We set off on foot, the six of us, under an azure sky as big as the ocean. The breeze off the water smelled of salt and September, and the dune grasses bent toward each other, whispering the news that fall was coming.
It was a picture-perfect, precious August day, the kind of day that a talented someone with a camera might photograph and print onto a postcard, which someone else might then buy to send to a friend, to show how big the Maine sky can look over an endless sea; and how the line from the midday crowd snakes lazily out of the soda fountain, through a squeaky screen door propped open all day, in turn, by the backside of whoever happens to be waiting for service next; and the way the wild beach roses that grow straight out of sand, impossibly, cascade over a split-rail fence, tumbling like curls over a toddler’s forehead.
The idea was simple: Each of the three teams of two was armed with a single list of two-dozen things to scavenge from around the tiny seaside village of cottages and a few public buildings. Things as in things: a bit of beach glass ground smooth in the surf; or a bit of clothing lying abandoned on the beach, stiff with sand and salt; or a ripe rose hip, red as a miniature candy apple. And also things as in information: the year the Curtis Guest House opened for business, or the color of the roof at 18 Maine Street, or the first name of the formidable guy behind the tall oak counter at the post office.
Each team paired a grownup with a teenager (or near-teen), and so Rachel and I became partners. In some ways, Rachel, who is almost 13, and I, some 30 years older, we were a fitting pair. She and I approached the list seriously—and, I thought, intelligently: Scrounging the more common facts in a guidebook that we found lying around the house. There was an efficient economy to finding the name of the present village Association president as it was printed in the book, rather than, for example, having to step into the association office and actually asking.
And that was the downside, too, of Rachel and me as partners: Neither of us really likes to talk to people we don’t know, and yet here we were in a game that required us to stride into the town gift shop and ask the shopkeeper where she went to high school. I know that sounds simple enough, but when you are prone to avoiding conversation with strangers, it’s embarrassing.
I don’t know much about psychology, but I would guess that because Rachel and I are both the youngest in our families, we have been trained to hang back and let others do the talking for us. Of course, Rachel is still a girl, and she has plenty of time to change, I hope. While there are times as a grownup when you can’t live that way—when you have to, for the sake of ordering Chinese food or arranging for cable TV or mailing a package first-class or what have you… and so you have to deal forthrightly with strangers—I’d still prefer to avoid the whole business.
Which is why, when I found myself standing in the gift shop in front of the shopkeeper, who turned and looked at me expectantly, it occurred to me that I’d much rather send her an email or, at that moment, perhaps pass her a note across the glass counter. She could write down the name of her high school, and pass it back, and then Rachel and I could be on our way.
When I was a kid, I couldn’t wait to be a grownup so I wouldn’t have to do things I’d rather not do. But then you become a grownup, and you realize you have to do more of those things than ever, which meant that I, and not Rachel, had to ask the shopkeeper where she went to high school. Then I had to ask the postmaster his first name. And I was the one who had to ask the blond-haired cashier at the variety store where she bought the T-shirt she was wearing. (“Right over here,” she said, kindly, leading the way. “Third shelf.”)
At one point, Rachel voiced something I, too, had silently been considering, “Oh let’s just make it up!” she said. “How will they know?”
It was tempting. But as the grownup in this partnership, it seemed my duty to lead her on the less complicated path of truth. Except for one small allowance: I used an application on my iPhone to sniff out a nearby Twitter user, rather than polling passers-by in town, randomly and excruciatingly painfully. It was to be the coup de grâce: the thing that ended it for the others and clinched the game for Rachel and me. I have thousands of followers there; the others weren’t even on Twitter… how could they possibly find the answer to that challenge?
It turns out we weren’t the only ones who cheated: Rachel’s sister Amanda confessed that the soaked and sandy sock she presented as her team’s found bit of clothing was actually peeled off her partner’s foot, dipped in the surf and then rolled in the sand, like a breaded cutlet. Only the third group—our friend Beccy and my girl Caroline—hadn’t cheated, so that made them both the winners. In the game, certainly, but also maybe in a larger sense: Beccy conversed with the postmaster long enough to uncover that his first name, Win, was actually short for Winthrop, and, when her bit of small talk with the gift shop owner was overheard by a browser in the store, she uncovered—impossibly!—a local Twitter user, too. I’m competitive enough to covet her win, certainly. But more than that, I envy her easy way with people.
Later, it was hard not to look at everything in town as a possible challenge in the scavenger hunt. Here was a woman walking down the sidewalk, and yet all I could see was the possible solution to “Find someone wearing a fanny pack!” Here comes a child on a scooter: “Find someone with ketchup dripped on her shirt!”
And then here was a pretty one-armed girl in a bikini, talking and laughing with her boyfriend in an easy manner as they picked their way past the soda fountain on a sidewalk strewn with bicycles, and through middle-aged Moms wearing beach cover-ups, and small children holding teetering ice cream cones. I tried to view the one-armed girl with only humanity and compassion. But it was hard not to view her as something else entirely: the clincher in some future game, perhaps, an answer that required no conversation of any kind—only simple observation. Now that, I can do.