perry’s effort in coming out to the game, for not being concerned about how Miss Perry had aged in the last year.  May said, “The boys’ll be glad you’re here.  Charlie’s going to pitch.  We might get to see Tom a little later.  Baseball’s the first thing they’ve done on their own, if you see what I mean.”

Miss Perry turned to her.  “I do indeed.  Dick is admirably industrious, but I imagine he may have been demanding in his single-mindedness.  Now that he’s achieved his own boat however, one might hope that he will become a bit more like Captain Teixeira.  Perhaps not immediately of course.”  Miss Perry gave a little cough, perhaps a laugh.

Elsie looked straight ahead during Miss Perry’s speech.

Miss Perry said, “I don’t intend that remark as a criticism of Dick but simply as a looking forward to spring after a hard winter.”

The game began.  May hadn’t seen a ball game for years—the last one probably a Red Sox game on someone’s TV.  She was surprised by a terrible tenderness for these teen-agers assuming the gestures of grown men: the batter knocking the bat against his spikes and then tapping it on home plate.  The infielders crouching, pounding their fists in their mitts.

And Charlie on the mound staring intently at the catcher, shaking off a sign with a single shake of his head—the most grown-up gesture she’d ever seen him make.

And the chatter.  Their voices had all changed but were still not men’s voices.  Still thin and sometimes sweet tenors even though they were trying to be menacing or scornful.  “No hitter no hitter, easy out easy out.”  “Whaddya say whaddya say Charlie boy, right by him, right down the old alley.”

High-school boys on a Saturday morning yearning to be men.  In their green hearts wanting to be like Dick—strong, secretive, hard.  She’d seen moving pictures of a crew at sea sorting fish dumped on the deck out of the cod end, using their gloved hands or gaffs to throw the good fish into the hold, using their boots to kick the trash fish off the stern.

These boys, the green field, the summer clouds in the blue sky poured into her eyes too brightly.

She tried to think of something sensible to say to Miss Perry.  Miss Perry was staring intently at Charlie on the pitcher’s mound, and May felt a little better.

Miss Perry had felt Elsie’s restlessness as they drove to the ball field—at first Miss Perry thought it was Elsie’s thinking about other things she ought to be doing.  Miss Perry had a regular driver on weekdays and hadn’t asked a favor of Elsie for months, and Elsie had seemed pleasantly agreeable when Miss Perry asked in a general way if Elsie could spare a few hours of her Saturday morning.  But as they walked towards the seats Miss Perry felt Elsie’s nerves harden quite suddenly.  And then May seemed withdrawn too, and Miss Perry wondered, could Elsie in the course of her duties as warden have caught Dick when he was up to something with that friend of his, Mr. Wormsley?  Or could May resent the way Elsie’s brother-in-law had taken over Sawtooth Point and was making into an offensively private domain what had once been perfectly nice fields belonging to Dick’s great-uncle Arthur?  Which would have been Dick’s had Arthur Pierce not had a run of bad luck….  But surely May would know—Dick certainly did—that of all that family, Elsie was the one who’d come to care whole-heartedly for the place and the people.

Perhaps this not knowing was simply another effect of age.  Miss Perry had once known everything—almost everything—that went on in South County.  Of course she used to see Captain Teixeira more frequently when Everett Hazard was still alive.  Among the three of them they could register incidents from Wickford to Westerly.  Now there were a great many details that escaped her.  It wasn’t just that Everett Hazard was dead; her own attention floated outward—she could think of no other way of putting it—floated outward beyond the things she once knew.  It was not an altogether unpleasant sensation.  She found herself staring at things, simultaneously puzzled by how particular a leaf was and how unbordered and vague she herself was becoming.  On a good day, that is.  She had felt that today was to be a good day.  She had been very pleased by Charlie’s telephone call.  He was shy at first, but soon warmed.  And, most pleasant of all, he seemed sure of her affection for him.  That was the point of arranging to be here.  She had breakfasted well and cleaned her eyeglasses and there Charlie was in the middle of the baseball field looking quite splendid.

