Gussie scrunched up her nose and grabbed at her own fistful of sand. What Florence seemed to forget was that, since Gussie was only seven, no one ever told her anything—one way or the other. Everything she'd ever learned about anything she had learned by keeping quiet and paying attention.
Take her mother's confinement, for instance. She first learned her mother, Fannie, was expecting another baby because she'd overheard her say something to Mrs. Kingman when they had stopped by her shop for a pair of stockings. She guessed the pregnancy was risky because she'd heard her grandfather warn her mother to be careful on several different occasions in recent months. And she knew Dr. Rosenthal had recommended strict bed rest at Atlantic City Hospital because her mother had repeated his prescription to Esther when she'd returned from a recent doctor's appointment.
There had been a good bit of debate between Gussie's mother and grandmother over what to do with Gussie while her mother was on bed rest. Remaining with her father, Isaac, had turned out to be out of the question. Gussie knew this because she had overheard Esther tell Fannie so in precisely those words. "Gussie remaining at your apartment is out of the question."
Gussie was sure her father would balk when he learned that her mother intended to send her to live with her grandparents for the summer but, as her mother's confinement neared, not a word was said about the plan, one way or the other. The day before Fannie was to be admitted to Atlantic City Hospital, she packed Gussie's summer clothes and bathing suit, some of her books, her jacks, and coloring pencils away in an old suitcase. The bag sat in the apartment's narrow hallway, a boulder that Isaac had to step over to get to the kitchen. When Gussie could no longer stand his silence on the subject, she begged, "Father, can't I stay with you? Here?"
"Gus-Gus," Isaac said, as if he were going to give her a straightforward response, "what in the world would we get into, knocking around by ourselves?"
Gussie had begun to wonder if her entire life might be rhetorical—no answers for any of it—when Florence pulled her back to the present, "Remember, knees and heels together. If you're a mermaid you can only move your feet. I mean, fins."
Gussie pushed off the sandy bottom and scooted through the waves, using her arms to steer and kicking her tail fiercely. Always, she was careful to keep her chin above water. "How do I look?" she called over her shoulder, but Florence wasn't watching her, wasn't even looking in her direction. Instead, she sat in the breaking waves, studying the shore.
Gussie circled back, waved a hand in front of Florence's face. "Let's pretend you're the mermaid in the glass tank at Steel Pier, and I'll swim from Australia to save you."
"Why do I need to be saved?" said Florence, who still looked very far away. "Don't I like my life at the Pier?"
"You want to be free to swim about in the ocean, silly."
Florence turned to face Gussie then, giving her niece her full attention. "Yes, you're quite right. I nearly forgot."
* * *
When Florence and Gussie returned to the chairs Joseph and Esther had rented, they found Anna sitting on a blanket, alone.
"Your parents went for a walk," Anna said to Florence, completely ignoring Gussie.
Florence motioned for a small, pleated bag, within arm's reach of Anna, and Anna passed it to her. As Florence rooted through it, a red bathing cap escaped. Gussie reached for it and handed it to Florence, who waved it away, one hairpin already in hand and three more in her teeth. While Florence pulled her short, brown hair away from her face, Gussie held the rubber cap in her lap, admiring it. Her aunt always had the prettiest things. Tiny stamped divots ran across the cap's surface in neat rows. Each one reminded Gussie of a starburst.
"Are bathing caps required at this beach?" Anna asked.
Florence mumbled something through her pursed lips but it was unintelligible on account of the pins, so Gussie answered for her. "Not anymore."
Anna exasperated Gussie but for no real reason. She was quiet and a little hard to understand but she was also perfectly nice, and even pretty—with dark brown hair, green eyes, and pale skin that was unlikely to get any darker if Anna continued to wear drab cotton dresses to the beach.