The Hamptons in Plague Time

by

03/30/2024

Neighborhood: Hamptons

“Have you ever had a job before?” Harry stuck his hand out to me, and I shook it. I was pretty sure he didn’t mean the astronomy internship I’d had looking at exoplanets with other teenagers for a fixed stipend.

“Yes,” I lied.

He was tall, with a weather-beaten face and sparse white hair, swaying like the deciduous forests that lined the edges of the farm. The forests I’d always thought were so crappy, the totally underwhelming wilderness of the northeast.

It was a fair question. I was fresh out of high school, and this was the Hamptons.

As far as I could tell, this conversation was the entirety of the hiring process. I’d submitted no resumé. My dad, who still went quiet when he saw documents for college that I’d signed with my newly chosen masculine name, had noticed the “We’re hiring” sign and pulled over to ask if his daughter could come in to work there the next day. We didn’t need the money, but he wanted me to do something. It was the summer of 2020; our apartment’s lease was up, and we had driven out of Brooklyn to sequester ourselves in the house my parents had bought years ago. Back then, my mom had been desperate to recapture her young summers in the house her mother had sold to care for her father, who was sick with the same disease that is now slowly debilitating her. Stupid, I’d thought at the time, but my parents have always been stupid with their spending. The real estate agent told them that anyone else who bought it would have torn it down.

During those fitful months, I took long walks by myself and watched the pond that was drying up, remembering the Poe story we’d read for English class at my private high school, where a stranger in a red mask crashes a party and shatters the illusion that money could keep the rich safe from plague.

I wasn’t to work on the actual farm, of course. Instead, I spent the next few months in the kitchen: a cramped, sweaty trailer with plastic windows that I squinted through as we made loaf after loaf of challah. I was soon marked as not skilled enough to rapidly perform either the braiding or the measuring and cutting of the dough, so my time was spent rolling the lumps I was handed into strands and passing them off to my left. Meanwhile, I would torment the slightly younger and, to my delight, shorter boy I worked with. He was another Manhattan brat, and he regaled us with tales of trying to sneak people into his parents’ house for illicit pandemic parties. I rolled my eyes and called him stupid, told him he reminded me of Joffrey from Game of Thrones, a show I hadn’t actually seen. I hoped the allusion to a simpering boy-prince would cut deep. He took my abuse in stride. I guess he thought I genuinely liked him.

Harry had a habit of coming up behind the female workers and massaging our necks while we worked. I didn’t mind it. To be honest, I found it kind of funny, how resolutely he stuck above the shoulder; the self-discipline of his lechery impressed me. The two girls and I would giggle about it afterwards. Both were tall blondes, one insufferably so, the other quiet and slightly fat, which I found endearing enough that I even let her play me a Taylor Swift song once, and nodded politely, pretending to give it a chance.

There was another girl, Sunshine, but she was really a woman, old enough that I think my coworkers and I were boring to her. She was Shinnecock, from the nearby reservation, which had just won their case in state Supreme Court that allowed them to keep up the electronic billboard they had built on the side of Sunrise Highway—the road that brings the weekend and summer crowds from Park Slope and the Upper East Side to the Hamptons. It’s an LED monolith, advertising the local casinos and hospitals. Officially it’s a tribal monument. My mom hates it. Harry never gave Sunshine neck massages.

His wife worked with us too: a plain, wiry woman with frizzy gray hair and an awkward, barking laugh. She served as a translator for Harry in his gruffer moments and had the patience to teach me how to separate egg whites. He must have been absent for the massage episodes. It was only later that it occurred to me it was something you wouldn’t want your wife in the room for.

I refused to learn to drive, so my dad would pick me up every day. It was a brief respite from his self-imposed isolation in the room where he would seal himself away to work. He was tense near to snapping for want of his regular commute and twelve-hour workday. My mom didn’t do anything, but that was hardly anything new. She’d lost her job to a manic episode when I was seven and spent her time going to physical therapy and writing and re-writing the same romance novel. She used to be a teacher.

In later job interviews, I’ve called my time at Harry’s farm “fast-paced,” emphasizing the hundreds of challah loaves we made weekly, only for them to sell out in hours when the farmstand opened on Saturdays. Truly though, it wasn’t. Nothing was fast then; there was only the annual bloom of toxic algae in the waters; the long calls with friends where we played bingo with each other’s Pornhub search histories. There was a sign by the tiny local natural history museum where I used to volunteer, begging drivers to watch for the endangered turtles that crossed the road there. Once, when I had stalked off after a screaming fight with my mom about not caring what I did with the rest of my life, I passed that sign and the absolute stupid futility of it made me cry so hard that snot soaked through my face mask.

At the end of the summer Harry suggested we arm wrestle. He suggested that surely I had gotten ripped from all the dough-rolling I’d been doing. I chuckled, and so did his wife, portioning cookie dough onto a baking sheet behind me, but then he put his elbow down in the flour that coated the butcher block countertop, his hand ready to grip mine. I don’t think I can beat anyone who isn’t a small child at arm-wrestling, which I made clear to spare my pride. He pinned me without effort. His wife gave a good-natured round of light applause, and I said something clever, like “Yeah, well.”

“Ah, it’s not really fair, y’know,” he granted.

“Huh? Why?”

“Well, men are stronger than women.”

My thought process was quick and pragmatic: there’s only one female athlete I know off the top of my head. “If Serena Williams was here, she’d probably beat you,” I said.

He waved me off. “Oh, some women are just men without penises.”

I had no reply to this. I can’t remember what I did next except mull it over for at least an hour.

In the Hamptons every lot is either a mound of dirt with a dormant excavator or a house that my mother calls tacky or gorgeous based on criteria I’ve never managed to determine. There’s nothing to do because nobody really lives there, at least not in the parts where I’ve been. There are Main Streets full of bakeries and dog groomers and boutique swimsuit shops. Art galleries full of paintings that make you appreciate museum curators: Mickey Mouse with X’s over his eyes and a wilting American flag in the background. Occasionally, you’ll see a pleasant landscape by a painter who knew their limits. Every loamy wood or empty, grassy beach is a crisis: the dunes fenced off for the dying plovers to make their nests, beds of rotten mussels that break away and float to the surface at the slightest disturbance, fertilizer runoff mixed in rainbow whorls with mounds of seagull shit.

I don’t remember the name of Harry’s wife. She used to be a scientist. That’s how they met, I learned, because I had failed so utterly to find common ground with them that conversation was only tolerable when I could turn it into a history project. She had been a research assistant, and the team she was on came to Harry’s farm—not his yet, later he would inherit it from his father. Back then, all they grew was potatoes. His wife was studying the blight. They built a clean room in the fields, a little plastic paradise, filled with spuds that they would make sick on purpose. To find a cure, or just attend the dissipation. I don’t know. She retired when she had kids.

***

Raphael Williams (he/they) is a fourth-year undergraduate at New York University studying physics and creative writing. His work has appeared in The Round, The Journal, Prometheus Dreaming, and The Stardust Review.

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§ One Response to “The Hamptons in Plague Time”

  • anthony a markman says:

    i kept nodding thru your story and i like that your narrator mentions an “astronomy internship” which btw is something that a physics student (student, like you) would find interesting…well done…cheers

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