Baseball was familiar to her as a shadow play.  She knew there were long periods of apparently unproductive pitching and catching and then suddenly a single player might hit the ball and confront another single player of the array of players spread out on the field with an abruptly terrifying instant.  She thought this game gave a nervous edge to the otherwise tranquil and consoling line “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

She was glad that Charlie had a repetitively active part.  For a while she enjoyed watching him throw the baseball again and again, starting with a single elaborately slow step and then a quick whirl.  Her mind wandered.  The bakery had delivered the cake for Charlie and Tom, but had she put it in the refrigerator?  Ought she have done? She adjusted her eyeglasses and found herself admiring the catcher bravely crouched close behind the bat.  She remembered a poem by Marianne Moore that mentioned the attractive curve of a catcher’s haunches.  Indeed.  And somehow made more noticeable by the mask that covered his face, reminding her of a gladiator.

The batter swung and the catcher threw off his mask and ran directly towards her, his face tilted up.  When he was almost at arm’s length from her he reached up with both hands.  She heard a distinct thwock but she couldn’t see anything but Elsie’s white dress.  Then she saw Elsie and the catcher tipping sideways until they were on the ground at her feet.  The catcher raised his glove with the ball in it, apparently to show the umpire, although the gesture also elicited applause from the audience and cheers from his teammates.  The catcher got to his feet, asked Elsie if she was all right, then hauled her to her feet with one hand.  Elsie smiled at the boy.  Miss Perry was reminded of Elsie’s smile as a girl.  Never what anyone would call a sweet child, she would sometimes be surprised into a brief energetic smile.  A charming paradox—Elsie’s eyes would almost shut but her face opened.  As it did now.  How very nice, how very much like pleasure.

May didn’t see the ball but when the catcher got close to them the tilt of his body began to scare her.  He shuffled nearer and nearer then turned his back.  May felt the bench jounce as Elsie got up.  Elsie stood in front of Miss Perry with one hand in the air and the other on the catcher’s back.  As he caught the ball he began to fall.  May felt the bench move again as Elsie braced a foot on it and pushed against the boy.   Elsie and he sank sideways and then lay together on the ground.  For an instant May saw Elsie as shameless—clutching him, pressing her hips and breasts against him.  Then May was ashamed.

She saw Charlie standing just beyond Elsie and the catcher.  He closed his mouth and his face settled.  Elsie was on her feet, smoothing her dress.

The catcher jogged towards the umpire who was listening stolidly to the coach of the other team.  Charlie took a step closer to Elsie.  Elsie waved one hand and said, “Fine.  We’re all fine.”

Charlie said, “Ma, maybe you and Miss Perry ought to move back a couple of rows.”

May thought there was no end to Elsie Buttrick.

The people in the row behind them made room.  May and Elsie stood Miss Perry up, turned her around and guided her up to the next level.

When Dick got home Charlie would tell him about the ballgame, would tell him Elsie Buttrick had saved Miss Perry from being landed on by the catcher.  May didn’t want to be there to see Dick’s careful face.

May was pleased when Miss Perry said, “Really, Elsie.  All this fuss?”

Miss Perry thought the game had gone on quite long enough.  She thought Charlie himself looked as if pitching were becoming tiresome.  He took several deep breaths and threw the ball.  There was a sound as sharp as when the catcher caught the ball in front of her, but more resonant.  “Blow, bugle, blow—set the echoes ringing.”  Tennyson?  She looked up and saw the ball suspended against the blue sky.  She said, “Ah!” as it began to move.  She was surprised that she could see it so clearly, that she felt so light and connected to that single speck, as though she herself were flying.

She was startled to find that she was standing, Elsie’s arm around her waist.  She lost sight of the ball against a cloud, then saw it fall out of the cloud.  A far-away player leaned against a fence and watched the ball land.  Two little boys beyond the fence began to run towards it.  The first time it landed it skipped quite high as though it might fly again.  Then it bounced gently.  Miss Perry was glad to see this—one of the boys caught it and the two of them ran off with it.

She sat down again with Elsie’s help.  It had been as thrilling as when she’d surprised a stag in her garden and he’d bolted with a snort that froze her in place.  Then he leapt over the high stone wall, as if lifted by a wave.  How much invisible energy there was in this world—how amazing to feel it press through her still.

