The Women | Chapter 13 of 41

Author: T. Coraghessan Boyle | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 10560 Views | Add a Review

Please hit next button if you encounter an empty page

CHAPTER 3 : THE WAY THINGS BURN
Frank took to Svetlana as if she were his own, and during the first month of the new year it seemed to Olgivanna as if he were going out of his way to spoil the child—endless trips to the zoo, concerts, ice-skating parties on Lake Michigan, frankfurters, popcorn balls, candied apples on a stick—but that was just part of his charm. He never did anything by half measures. He was an enthusiast for life, in love with her and her daughter too, genuine and unself-conscious, though when they were seen on the street together people naturally mistook Svetlana for his granddaughter and that seemed to throw him off his stride. He was no grandfather, he would protest (though he was—his son John had a daughter of three or four, that much Olgivanna knew), but if he was living an illusion, strutting at her side like a young lover and reveling in it, why deny him? Svetlana could have been his daughter—she should have been, an exquisite long-limbed beauty of seven with much more of her mother than Vlademar in her, and she loved the attention, loved the treats and the piggy-back rides and climbing up beside him on the piano bench to pound the keys and sing “Shine On, Harvest Moon” and “Sweeter Than Sugar” along with him, her voice piping and probing even as his own mellow tenor held fast to the melody.
This time the route was familiar to her. And if the countryside seemed bleaker than it had at Christmas when even the most dismal farmhouse was enlivened by a wreath at the door or a candle in the window, at least now she had Svetlana with her to keep her company. They had their sandwiches, milk for her daughter, coffee for her, Svetlana alternately chattering to her new teddy bear (“Eat your sandwich, Teddy; Pack your things; We’re going on a trip!”) and bent in concentration over a tracing book and a box of colored pencils Frank had bought her. Everything they had in the world was packed into a single steamer trunk in the luggage car somewhere behind them (and it wasn’t much—a few changes of clothes, books, letters, two porcelain dolls Svetlana couldn’t seem to exist without—because all this time they’d been living under Georgei’s regime and Georgei preached asceticism).20
“What’s it like, Mama?” Svetlana would ask every few minutes and she would try to summon the place—it wasn’t the château at Fontainebleau, outside of Paris; it was a rambling tawny stone bungalow of the Prairie Style on the outskirts of Spring Green, Wisconsin, and it would necessarily have to be self-sufficient in terms of its culture and amusements. “You’ll like it,” she said. “You will. It is—I don’t know—like a castle, only without the turrets.”
The pencils flew over the page, good high-quality tracing paper that wouldn’t tear through. Svetlana took a moment to finish what she was doing—red for the chimney of the house she was tracing, black for the smoke—and then she lifted her face. “What are turrets?”
“You know, towers—like in ‘Rapunzel, let down your hair.’ ”
“Like in France.”
“Yes, that is right. Like in France. Only this place—Daddy Frank’s place—doesn’t have any of them.”
“What does it have?”
She wanted to say it had beauty, it had genius, soul, spirit, that it was the kind of house that made you feel good simply to be inside it looking out, but instead she said, “It has a lake.”
“For ice-skating?”
“Mm-hmm. And in summer”—she tried to picture it, the fields come to life, the barn doors flung open and the cattle grazing, fireflies in the night, constellations hanging overhead in the rafters of the universe—“we can swim. And take the boat out. And fish too.”
“Are there ducks?”
“Sure there are. Geese too.” She was guessing now, running ahead of herself as the train rolled through the deep freeze of the countryside, twenty below zero, thirty below, the rivers like stone, the trees in shock, not a living thing moving anywhere in all that loveless expanse. “And swans. Swans that come right up to you and take the corn out of your hand. Remember those swans in Fontainebleau—the black ones?”
Svetlana stopped drawing now, two pencils—the green and brown—bristling from the knuckles of her left hand, the red one arrested over the chimney even as the roof spread wide to enclose the stick figures she’d drawn beneath it: two of them, just two, mother and daughter in matching triangular skirts. Her eyes went distant a moment and maybe she was seeing the swans, Lionel and Lisette—that’s what they’d named them, wasn’t it?—or maybe she was just tired. What she said was: “Are we almost there yet?”
 
Frank and Kameki were waiting on the platform to greet them, their breath streaming, hats cocked low, collars pulled up high. They leaned into the wind, their eyes searching the windows of the train as it slowed with a seizure of the brakes, and then Kameki turned aside and cupped his hands to light a cigarette and Frank started forward, the skirts of his heavy twill cape fanning and fluttering round the tight clamp of his riding breeches and the sheen of his boots. He was right there, so close she could have reached out and touched him, but somehow he didn’t see her, and the train slid past him before it jerked to a halt just up the line. Svetlana couldn’t contain herself. She sprang up on the seat and pounded at the window, calling out his name over and over until finally he looked up and saw them and his face changed. Olgivanna waved then, her heart lifting.
