Dan’s Papers Literary Prize for Nonfiction 2014: “An Early Rescue” by Matthew McGevna

This essay was awarded one of two runners-up prizes in the 2014 Dan’s Papers Literary Prize for Nonfiction.

I sit at a table outside the Golden Pear in Southampton condemned to remember the sweet, doomed voice of Mrs. Resnick. She had a calm voice, a fair person’s voice—since silenced by cancer—but in the early 1990s very much alive and energetic. Filled with a rare, aged sort of wisdom for someone just over 45.

I was Mrs. Resnick’s groundskeeper. Her home in Southampton looked like something one might find in Stratford-upon-Avon. Low dangling lilacs. Roses trained to look untrained. Wild gardens around her slate pool vibrated with bees. Her front door was hand-carved—heavy with age—donning a large, brass doorknocker shaped like a wreath.

I grew up poor. Nobody in my neighborhood had a doorknocker, but I believed—and still believe—that if there was a doorknocker to be used, then one should use it always.

“What are you doing?” a voice exclaimed from a gather of bushes the day I arrived at Mrs. Resnick’s doorstep to begin work. I looked. A wiry man with a pockmarked face emerged from the thicket. He was wearing a Panama Jack safari hat. A red handkerchief was tied around his neck.

“I’m the new groundskeeper,” I answered. I tried to say it with some authority. Tried to hide the fact that I didn’t know a dandelion from a daffodil—that I’d only been hired because my mother was the housekeeper. At the age of 18, the only unique sort of knowledge I’d acquired was how to play a decent game of chess, though I was hardly Bobby Fischer.

“You used the doorknocker,” he said. I stared back at him without reply. To me it seemed obvious. “Nobody uses the doorknocker,” he said. His eyes took inventory of me. Sheer Terror shirt. Converse sneakers. He looked unimpressed. He motioned for me to get off the porch and follow him. He told me his name was Andrew and that he may not be able to make me a great groundskeeper, but he would teach me not to screw up. Thus began my education.

Within hours I would discover that many of the house rules—no using the doorknocker comes to mind—were Andrew’s and Andrew’s only. The quaking, uneasy feeling that arrived at the pit of my stomach lasted no longer than the moment I met Mrs. Resnick, when she scurried across her back yard with a broad, welcoming smile. It was a thrill to meet Jeanette’s son, she’d said. She was sorry we couldn’t talk more about the job, but she was “pinched for time.”

Pinched was the perfect word. She walked in a pinched fashion. Short, bursting, purposeful steps. For a person so regimented by calendar, she seemed perpetually behind schedule.

I couldn’t have known at the time, but her walk was her means of pain management. Later that September she would check herself into a Manhattan hospital where she’d undergo extensive surgery on her pelvis. It was the early stages of what would eventually take her from the world.

She soldiered through the agony that summer. There were galas and fundraisers. Things that couldn’t be put off.

“First, there is the snap and gathering of Rhododendron bulbs,” Andrew insisted in our walk-through. “Then, there is the trimming of all the white birch back from the pool before scraping the Peat moss from the slate patio. This was never more important than emptying the gutters of weeping willow switches, or sweeping out still puddles, to control the mosquitoes. Training the Wisteria and Rose bushes away from the sunlight and toward the wooden archways was an endless task.”

Of course, diligence would always be required when the Resnicks hosted a gala.

“There will be questions about your upbringing,” he said, turning to place the tips of his shears on my shoulder. “You don’t need to go into detail. To say that you represent the best and brightest that Mastic Beach has to offer will suffice.”

Andrew was from Mastic Beach, or so I would later learn, and he used the same answer when he was asked about it.

The one and only time I used that line was at their first party, when one of Mrs. Resnick’s friends, who wore an eye patch, held my wrist as I walked by. He was attempting to make some point at a table full of guests that included Mrs. Resnick. The man had asked me where I was from. With the nervous shiftiness possessed by all teenagers, I remembered Andrew’s scripted answer.

Later in October, I would be helping Mrs. Resnick prepare the guest cottage for winter. Just a few weeks after her surgery she had improved to a cane. I was helping her box up a pile of outdated magazines.

“Back in July,” she said to me, wincing slightly. “You told one of my friends you were from Mastic Beach. The best and brightest you said.” I nodded. “You got that line from Andrew, didn’t you?” Again I nodded.

Mrs. Resnick dropped the magazines into the box. She grabbed my arm with her other hand and turned to move back across the room.

“Don’t say that again,” she said. I was taken aback by the finality of her tone, but ultimately I obeyed.

During those autumn months I helped her move on that cane from the living room fireplace to the spare bedrooms to the back patio where I was teaching her to play chess. At first I thought she told me not to say that line because it was boastful. It was presumptuous. After that year I realized: she wanted me to own my identity. To stand proud with whatever I had, no matter how many rooks down.

Why don’t we discuss the things we learn when we discuss master and man? We focus on the work to be done. We ruminate on odd requests. Some stew on inequality. But for all the tedium of weeding gardens or the odd experience of being volunteered as a junior usher for a benefit gala, there were those invaluable moments at the chessboard, or during her physical therapy sessions, where our work, however lonesome and personal, became work all the same.

“It’s all about your core,” her trainer would bark. “Without a solid core, you’re nothing, you’re nowhere.” She’d say this sometimes as if she was speaking to me, though I’d be waiting quietly in the corner to help Mrs. Resnick to her next appointment.

The most eloquent thank you I ever got came from Mrs. Resnick after one of those sessions. It was a particularly painful one. Her arm gave out when she leaned her weight on the cane. She would have fallen over had I not caught her hand in time.

She took a deep breath and said: “You’re inoperable.” It took me a while to shrug off the notion that she was calling me a tumor. It took until after I left for another job further west to realize that we’d become as dependent on one another as the ball and socket of a hip joint.

In my junior year at college, I picked up The New York Times and learned that Mrs. Resnick had died. She was 49. A mention in the Old Grey Lady was appropriate. She used to send me clippings from the Times in an envelope: stories about businesses, emerging industries. This thing called the World Wide Web.

“I’m going to make a lawyer out of you,” she’d said to me once.

I didn’t become a lawyer. But I would never need one either, and given where I’m from, that’s not a small thing. Instead I became other things. Worked hard. I try to count my wins, like she taught me when we played chess together.

So I’m not surprised to remember her this day at the Golden Pear, when I watch an elderly woman navigate an elevated crack in the sidewalk. She’s using a cane with a tennis ball jammed on the end of it, and she has a nurse walking beside her. When she reaches the crack, she teeters to the opposite side of her cane. The nurse catches her by her brittle hand and puts her straight on level ground again.

I lean back in my chair and watch them go. Together. They pass 75 Main and get far enough down the sidewalk that I can no longer tell who is leaning on whom. They disappear in the boiling sunlight that washes the buildings’ stone walls. I am left to imagine that they carry on that way. Righting one another’s step. Catching one, when the other falls.

 At the awards ceremony at Guild Hall in East Hampton on August 16, Mr. McGevna received $500 and a Nook.

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