GUESTWORDS: An Invasion by Sea

By Fran Castan

    On a brilliant afternoon at Mecox Bay, while one of our friends made lunch, the other offered to take my husband and me for a spin in their Boston Whaler. We three walked barefoot to the end of the dock for a short, unserious outing.
    Feeling like 12-year-olds on the lake at camp, we shed our septuagenarian identities. We were practically singing, we were so happy. For about 15 minutes, we followed a flotilla of swans — equal in elegance to the estates along the bay.
    Soon, the sound of the engine changed. When it stopped, our host tossed an aluminum oar to my husband and said, “Paddle.”
    At the nearest bulkhead, we tied up and went to get help, as if this were a perfectly ordinary and sane thing to do on a Saturday in Water Mill. But wait, it’s no longer precisely Water Mill; it’s part of The Hamptons, a name that obliterates the distinct charm of each village; a name that merges them into a conglomerate.
    The Hamptons, home to celebrities — some of whom are first rate at making themselves well known rather than well known for making themselves first rate.
    The Hamptons, where it’s impossible to find a shoe repair shop. Or, for that matter, any of the ordinary services enjoyed by those who have lived and vacationed here from the end of the colonial era to the beginning of . . . The Hamptons.
    Nevertheless, our friend, a Mecox resident for decades, and my husband and I, who have been local homeowners for 40 years, thinking we were in territory we knew, climbed out of the boat.
    All of us were without wallets or cellphones or shoes. I can see that we might have appeared crazy to anyone who goes down to the sea in ships; but, to us, this was a toy boat in a bathtub.
    We hoisted ourselves onto the bulkhead, amazed that our well-used bones could accomplish this feat and still stand upright. We approached a house with six separate entrances resembling those in a row of town houses. Four sports cars were placed like compass points on a circular driveway. “Oh, good, someone must be home.”
    I suggested we call out, so as not to surprise anyone, especially a dog! “Hello! Hall-ooo-ooo.” Through a screen door, we saw a plush but empty sitting room. We continued to call.
    After 10 minutes, another door opened and a handsome man with white hair, a white mustache, and sky-blue eyes emerged. A dark apron was tied around his slim waist. Its bib protected an expensive blue-and-white-striped shirt with a starched collar. He was the butler, he said, and in just a few minutes, Brian would be coming to help us.
    “Please, we’ve been waiting for a while. Could you call a taxi for us, so we can get some gas and motor off?”
    “No,” he said, “I’m afraid not. You’ll have to wait for Brian.”
    “Our friend’s wife will worry. She expected us back for lunch half an hour ago.”
    “Sorry,” he said. “You can’t leave the premises until security has a chance to check you.”
    Security? We’re neighbors. We told him our names and our host’s address, directly across the cove. We apologized for intruding. We just wanted to fix our problem: no gas.
    “I’m sorry,” he said, quite genuinely. “I truly am, but now you’re here and now you’ll have to do things our way.”
    Another man, sweating in his tie and jacket, raced toward us, demanding, “Who are you and just what are you doing here and how did you get in?”
    We told our story again. On his walkie-talkie, he discussed it with Brian. He hurried us to the end of the driveway, telling the butler to keep us there until he returned. Then, quite abruptly, he jogged off.
    My husband nudged me, patted his hip, and gestured toward the departing jogger. I noticed a bulge. My husband whispered, “Gun!” This rude fellow was packing heat! Was this a movie or my life? Security? I felt extremely insecure.
    The butler assured us that the addled interrogator was only an assistant to Brian. Brian will take care of everything. By now, Brian had become purely mythological. No one, I’m sure, awaited Zeus with more fervor than ours, waiting for Brian.
    In his charming French accent, the butler apologized for his co-worker’s demand that my escorts and I scurry along the gravel in bare feet. Then he added, “You came at the worst possible time. The owner is in residence. You really don’t want to know who he is or where you are. You have no idea what you stepped into.”