But there was something wrong, she could see that the minute she stepped off the train. Frank was as brisk and energetic as ever and he was wearing his broad welcoming smile as he helped first her and then Svetlana down from the train, and yet he seemed distant. He didn’t look at her, not right away, and that was strange. He bent instead to Svetlana, gave her something, a sucker, and asked if she’d had a pleasant trip, but Svetlana, the drawing book clamped under one arm and Teddy under the other, was shy suddenly and could manage only a whispered “Yes.”
A savage wind swept the platform, crushed leaves and bits of refuse skittering before it, the sky roiling overhead, and Olgivanna had a moment to take in the deserted streets and battened-down buildings of the town—village, hamlet—where she’d be spending the immediate future and maybe longer, much longer, before he did look at her. The engine exhaled with a long shuddering hiss of steam. Kameki hustled off after the baggage. And Frank finally did acknowledge her, but he didn’t take her in his arms, didn’t kiss her—instead he held out his hand for a firm handshake, his glove to hers, as if she were a business acquaintance or a distant relative . . . and still he hadn’t said a word, not a word, not hello or welcome or I’m glad to see you.
He dropped her hand then and leaned forward with a quick dip of his shoulders. “I’ll tell you about it later,” he said in a low voice, his breath caught up in the wind and gone. “It’s the neighbors. The papers. We can’t have a fuss.”
“Daddy Frank,” Svetlana cried, tugging at his scarf—and she’d recovered herself now, oriented to the cold and the moment of arrival and the town that wasn’t worth a second glance—“can we go see the swans?”
He seemed to wince at the sobriquet—Daddy Frank, Daddy—his eyes jumping from Svetlana to her and back. The smoke of the engine twisted in the wind and drove at them, harsh and poisonous. Something caught in her eye and she blinked. “Swans?” he repeated. “What swans?”
“I have told Svetlana”—and she was dabbing at her eye with her handkerchief—“that we would see the swans on the lake—and the ducks too.”
“Oh, yes, yes, the swans. Of course, honey, of course we will. But not now, not till summer. Now we have ice. You like ice, don’t you?”
“Can we go skating? Today? Right now?”
But Frank was distracted—two men in overcoats were disembarking now and behind them a beanpole of a boy who immediately snatched at his hat to stabilize it—and he didn’t answer. His eyes kept darting from Olgivanna to the far end of the platform where Kameki was in receipt of the trunk, the porter sliding shut the door and the conductor giving two admonitory toots of his whistle, and then, even as he said, “Yes, yes, certainly, Svet, once we get settled,” he suggested they wait in the car, out of the wind.
The car21—long and sleek, with a canvas top, and was it new, was this the car that had picked her up in December?—stood at the curb, engine running, Billy Weston behind the wheel. It wasn’t till they were inside it, the door shut firmly behind them and Billy hurrying off to lend a hand with the trunk, that he gave her the embrace she’d been waiting for—and a kiss from his cold, cold lips. “God, it’s great to see you and to have you here—and you, Svet, you too, you’re going to love it—but you’ve got to understand, well, you know how this community is, all the hens clucking and the newspapermen warming up the road for us . . . you know what I’ve been through—”
She didn’t say anything. And she couldn’t imagine what this was all about. Had she misread him, was that it? Was he rescinding the invitation? Was all the talk of love just another fantasy? She ducked his gaze to dab at her eye—soot there, a speck of coal dust.
“So we’ve concocted a fiction, and it’s nothing to me, really, you know how I feel about these biddies meddling and gossiping and trying to control people’s lives—what I mean is, I’m telling people you’re the new housekeeper.”
She couldn’t keep the bitterness out of her voice. “A Serb. Another impoverished immigrant, is that what you say? A cleaning lady?”
“Just till you get your divorce—and I, well, till I can quit Miriam officially.”
Svetlana was sitting beside her, feigning deafness. She kicked her legs rhythmically against the seat, out and in, out and in, and then began tracing a pattern in the scrim of ice on the window.
“Then,” he said, “then we marry and they can all go to hell.”
 
If anyone believed the imposture, Olgivanna couldn’t say. There were always people from the village around—from the countryside and surrounding towns, from Helena, Spring Green, Dodgeville, Arena, workmen, farmers, women to do chores—and while most of them wouldn’t speak two words to her face she was sure they had plenty to say out of earshot. But she was the housekeeper, that was the story, and if anyone wanted to check up on her they’d see her out there in the foulest weather, splitting wood for stove and fireplace alike, slopping the pigs and pacing off the frozen fields where the vegetable garden would go come the first hint of spring, getting the lay of the land, settling in. By the end of the first week she’d pretty well taken charge of the place, apportioning out the jobs to the household help and even involving herself in the kitchen whenever she could maneuver around Mrs. Taggertz, who fiercely resisted any encroachment on her domain—especially from a woman whose status was a matter of speculation no matter what story the head of the household might choose to circulate.
