Cousin Peter’s Brother Billy’s House

On Cape Cod, near the end of Wing’s Neck, there is an inauspicious dirt and gravel driveway marked “Scott’s End.” We always park in a small spot that nestles into the trees. The fresh salt air greets us. When it’s dark and clear, the black sky reveals stark constellations normally hidden to us above the bright lights of Boston. Here, behind the house, there is silence. When it’s light out, we count cars to see how many are here already. I check to see which of the resident boats must be in the water,

not marooned ashore. I hear high-pitched bird chirps, leaves gently rustling, and the underlying hush of the ocean. We walk to the back door of the unassuming gray-shingled house.

Today is one of those beautiful days, a few puffy clouds placed just-so on the light cobalt blue sky. My partner, son and I bring our bags through the wide open back door. Through a second door, straight opposite, I see the owner’s Swiss and Canton of Zurich flags flapping above the deck and, beyond the wildflowers and bayberry bushes, the ocean.

The house is resting, at peace knowing it will soon be re-filled with movement. A few people have gone to hunt for treasures amidst the junk at the local auction house. Kids and a few adults are on the beach, down the narrow path through the tall grass, making piles out of coarse sand or, buckets in hand, marauding hermit crabs. Someone’s gone jogging on the once crumbling but now freshly paved road that prods cars to whiz too quickly by.

Circulating the fresh outdoors with the wooden, slightly musty indoors, the house breathes deeply. We unload food into the orange-painted fridge and drinks into the yellow one. The bagels go next to the basket full of napkin rings, each bearing a name that comprise the extended family of Scott’s End. The wooden rings are carefully hand-painted in bright swirls or intentionally stray marks or geometric patterns, custom-made to announce each owner’s presence at the table.

The groceries away, I pull the rest of our bags up the narrow, winding back stairs. My bare feet feel the smooth floor boards, imbued with tung oil rather than smothered in polyurethane. To my left, one of four bedroom doors is closed. Someone is sleeping off her week’s work. Past the modernized bathroom, I turn the corner to the right. Now I’m in the original part of the house with the broader hallway. Three more bedroom doors run down the left-side and a fourth lies at the end, bringing the total upstairs to eight bedrooms. Though a private sanctum occupied most of the summer by one couple of Scotts, the first door I pass is always open, day and night. Light and airy, its corner windows are open. As I go by, I see the quilt bedspread lying ever neatly across the big bed.

Across from the bathroom with the claw foot bathtub, I turn left into our favorite, the best accommodations in the house: Room #3. I drop my load at the foot of one of the two single beds topped with puffy duvets. All the beds in the house will be full tonight, so among the bags is a camping pad that will be rolled out tonight for our complaining child. He will, nonetheless, quickly fall fast asleep.

Room #3’s double windows open like cabinet doors. I turn the big brass knob and pull it towards me to free one set of windows from the vertical bar and mortise that join them. As I head back out of the room, I move the brick on the floor to prop the door so the current of air won’t slam it shut. I turn left to continue my passage down the hall. Next door, on my way to the wide front stairs, is Room #2, which belongs to another couple of Scotts. As usual when I am there, the door is closed: no one is home.

Above the stairs is a chandelier, which, even though it is plain, feels out of keeping with the surrounding simplicity. The house isn’t winterized. All of the beams, joists, and boards and most of the walls are bare wood, decorated with prints, original art, and, in the spacious living room at the bottom of the stairs, a trombone. Beneath the stairs is a niche with a small bookcase, desk and printer. That, and the laptops and phones cast off on the wooden tables surrounding a sitting area, are the only signs that there might be life off-Cape. Other than to check the weather or show off a new game, the devices will keep fairly quiet this weekend.

Straight from the bottom of the stairs and out the big front doorway, I step onto the cold bricks of the long porch. Sitting under the second floor, the porch extends the house’s shelter to a strip of outdoors. I notice a few kayaks paddling around the stand of sailboats, mostly Bullseyes, moored just off shore, less than a hundred yards away. On the porch, two people are in wooden rocking chairs with their books, immersed in shared solitude. Peter Scott, an early riser, is taking a catnap in the hammock, so the rest of us make our greetings quietly.

Peter 20160220_10

Among my nuclear threesome, we call this “Cousin Peter’s Brother Billy’s House.” Billy Scott moves here from his native Switzerland for several weeks each summer. In exchange for full run of the house the rest of the season, Peter Scott acts as the caretaker. I’ve only met Billy a couple of times. Usually when we’re here, Peter is the pater familias. Around seventy years old, both men lost most of their hair decades ago, listen more than they speak, and have a ribald sense of humor. Peter, legs crossed, gesturing with the pointer finger he damaged with a table saw, often interacts with the crew. Billy more often sits back, slouched in his chair, Sudoku puzzle book and pencil in hand, and observes.

Billy Scott

Billy’s stoic tranquility made that pitch black night when he was “it” in the game of Glaeggli Mouché all the more surprising and eerie. Glaeggli Mouché is a typical Swiss word; it mixes a German word, spelled phonetically according to the Swiss-German pronunciation (thus the “gg”), and a French word to create, roughly, “mustached man with the little bell.” It’s like our Hide and Seek, except there is no home base to escape to.

From under the bed

As the Glaeggli Mouché, Billy walked through the unlit house with a flashlight he turned on occasionally to avoid stubbing his toe or falling downstairs. Ringing the little bell to signal his zombie-like approach, he hunted for the hidden. Among the first to be found was a ten year old who, though wedged carefully in the back of a deep closet, couldn’t avoid a quick shriek when he found her with a gentle poke of his walking cane. Terrified yet exhilarated by the slow chase, I laid perfectly still against a wall under two beds that had been pushed together. By then, he had added an American “boogie man,” deep, evil laugh that gave me a chill. When he entered my hide-away, I barely dared to breathe. Like a blind person’s cane, his swung from side to side under the bed. Though he tried from the bottom and the side, it wasn’t long enough to reach me in my corner. By the time I dared reappear downstairs, the game was long over.

