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Dan’s Literary Prize Spotlight: Yes, Virginia, There Is an Old Man McGumbus

“You have to see this.”

Marguerita is flipping through the latest issue of Dan’s Papers between bites of a freshly baked chocolate croissant we bought from Tate’s bakery. Flecks of pastry slide down her chin and onto the warm sand below, creating a monument to our presence. It’s a few hours after dawn, and we haven’t slept all night. The sky is bright and welcoming, the kind of sky you wish you could bottle up and drink. I glance at the familiar newsprint page, soggy with drops of seawater. She points at the paper’s beloved Police Blotter section, to an article about famed Shelter Island resident Old Man McGumbus.

The article states that his newly opened pop-up store “Gumb” was shut down for selling unlicensed meat products. I smile knowingly as a seagull darts overhead. “This is amazing.” Marguerita’s bright smile matches the sunlight overhead. “Please tell me this man is real.”

“Oh, Old Man McGumbus,” I say. “I can’t believe he’s still alive. He must have been in his 90s when I was coming here as a kid. I figured he’d be dead by now.”

“You mean you’ve met him?” She looks at me with an expression somewhere between admiration and disbelief.

“Of course. Everyone who spends any time in the Hamptons has met Old Man McGumbus. He’s a local institution.”

“You’re joking.”

“Why would I joke about something like this?” This is Marguerita’s second summer in the Hamptons, the first since we married. It hasn’t been the sort of year that you wish a newlywed couple at their wedding. I’ve spent most of the past year in the hospital with sepsis from an infected tumor. There have been late nights spent huddling by the hospital bed, kisses stolen around the intravenous antibiotic drip, poems scrawled on hospital cafeteria napkins. There have been conversations where we wondered if we should have gotten married in the first place, if she had taken on too big a responsibility at a young age. I’m 26 years old, and I’m facing the very real prospect of not seeing my 30th birthday.

“It says here that this Old Man McGumbus is 104,” Marguerita says. “Can you imagine that, living until one hundred and four?” Left unspoken between us is the fact that I might never live a fraction of that time. Lately, a lot of things are left unspoken. Speaking brings them to life, makes them real and dangerous. Better to leave them underneath, the hidden subtext to every conversation we have, like the forests of seaweed just beneath the surface of the ocean nearby.

“Want to go see Old Man McGumbus?” I ask, my face brightening. I’m desperate to change the subject, to find some way to make Marguerita smile. Smiles have been in short supply in recent days. “I can introduce you.” She looks at me queerly, then looks back at the ocean.

“Sure, why not?” she responds. “We have all day ahead of us, and nothing to fill it.”

This is why we visit the Hamptons, so long days can stretch ahead of us like the sand spread out before us. We start our journey in Sag Harbor, visiting the former home of famed author John Steinbeck. Marguerita and I first bonded over our mutual love of Steinbeck, and I’ve been looking for an excuse to show her this home. It’s private property, so we can’t actually enter it, but we watch from the street, looking for signs of life on the yard gently sloping down toward the bay. “Old Man McGumbus has been known to hang out here,” I explain. The sun is shining luminously overhead, but it hasn’t made the day particularly warm. I suppress a shiver as I pull my denim jacket more tightly around me. It feels like a promise gone unfulfilled. Just like when we promised we would be together forever, in sickness and in health.

“At Steinbeck’s house?” Marguerita looks at me incredulously. I nod. “They were friends, you know. They used to meet up on the wharf and share a beer. Steinbeck credited his conversations with Old Man McGumbus with inspiring his book Travels with Charley.”

“Now you’re just making stuff up.” Marguerita is still smiling, but there’s just a hint of coldness in her face. I shake my head.

“No, look it up. Old Man McGumbus likes to let everyone know about his friendship with Steinbeck. There was a man, he likes to say. A real man, a man’s man. Not like these damned hippies today with their yoga and their board shorts and their fancy artisanal cocktails. We need more men in the Hamptons like John Steinbeck.”