“And the father of your child”—Mrs. Taggertz would throw over her shoulder while she pounded meat on the cutting board, rolled out dough for piecrust, sent up a rolling thunder with her pots and pans for the simple authoritative pleasure of it, “what was his name again?” A pause. “He’s still in Chicago as I understand it?” “Yes,” she’d reply, hoping to leave it at that. But Mrs. Taggertz wouldn’t leave it at that. Mrs. Taggertz was on the offensive. “Any hope of reconciliation? Because, what I mean is, a child needs her father around—a girl especially and especially when she gets to that certain age, if you know what I mean?” “No,” she would say, and suddenly she remembered something that needed doing outside or down the hall, “no hope, none at all.” And then, almost apologetically, “I’m afraid.”
But Frank loved the dishes she concocted from the old recipes—nothing too extreme, of course, but something different for a change, something with flavor, he’d say, pointedly—Serbian specialties like pasulj and prebanac (with homemade sausage substituting for kielbasa) and the yeast nut-bread (povotica) everyone exclaimed over, and Mrs. Taggertz had to give way, at least occasionally. Plus there were cookies practically every night, molasses cookies, chocolate chip, raisin and plum, Pfeffernuesse from a recipe Dione’s mother had taught her and Nobu Tsuchiura’s bean cakes.22 It was a beautiful thing, welcoming and wonderful, to go into that kitchen after Mrs. Taggertz had left for the night with Dione, Sylvia Moser, Nobu and her daughter, sororal, an adventure, like being back with her sisters again.
And if Frank was gone most of the week in Chicago overseeing his new offices or climbing aboard the Santa Fe California Limited to Los Angeles to make adjustments to the houses he’d built there,23 she didn’t notice his absence as much as she thought she would. She was busy. Furiously busy. If she wasn’t actually the housekeeper, if she was something more—mistress of the house, Mrs. Wright-in-waiting, major domo of the Taliesin enterprise—she might as well have been, and within the month Frank had let go of Mrs. Dunleavy, the square-shouldered farmwife who’d performed that function (without remuneration, as it turned out, or rather with an initial payment and the transient promise of more to come) for the past year. There was always work to be done, and of course everyone pitched in, even Svetlana, because no one was a guest here and Frank had a hundred improvement projects going simultaneously, winter and summer, everything in flux.
Her divorce was granted during the second month—March—and she hardly noticed because she was devoted to a new regime now and Vlademar was nothing more than a memory in any case, a stooped too-thin little man crying out in the morning for his socks, where were his socks, and Get me coffee, Olgivanna, before I die. He was an architect. He was in Chicago. And she would deliver Svetlana to him for his visitation rights according to the terms set out in the divorce papers. That was it. That was all. But Frank was delighted by the news—“Miriam’s next,” he said, “one more swing of the pendulum and we’ll be free, both of us”—and they made an evening of it, gathering everyone round the fire while the wind cried in the treetops and they all had hot chocolate and coffee and cookies, singing the old songs round the piano till the night wound down and she found herself in bed with him, nestled in the recess of his shoulder beneath the goose-down comforter and with the coals glowing red in the grate.
 
Spring blew up early out of the south that year, a succession of progressively warmer rainstorms scouring the snow from the ground and delivering up rhubarb sooner than he could ever remember—rhubarb pie, nothing better—and before long the flowerbeds were rife with color and the fruit trees in bloom and the barley sprouting in the long naked furrows of the fields. Every minute of every day he felt supercharged with energy, out of bed before dawn and sitting at his desk before breakfast, working over the drawings for the National Life Insurance Company skyscraper and the Nakoma Country Club, writing an article a month for the Architectural Record and still finding time to oversee construction around the place and get out into the fields and the garden and dig with his pitchfork till the ideas began to take hold and he’d have to scuttle back to his desk even as his apprentices looked up from their drafting tables in alarm until he sang out a joke and then another and another. He was so full of spirit—Olgivanna, bless her, was the foundation and impetus of it—that he just had to bounce up from his chair and show the boys what he’d done and look over their drawings and maybe pontificate a little here and there. Dinner was a treasure, the conversation and joy of it, and the Sunday evenings when they all dressed in their finest and sat round the living room or on the balmy nights under the big twin oaks in the courtyard making music or reading aloud from Whitman, Thoreau, Emerson, Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist . . .
For years now—longer than he could remember—he’d been rolling a stone up a hill, a boulder that picked up weight on each revolution like a ball of snow, and Miriam’s face was imprinted on the side of it—or no, hammered into the rock—so that every time he rolled it over there she’d be again. Miriam. Miriam of the cramps and headaches and rages, coming at him with her fists and her gaudy ring flashing like a weapon, everything in motion, the beads lashing round her throat even as she screamed and showed him her teeth as if she meant to swallow him whole. The psychiatrist—what was his name, Dr. Hixon—had diagnosed defective affectivity, whatever that meant, but the man had assured him there was violence on the horizon. All was quiet now, but wherever she was, Los Angeles, San Diego, Hollywood, he could feel the heat of her percolating up out of the ground beneath his feet like magma, white-hot and ready to incinerate everything, and every time the phone rang he felt his stomach sink. It had been months since he’d heard from her—six or seven months and counting. And Olgivanna was here now—and Svet and Richard and Dione and Kameki—and his life was moving forward. There were whole days when he never gave Miriam a thought, but she was there all the same, down deep, waiting.
And then there was an evening toward the end of April when the phone did ring—once, an awkward discontinuous sort of buzzing rather than a ring per se—and he put it down to a fault in the wiring he’d rigged up to connect the bedroom phone with a buzzer in the kitchen, a simple device to communicate simple wants, as in a hotel.24 They’d just finished dinner, he and Olgivanna and Svet—the rest had all gone off to town, but for Kameki and Mel,25 the new driver—and they’d eaten in the little detached dining room on the hilltop because there was a storm building and he thought it would be something to watch it come across the hills. The cook had gone home. Olgivanna had served the meal herself and it was as if they were an ordinary family, husband, wife, daughter, gathered round the table for an ordinary meal. The wind came up while they were eating, branches beating against the windows, and there was a feeling of security, of shelter—let the storm do its worst: they were snug enough. “You see, Svet,” he’d said, pausing over a forkful of Montenegrin beans, “this is what organic architecture gives you—you’re indoors and you’re out at the same time, all this continuity of line, the views all around. You wouldn’t get that in one of your gingerbread houses in Chicago. You wouldn’t even know a storm was coming.”
“Will there be lightning? I’m scared of lightning.”
“Sure,” he said, “there’ll be lightning. But there’s no reason to be scared. It won’t hit here. And it won’t hit you as long as you stay inside.”
The clouds were elongating, running with the wind in threads and stripes, and on the horizon the first shock of the lightning. They all three turned their heads to watch it tug at the sky.
“And away from the lake,” Olgivanna put in. She was dressed in blue, a belted jacquette blouse and skirt ensemble he’d designed for her himself, simple and elegant at the same time. And stylish too. He’d seen something like it in a catalogue—and on any number of women in Chicago—and so he’d surprised her, delivering the pattern to the dressmaker himself and then bringing back the package on the train. There was color in her face—she’d been out of doors all afternoon, turning over the kitchen garden for planting because there would be no more frosts this year, he’d promised her, solemnly, he swore it, no more frosts—and he saw that her nails were faintly rimmed in black and her hands hardened with the work of the place. She looked healthy. Looked contented. And pregnant. Two months’ pregnant.26 She’d told him just that morning—in bed, before Svetlana was awake—and he was alive with the news. Tomorrow, he’d told her, tomorrow we celebrate, when everyone’s here.
He’d just gone to the bedroom for something—the book he’d been reading, his glasses—when the phone began to buzz. He picked up the receiver and the line went dead. Mystified, already irritated, he went down to the kitchen, only to find that the buzzer there wouldn’t switch off no matter how many times he depressed the button. And where was the screwdriver? He was going to need a screwdriver to take the thing off the wall—and a pair of pliers too. For a minute he just stood there, the buzzer rasping in his ears, looking round him vaguely for a tool—anything, a butter knife, the thin edge of a dime—and he rifled the drawer and actually had the knife in his hand when a gust thumped at the windowpane and he glanced up to see smoke leaking out of the bedroom windows.
Smoke. Dark tongues of it, torn by the wind and flung down into the courtyard. It was as if the steam locomotive had left the station, sailed out over the countryside and lodged itself there, in his bedroom, the stoker all the while feeding coal to the glowing mouth of the furnace. But that was impossible, that was absurd, the delirium of a disconnected mind—the fireplace, it must have been the fireplace, sure it was, the flue flipped shut by a gust of wind, that was what he was thinking, and yet even as he heaved himself down the corridor, he knew there’d been no fire laid because it had been warm all day, too warm for the season, the air heavy with the coming of the storm and no reason to waste good oak that had to be sawed, split and stacked.27
By the time he got to the bedroom the wall behind the bed was riotous with flame, the curtains there come to life in red snapping ribbons and the bedclothes leaping up to join fire to fire. Two seconds, that was all it took, and then he was back down the corridor shouting “Fire!” and here was Olgivanna with her shocked eyes and blanched face and Kameki running mad in the wrong direction and would the hose in the courtyard stretch that far?—no, no, not even close. There were buckets in the stables and now Mel was involved, a bucket brigade, up the corridor to fling water at the wall to the shush of steam and the stink of incineration and then the next bucket and the next and no time for the taps or the hose bib, just plunging into the garden pool again and again and up the corridor and down the corridor to the long alliterative shush of steam . . .