She applauded.  Elsie touched her arm and asked her if she would like a glass of lemonade.  She said, “Not now, Elsie.”

May said, “Poor Charlie” and Miss Perry knew—had only temporarily not known—that this splendid moment was unfortunate for Charlie.  In fact, after he watched two of the opposing players trot around the bases, there was a gathering around him and a new pitcher replaced him.  There was a smattering of applause as he left the field.

May was upset for Charlie, but pleased to see he shyly tipped his hat to the bleachers of Matunuck fans who cheered him.  It was a compensation, May thought—Dick had left a wake of wariness and bad feelings, but now that Charlie got out and around, people warmed to him.  Of course people were nice to her, but that was because she paid her bills now.  They were a respectable family.  Here she was with Miss Perry, her two sons on the ball team, all in the extra time and space that came of rising just one step in the world.

The mid-day breeze came up, swirling the dust on the base paths, cooling their necks and cheeks.  On the other side of Miss Perry, Elsie Buttrick sat up and fanned her knees with the hem of her white dress.  May couldn’t think where to put her.  Miss Perry loved her, she loved Miss Perry.  She’d been a little heroine.  May had managed to put her in a corner of her mind, almost had her sealed up as Dick’s last bad craziness.  Let her tend to her baby in her house next to Miss Perry’s, let her go to the store for food in her Volvo station wagon.  Let her know how small she should keep herself, not fanning her knees at Charlie’s ball game.

May wondered if she herself could become bigger.  What if her mind could hold a larger map so that she saw all the houses and boats and people at a distance?  Then she could see Elsie Buttrick’s little apologetic wave, her shielding Miss Perry with her body as acts not poisoned by what she’d done with Dick.  There would be a space that was far from the center of May’s mind in which Elsie could raise her daughter—May would see the daughter and think of enough different things in the clutter of those lives, different things that would cover the old nakedness.

How did someone get a bigger mind?  That sort of a bigger mind?  Right now May’s narrow comfort was that Elsie had grown fat.

The game was over.  May went to find Charlie and Tom.  She saw another mother hug her son and she was encouraged to put her hand on Charlie’s shoulder.  She did the same for Tom who needed some sympathy because he hadn’t played.

Tom said, “You know, it wasn’t that bad of a pitch.  The guy got lucky.”

Charlie said, “No.  He had it timed.  He really clocked it.  I’ve never seen such a long ball.  I mean not in person.”

Miss Perry arrived.  She said, “I’m glad to hear you say that, Charlie.  I confess I was thrilled.  I’m afraid I applauded for the wrong team.”

“That’s okay,” Charlie said, “I mean you don’t see that every day.”

“Well it was all perfectly splendid,” Miss Perry said.  “And you’re all coming for lunch, are you not?  And your birthday cake.”

Tom said, “We’d better clean up some.”

Miss Perry blinked behind her thick glasses.  “It’s a shame your father’s at sea, but we’ll be a jolly little party.  Elsie dear, you’ll stay won’t you?”

Elsie said, “I’m sorry.  I’m sorry—I’ve got to meet my sister.”

“I thought she went sailing with Jack.  Never mind, it’s kind of you to drive me.  Now don’t dilly-dally, boys.”

May watched them make their way towards Elsie’s car, Miss Perry on Elsie’s arm.

“Miss Perry’s getting old,” Tom said.  “And Elsie’s kind of plumped up.”

May said, “You boys shouldn’t say things about—“

Charlie said, “You shouldn’t say ‘you boys’ when it’s just Tom.  I was going to say Elsie looked pretty good getting up for that foul ball—taking a fall like she did.”

“Well I guess someone’s stuck on Elsie,” Tom said.  “Bet you wish it was you got tangled up with her.”

May didn’t hear what Charlie said back.  She felt another rasp across the same place—no end to Elsie Buttrick.  But whether because she’d had an hour or two to grow numb or whether she was grateful for Elsie’s lie about having to meet her sister or whether Tom’s taunt set her to thinking how relentlessly stupid men were going to be about Elsie Buttrick, May found herself sharing some small part of her distress with Elsie Buttrick.  There wasn’t anyone May could tell this to.