The next stop on our journey to find Old Man McGumbus is Shelter Island. We drive onto the ferry and get out of our car as it crosses. I lean over the edge to feel the breeze whip against my face, so far that Marguerita grows worried and yanks me back. “Do you remember,” I say, “when I was in the hospital, and I said that all I wanted was to come back to the Hamptons once again, to feel the breeze from the water?”

Marguerita nods solemnly. “You said you couldn’t bear to die so far from the water. It’s your church, your temple. Your place of worship.”

“Well, here we are.”

The ferry disembarks, and we drive onto Shelter Island. We take the road up to Dering Harbor, stopping every few minutes so I can point out another site. “Here,” I say, “is the beach where Old Man McGumbus famously wrestled a tiger. And here, this is the grove of trees that he nearly burned down with his flamethrower. It took years before it grew back.”

“When did you first find out about this guy?” Marguerita asks.

“You don’t find out about Old Man McGumbus,” I reply confidently. “You just know about him. Either you’re a Hamptonite, or you’re not.”

“And I’m not?” Marguerita looks slightly hurt. I quickly backtrack. “You are now, because I’m initiating you into it. You have to meet Old Man McGumbus. This is the last thing you have to do, and then you’ll be a real Hamptonite.”

The third and final stop on our journey is on Jobs Lane in downtown Southampton. “This is where the old man’s store was recently shut down,” I explain. “It was in Dan’s Papers, which means it must be true. Everyone in the Hamptons knows that if it’s published in Dan’s, it has to be true.” We wander Jobs Lane, glancing in the windows of the high-end shops and boutiques that we can’t afford to shop in anymore. Not with the medical bills piling up. We search the back alleys for some sign of McGumbus’s famed pop-up store, but we find nothing. I can’t tell if Marguerita is frustrated or amused. Eventually we give up and sit on a bench beside Lake Agawam, staring at the late afternoon sun as it glistens across the water.

“So where is this guy?” she asks finally, after the silence becomes too much to bear. “Where is the famous Old Man McGumbus?”

I shrug. “Maybe he went to Florida. I heard he had some business down there. You’ll meet him, sooner or later. We’ll be back to the Hamptons next year, and the year after that.” I don’t have to finish the sentence. We both know that we’re thinking, “if I make it that long.”

“What if he’s dead by then?” Marguerita asks. “It said in the paper that’s he’s 104. Who knows how much longer he has?” I shake my head.

“Old Man McGumbus will never die. He’s like the ocean out here—part of the landscape, since time immemorial.”

“Right. How could I forget?” Marguerita looks at me and smiles sweetly. We’re both playing along, neither of us willing to call out the other’s bluff. Next week, I’ll go back to the doctor to get the site of my tumor looked at again. There’s a 30% chance that it will recur within a year. A 30% chance that the past year will repeat itself. But I’m not going to speak of that. Not now. “I’ll make it,” I whisper. “I’m not going to die. Not yet.”

“You have to,” Marguerita responds. “If you don’t, how can I come back and meet Old Man McGumbus next year?”

Then she leans her head on my shoulder, and we stare out across the water, silently reminding each other that as long as we keep coming here and wishing for a future together, there will always be an Old Man McGumbus.

Joel Swanson
Joel Swanson

Joel Swanson is a writer and advocate based out of Denver. When not working to change the world, Swanson writes fantasy literature and essays, and his literary work is represented by the Rights Factory. Joel spent every summer in the Hamptons growing up, and still enjoys visiting Southampton when time permits. Three years ago, he enjoyed introducing his wife to the Hamptons for the first time, and now they hope to create new family traditions there.

“Yes, Virginia, There Is an Old Man McGumbus” is one of the many nonfiction essays entered in the Dan’s Papers $6,000 Literary Prize competition. Our editors liked this entry and present it here, hoping you’ll like it. For more essays or to submit your own, visit LiteraryPrize.DansPapers.com.

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