No thought for anything in those first minutes, no thought of the art treasures below or the specter of the first fire, the one that had raked the heart right out of his chest and baked it hard, no thought for Olgivanna or Svet—and here she was, straining under the weight, Daddy Frank, another bucket—or of his own safety or anything in this world but the flames on the wall and the bed and the curtains. After the first bucket flew from his hands he leapt to the casement windows and pulled them tight and latched them even as the wind beat at the roof and the lightning flashed over the hills and the flames climbed the wall. “The flue!” he shouted to Olgivanna, and she was right there, slamming it shut with a sharp grating of the hinges, starving the fire of air till the twentieth bucket, the thirtieth, he’d lost count, began to sizzle in a different way, the soft dying hiss of a snuffed campfire, and the flames fell back on themselves and collapsed.
“There,” he shouted, his lungs heaving, his hair wild, his shirtsleeves blackened and his hands burned red where he’d folded the flames into the bedclothes and flung them to the floor beneath his stamping feet, “there, it’s done.” Olgivanna came surging through the door then, a bucket in each hand, and she barely glanced at him before heaving first one, then the other, at the dead black wall and the charred bedstead, two more buckets for good measure. He put a hand out to restrain her even as the water ran down the wall and into the cracks between the floorboards. “We got it, Olya, we got it,” he said. “I think we—”
It was then that he became aware of a new sound, a ticking or scratching in the ceiling above the bed, as if the slats there had developed an itch or a squirrel had gnawed its way in and now wanted out, Svet and Mel and Kameki crowding into the room behind him with superfluous buckets and looping eyes and the wind skreeling over the roof and beating at the panes. Kameki, in shirtsleeves and galluses, breathing hard, let out a low exclamation: “What in God’s name?—” The scratching grew louder. No one moved. And then there was a long trailing whoosh, as of the gas in an oven reacting to the stimulus of the match, and he knew that the worst had come: the fire was in the dead space between the ceiling and the roof and the wind was feeding it through every crack and sliver. “The roof!” was all he could say before he was down the hall and out the door, shouting for a ladder, more water, the fire department, somebody call the fire department!
The wind was like a hurricane and it tore the door from his hands and hurled grit in his face as he flung himself across the courtyard for the ladder in the garage, Mel and Kameki at his heels. “No,” he roared, “no—water! Fetch the water!” And he had the ladder in both hands, running again, running still, and now the ladder was against the roof and he was scrambling up it, the roofing breached in half a dozen places, cedar shake going up like tinder—and it was tinder, shaved thin as bark and ten years dry. And this was the nightmare: leaping atop the shingles from one emergency to the next, the soles of his shoes seared with the fury of the heat, the water buckets coming up and down the ladder—pitiful, nothing at all, he might as well have been flinging teardrops into a volcano—and within minutes the roof over the bedroom collapsed with a roar onto the doomed bed and the condemned floor.
Overhead, the sky darkened toward night, the storm running on the wind, squeezing closer, the lightning playing over the trees. He fought the flames, driving them back here as the wind seized them there, and his eyebrows were gone, his socks smoldering, shoes scorched, and though people were coming now, neighbors, coming at a run to help and gossip and gawk, he had to retreat, backing away from the living part of the house to the rear, where the working part was—his studio and the rooms for the apprentices and guests—and that was going to go too, he could see that now, no hope, none at all. The flames were gaining. He couldn’t breathe. The smoke thickened and the fire surged, hotter than any Fourth of July bonfire and fed on everything he held precious. “Get away, Frank!” somebody was shouting. “It’s no use! Get away!”
Was it a judgment? Was it the God of Isaiah, the fateful, vengeful God, striking at him yet again for his hubris, his too-perfect creation, the spark that made him godlike himself? He couldn’t have helped wondering, if he’d had time to reflect, but he didn’t have time, not then, not till it was over, and by then he’d let it pass and accounted himself lucky. Because at that moment, twenty minutes into the ordeal, with the house an inferno and temperatures so intense the windows were reduced to puddles of molten silica and all his furnishings and peerless art destroyed, a blast of thunder sounded overhead, the wind suddenly shifted and the rain came like forgiveness.