An architect, Peter always satisfies my curiosity, patiently explaining how buildings, boats, and family history have been made and function. At this, his brother Billy’s house, in front of a rapt audience and the ocean, he tells stories of sailboats he’s captained. Most often, they are about Shimmer, the thirty foot sailboat he built in his suburban backyard. Shimmer running aground just outside a marina entryway. Details of the stages of sea sickness. The ancient Cape character he found to fix Shimmer’s finicky engine. Finding five inches of water on the cabin floor and heaving buckets of water into Shimmer’s galley sink to relieve the foundering bilge pump. And specific sails he had made with a variety of experienced and novice mates.

My favorite of his stories, which I listen to quietly with a wry grin, was the day the wind was such that we could sail in a direction he hadn’t taken me before. I can’t reproduce his oral tale, so these words are mine. Early that September morning, we packed sandwiches, chips, carrots, and water and took off for an easy sail to lovely Hadley Harbor, just southwest of Woods Hole. Inside the small cove, we moored, then ate while listening to gentle jazz over the boat speakers and inspecting our storybook surroundings.

Hadley Harbor sailing map Chart #13230

In Peter’s telling, he would become more animated as he set the stage for the meat of the story. It was time to get home. I took the helm, my job being to take us back out of the island’s lee, then put the boat into irons by pointing into the wind, which keeps pressure off the sails so it’s easier to haul in the halyard to raise the sail. The mainsail up, Peter quickly noticed the wind had begun to roar in our absence. He needed to reef the mainsail. If he put on the life jacket we’d given him and attached it to the jackline to prevent my captain from going overboard, it increased my realization that this was serious. Whether he wore it or not, I remember checking the lifebuoy that sits on the stern’s metal rail and imagining trying to toss it to him.

My orders were to keep the engine at enough speed to push the prow against the waves and into the wind while he climbed atop the cabin to tie reeflines that made sail smaller. Now, less wind would catch the sail. He got back down safely, retook the helm, and turned the boat 90 degrees. Shimmer began to heel, the centerline of the boat making what felt to me like a 45 degree angle with the horizon. I hate heeling. Peter always reminds me that the keel’s tonnage underneath will prevent Shimmer from tipping over. I try to believe him.

The captain pointed us back into the wind. Its ferocity was still too much. I took the wheel again, and he clambered up to reef the sail in further. As Peter tells it, he’d never before or since reefed in the sail that far. We didn’t talk much during the trip home, other than remarking we were glad we’d brought gloves and windbreakers, but that warm hats would have been a welcome addition. Peter fought the helm, pushing the rudder against the pressure of the wind, occasionally giving me orders so we could come about, making our jig jag tack toward Scotts’ End. Shimmer heeled steeply making water flow over one side of the deck, as she flew, hell bent for election. I perched on the trim on the high side of the cockpit, and jammed myself against the bulkhead, murmuring the Klingon battle cry “today is a good day to die.” Happily, we survived to tell the tale.

Like most days here at Scott’s End, after sails, swims and sand castles, losing balsa airplanes to the trees and balls to the bushes, reading and antiquing, long games of Rumicube, showing off recent craft projects and photographs, and lazing about, the house welcomes back the full crowd of this weekend’s people. The kitchen holds a flurry of activity. At the counters and stove, this night’s cooks are at work. The hors’d oeuvres volunteers arrange platters of international cheeses, olives, grapes, bread and crackers for cocktails. Wine and margarita glasses in hand, the contents of the house streams onto the wood-planked front deck, bathed in late afternoon sun. The conversation flows like a flock of starlings, twisting and turning in unexpected directions, parts breaking off, then mixing back in just as quickly. A voice with only a head joins in from the outdoor shower that abuts the porch. One of the younger kids splashes in the basin we use to wash sand from our feet. A hula hoop contest breaks out on the lawn below.

In another hour, or two, long after my usual dinner time, the chefs return inside to finalize their work. The aroma of a gourmet spread calls us to set the long table on the front porch for seventeen. Most of us sit with our named napkin rings. A few rings are borrowed, their adopted owners thusly becoming family. Lanterns with lit candles add flickering light. The wine and conversation pour freely. The giddiness of tired children matches the humor of tipsy adults. I feast in small bites, a preventative measure against raucous belly laughs that threaten my ability to swallow. The sound of the house reverberates across the water. We sit back, basking in the company, reluctant to break the magic by leaving the table. Children begin to drift back inside the living room to board games. Eventually they are joined by older folk. Peter lights the living room fire. Joining the clean-up, I dry and put away until there is nothing left, for a brief moment, but brewing coffee and clean mugs.

All of the windows and doors now closed to the cool night, the smell of the fire accompanies the younger ones to bed. I join the circle of chairs, surrounded in comfort and joy. Eventually, my now-wooden legs carry me to bed. The Room #3 window has been open all day, so my nose is cold while my body becomes delightfully toasty under the down duvet. I hear the murmur of voices downstairs; some will be awake into the wee hours of the morning. From the outside, I hear small “pings” of halyard shackles meeting metal masts.

A few hours later, I rouse myself to gaze at the moon over the water and think for a few moments about how lucky I am to have this house and its family in my life, even if only for a few days a year. I shiver, push closed the window and go back sleep, until the sounds of the house stirring wake me in the morning.

1 Comment

  1. I do know this house so very well and I love your describtion of the house, of the made me realise once again how very lucky we are, to be able to spend time in this magical house. I do hope that sometime we will be there together.

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