    “No, no,” I said. “You’re right. I really don’t want to know. I just want to go home. Please, call us a taxi.”
    “Sorry, I can’t.”
    By now, I was sure my blood pressure was about to blow a hole in one of my veins.
    “Well,” he said, “I don’t care who knows, so I’m going to tell you anyway.” He smiled like a good friend who’s about to tell you something no one else will. “It’s _____ _____’s house,” he said with great pride.
    Then, his cellphone (which he wouldn’t let us use to call a taxi) rang. I leaned against my husband and whispered, “Who is _____ _____? I never heard of him.”
    “Shh,” he said. “Tell you later.”
    “Now!” I commanded. “Right now!”
    “Okay, okay. He’s the C.E.O. of ________. Probably one of the richest men in America. A billionaire many times over.”
    Some people know the statistics for every professional athlete, even gladiators in the Fortune 500 League. Numbers on the big board of Wall Street’s Coliseum are memorized with the same zeal as those on the scoreboard of each major sports stadium.
    At last, Brian! He’s real. He’s smiling. He’s friendly, actually. He said that another thug — or did he say “man” — would take us to the nearest gas station to get the right mix for the boat so we could leave the way we came, and fast! We told him that we needed to go home to get money for gas.
    “Don’t worry. We’ll take care of everything. We want to help you. We want you to get out of here as soon as possible, before the owner knows you’ve been here. It’s taken us so long because we were already on another surveillance when you arrived. We saw you on our cameras, but we couldn’t come right away.”
    No wonder The Hamptons are referred to as a war zone. In the summer, especially, simultaneous invasions overwhelm the troops.
    The butler called the driver. “Listen, these people are elderly. You’ve got to have some respect. You can’t just keep them here. It’s hot. They’re tired. They don’t have shoes.”
    Elderly! And here I was feeling so athletic, hoisting myself onto the bulkhead!
    The driver appeared and told us to get in the car; it didn’t sound inviting. He gave each of us a bottle of cold water and berated us for being out in a boat without phones or money or ID. As a cop from New York City, out here on a private security gig, he informed us that if we were in New York, he would throw us in jail. “That’s the law!” Like a big brother half our age, he advised us never to be without ID again.
    By this time, I was truly miserable. I felt kidnapped, held against my will in a car. I said I wish I could go home. My husband asked, “Would you please take my wife home, so she doesn’t have to deal with the boat again? Maybe it won’t start up. Maybe it will take a while to resolve things.”
    “Sorry,” said our straight-out-of-“The Godfather” chauffeur, “my instructions are to take you to the gas station and back to your boat. Nowhere else.”
    When we returned to where it is we don’t want to know we are, which belongs to him whose name we also don’t want to know, everyone was smiling and nice to us. “We’re so sorry. You just can’t be too careful these days.”
    They explained that their boss, who has gates and armed guards and cameras and who-knows-what-else, feels vulnerable to an attack by sea.
    We three elders in our baseball caps and bare feet probably met the criterion for his most terrifying fantasy. Meantime, his protectors must have checked our names. Apparently, we did not appear on a list of the most wanted. Nor were we on a roster of Navy Seals.
    The two tough guys filled up the gas tank. They helped us to our seats with the respect and care elderly people like us suddenly appreciated. They started the engine. Like twin James Bonds, they jumped from the boat onto the bulkhead in one smooth motion. They managed to do all the dirty work without mussing their hair or soiling their jackets. They wished us well. Up on land, above us, waving, they almost looked like cadets, saluting us for a job well done.
    “We’ll return with money for the gas!” we promised.
    “No. No. Please.”
    “Go home. Please, don’t bother to come back.”
    These good neighbors, without expecting anything in return, gave us three bottles of cold water and $6.09 worth of gas. Where else in the world could someone receive such treatment?
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    Fran Castan taught writing and literature at the School of Visual Arts in New York for 25 years. She is the author of "The Widow's Quilt," a book of poems, and "Venice: City That Paints Itself," a collection of her poems and paintings by her husband, Lewis Zacks.