 
For days the ruins smoldered, a thin stench of incineration hanging on the air, a sour smell, as if it were a thousand barrels of vinegar that had gone up and not the heart and soul of the place she’d come to love as if she’d built it herself. That smell would haunt her as she lay beside Frank in the too-narrow bed in the guest quarters, everything shifted now to accommodate the new life, the building life, the night fast with the density of darkness absolute and the blankets binding like tourniquets, and she would drift off to the sourness and awaken to it in the first light of dawn. Even the smell of the morning’s bacon rising out of the confines of the temporary kitchen was overwhelmed by it, the sweetness of the turned earth spoiled, the flowers driven down. She felt sick in the mornings now, sicker than she’d been with Svetlana, but she forced herself out of bed and into the kitchen to negotiate the space with Mrs. Taggertz and make good and certain that Frank’s breakfast was delivered to him in the studio because now more than ever he had to keep up his strength.
She worried over him—she couldn’t help herself. She’d awakened at dawn that first day, the day after the fire, and he was already gone. Had he slept at all? And what of his burns?—they had to be re-bandaged, washed, new salve had to be applied. She wrapped herself in her robe and went out the door to the ashes and the stink and the birds singing obliviously, riotously, the sun perched like a golden wafer on the hill to the south and the cows standing in the green, green fields, and there he was in the ruins with the garden rake, stooped and saddened, everything hot to the touch still, and she asked him if he needed help, comfort, anything, but he waved her off. Later, she looked out the window and saw Billy Weston there with him, recovering fragments of pottery, bronze, shards of marble that had crumbled to a friable white dust, calcined by the fierceness of the heat. They were putting things in a bucket, useless things—it was all destroyed, couldn’t they see that?—and she wanted to say something, wanted to interfere, but she held back.
Heat shimmers rose from the ruins. They stooped and dug. They didn’t speak, not a word, the silence between them like shared thought, and they were back now in the past, she was sure of it, gone back to the first fire, the one that had taken everything. She barely knew the story—Frank went quiet at the mention of it—but she knew his mistress had died that day, his first mistress, the one he’d built Taliesin for.28 And there was Billy’s loss, Billy’s too.
The worst of it, though, even worse than the crowds that had gathered round to fold their arms and gossip and chew as if the tragedy were their entertainment for the evening (“Hyenas,” Frank called them), was the press. The reporters were there at first light, clamoring for a statement. They didn’t care that Frank was exhausted, mentally and physically, that he’d just suffered a loss greater no doubt than any of them had ever experienced or that he might need time to recover himself—all they cared about was when and where and how and didn’t this happen before and can you tell us how you feel? At this juncture, that is? Mr. Wright, Mr. Wright! Can you give us a statement? He turned a heavy face to them, alive only in his eyes, and gave them what they wanted because he was a public figure, because he was famous, because he had to. He told them he was relieved in that no lives had been lost, that he regretted having been so poor a trustee for the great works of art that had been inadvertently destroyed—valued at half a million, that’s right, half a million at least29—and that yes, he intended to rebuild. And then Billy Weston and some of the other workmen escorted them off the property so that they could race one another to town to wire the stories already taking shape in the scrawled-over pages of their notepads: WRIGHT BUNGALOW GONE; FIRE AT TALIESIN; BLAZE DESTROYS LOVE COTTAGE OF FRANK L. WRIGHT.
A lesser man would have been defeated, or at least bowed, but not Frank. Before the ashes had cooled he was drawing, working through the day and into the night, measuring, coloring, erasing, Taliesin III30 begin- ning to take shape under the impress of his pencil while the blackened stone of the walls stood silhouetted against the hills like the ruins of a Roman villa. He’d sit down to dinner and gaze up at her out of his naked face, looking like a Chinese sage with his eyebrows gone and his naturally springy hair slicked back to hide the places where she’d cut out the worst of the burned spots, and there’d be a joke on his lips. Always a joke. He’d clown for Svetlana, sing “O, Susanna” a cappella and wish aloud for a piano to replace the one turned to ash. “Or a banjo, at least. How about a banjo, Svet? Is that one I see on your knee there?”
And he was good with her too on the subject of the fire. Wonderful, really. Far better than Vlademar would have been. Svetlana was a sensitive child, very adult, always concerned with security and order and the underlying causes of things, and the fire had been especially hard on her, the violence of it, the dislocation—and just when she’d begun to settle in and find herself. First she’d been uprooted from Fontainebleau, then from her uncle’s house in New York and from Chicago and Vlademar, and now there was this, her dresses and her books and the indispensable porcelain dolls gone forever.
Frank had come in whistling at lunch one afternoon not a week after the fire, the day gloomy and oppressive, the sky like iron, thunder rumbling, stanchions of lightning propping up the clouds all around them. And that smell, that smell on the air still. “I see you’re in a good mood,” Olgivanna said, pulling out a chair for Svetlana as the cook fussed round the table.
“Oh, sure,” he said, “sure,” lifting his eyebrows, where spikes of white hair had begun to sprout, “is there any other kind of mood worth being in? Huh, Svet? What do you say?”
“There’s lightning,” she said in a very small voice. “Again.”
“Well, it’s a fact of life. Electricity. Without it we’d have no lights at night. You wouldn’t want that, would you?”
She didn’t respond, Mrs. Taggertz setting down bowls of soup and a loaf of fresh-baked bread, just the three of them at lunch, the workmen dining separately on the wall beneath the oak trees, the Neutras, Mosers and Tsuchiuras displaced now and gone. A long roll of thunder drummed at the hills.
“Now, listen, Svet,” Frank said, setting his spoon down to reach for the bread knife and saw at the loaf with both hands, “you know perfectly well it wasn’t lightning that caused the fire, but bad wiring. And bad luck, I guess.” He handed her a roughly hewn slice of bread. “But if it wasn’t for the rain, we wouldn’t be sitting here all snug and happy because the whole place would have gone up.”
“I know that. But if it wasn’t for the wind—” She made a vague gesture with her spoon.
“Sure,” he said. “Sure. I know what you’re driving at, honey, and there’s no good answer for it. You take the good with the bad. The main thing is not to let it get you down.” He paused to address the soup, but he wasn’t done yet. “You know, I’ve told your mother this, but I have to say I’m humbled by it too. It does seem sometimes as if some higher power is up there throwing the dice against us—and by that I mean God, the God of the Bible with his manna in one hand and his hellfire in the other. Take Maple, for instance.”
“Who’s Maple?”
“She was a pedigree Holstein Maplecroft worth more than a hundred ordinary cows—we bought her to breed her and start our own line. And one day, during a storm just like this, she was out in the field with two ordinary old milk cows worth not much more than their hides and bones. I was sitting on the stone terrace with a cup of tea, watching the storm come in, when there was a powerful jolt—Boom! Just like that”—he snapped his fingers—“lightning striking right there in the field.” He lifted a finger to point beyond the windows. “Sure enough, ten minutes later a worker came to me breathless to say that one of the cows had been killed—can you guess which one?”
“Maple? ”
“That’s right, honey: Maple. And I tell you, you can draw your own conclusions, but what I say is you’ve got to put your head down and work, work till you add tired to tired, and never look back. Never.”31
 
It was amazing to see how quickly the ribs of Taliesin III went up, a whole crew of carpenters, stonemasons and laborers from the surrounding villagesgoing at it from dawn till dusk through the cumulative outpouring of each lengthening day, and Frank right there in the middle of it. He was inexhaustible, utterly absorbed, and if he wasn’t climbing the frame with his carpenter’s level or snapping a plumb line from one corner to the next, he was at his desk, refining the plans, firing off letters to prospective clients and old friends, using all his charm and persuasion to secure commissions (retainer urgently requested) and outright loans. Insurance would cover some of the cost of rebuilding, he assured her, though unfortunately—tragically—the art hadn’t been included in the coverage, and the structure he envisioned was far grander than either Taliesin I or II—here was a chance to consolidate things, eliminate the design flaws of a place that had grown by necessity and accretion. Where the money would come from, he couldn’t say, but he never let money stop him, not mere money. Oh, no.
May turned to June, June to July. She hadn’t really put on any weight—or not that anyone could see, except Frank when they were in bed together and he ran his hands over the bulge of her abdomen as if this were another of his projects to be gauged and measured against a set of blueprints—but soon her condition would be evident to anyone with a pair of eyes. Like the cook. Or any of the workmen—or their busy wives. They had a talk about it one night, the two of them naked and sweating and Frank examining her under the lamplight, his face shining, the taste of him on her lips still. “We’ve got to do something before people start talking,” he murmured.
She traced a single finger down his nose to his lips, his chin, his chest. “What,” she said, feeling playful, “exactly, do you propose?”
“Miriam,” he said, and waved a hand in extenuation.
For a long moment she said nothing. The name itself—Miriam—was enough to break the mood, sour the sweetness of the moment, and there was that smell again, the faintest whiff of burning. She watched the shadow of his hand move against the wall. Beetles hurled themselves at the window screen like bullets. He’d lain here in bed with Miriam just as he was lying with her, opened himself to her, told her he loved her, swore it, swore it a hundred times. And what was she now? A stranger. An irritant. A name, just a name. “What was she like?” she asked, and her voice seemed to stick in her throat. “Was she beautiful?”
“No,” he said. “Not compared to you. Nobody is.”
“But she was beautiful.”
He shrugged. “Listen, Olya, that’s not the point. I don’t want our child born out of wedlock, that’s all. We need to be married as soon as possible, you see that, don’t you? Before word gets out. You’ve got your divorce, now I’ve got to get mine. I’m going to the lawyer tomorrow, first thing in the morning, all right? And we’ll see what happens. Maybe—as long as she doesn’t know about you, about us—she’ll take the bait and we can be done with her.” He paused, looked to the window, the beetles there—and what were they doing? Mating she supposed, like any other creatures. “She’ll need money, I know her. Maybe, just maybe, she’ll come to terms.”
“Do you love her still?”
“Love her? She’s been dead to me for years. She’s a disturbed woman, violent. Especially if she doesn’t get her way. If she even suspected . . . I mean, that you were here—”
She remembered how he’d fumed over the newspaper accounts of the fire—“So much trash and sensationalism, as if I live my life for the amusement of Mr. and Mrs. Schmutzkopf over breakfast in the Loop, ‘Love Cottage, ’ and all the rest”—but was exultant that none of them had mentioned her. They didn’t know. No one knew. It was their secret, Architect Living in Sin with Pregnant Montenegrin, and if they could guard that secret just a while longer, all would be well, he promised her. She hadn’t really thought about it, not until the fire and the clamor of the newspapermen. Everything had seemed so natural to her, so involved with the earth and the change of the seasons, so distant from the city and society and all the dull decorum that went with it. She thought of Georgei then. It was no more than what—eighteen months ago?—that she’d first come to New York with his troupe. She’d been enclosed within him then, all her life a function of her master and his Work, her spirit ascending, the drums and flutes speaking a secret language that fed her limbs as she danced across the stage, danced in private, danced to a music no one else could hear, present only in her mind and her heart—and Georgei’s. How distant it all seemed now.
Georgei. The force of him, the way he could mesmerize an audience. He would sweep out of the wings like a prophet, urging the rapt crowd to lift the veil and see the universe for what it was, and he would astonish them with his music and feats of hypnotism, but the true coup de foudre was the moment the dancers broke the plane of the stage and hurled themselves into the audience. It was a leap of faith. They all spun to the accelerating beat of the music and then they rushed the lip of the stage and leapt blindly into space—and it was faith alone that kept them intact even as they landed in the orchestra pit or the boxes in front, sprawled amongst the gentlemen in their fancy dress and the ladies in their gowns. That was the leap she’d made now. For Frank.
“We’ll lie low,” he said, “just as we’ve been doing. And you’re hardly showing.” He touched a hand to her cheek. “You know what I’ll do? I’ll sketch some dresses for you, lots of material, ruffles maybe—I know, I know—but something to hide your condition. As long as possible. Because if word gets out . . .”
But word does get out. Word travels fast, it seeps and bubbles and runs in the ditches like heavy rain in a wet country, and when she began to show, when there was no hiding it anymore and the leaves turned and dropped from the trees and the clouds moved in low to scatter sleet across the new windows and new roofs of Taliesin III, the phone rang again. They were sitting by the fire, she and Svetlana and Frank, reading aloud, and the instrument gave a long trailing bleat and then another. She looked up at him and she saw his eyes retract, his jaw harden: he was thinking the same thing she was. The phone hadn’t rung, not at this hour, in a very long time—not since summer, when he’d filed the divorce papers. Then it rang daily, continually, and the letters came in a deluge—she’d seen those letters, the envelopes addressed in a finishing school hand lost to the fierce accounting of haste and desperation, and inside the chilling avowals of love couched in the iconography of sex and death. Oh, my gallant knight—struck out—once gallant—struck out again—never gallant knight who took me to his bed and made of that bed an ancient bark plying the stormy seas of Eros, hard by the Isle of Thanatos and the Peninsula of Despair, how could you betray me? My trust, my heat, my blood, my heart? How could you? How could you?
On the third ring he set down the book and rose to answer the phone. She watched him pad across the carpet as if in slow motion, watched him lift the receiver from the hook. Even though she was on the far side of the room and there was a record on the phonograph and the fire was making a noise with a log of too-green wood, she could hear the shrill insinuation of the voice on the other end of the line. “Miriam,” Frank was saying. “No, Miriam, you’re wrong,” and he had to pull the receiver away from his ear.
“Liar! Fraud!” The voice rose in an ecstasy of hate and accusation. “Housekeeper!? Housekeeper!? You expect anyone to believe that, Frank, you, you”—and it wavered, all the sorrow and jealousy and rage wadded up in the expletive that followed. And then a shriek, so raw and explosive it was as if the woman on the other end of the line were being stabbed in the throat: “You used that lie up already. On me. I was the housekeeper, Frank, I was!”32

Comments

user comment image
Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

Share your Thoughts for The Women

500+ SHARES Facebook Twitter Reddit Google LinkedIn Email
Share Button
Share Button