The Women | Chapter 16 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 6 : MIRIAM AT THE GATES
The windows were flung open wide to the sun, the curtains bowing with the sweet breeze coming in off the lake, and Miriam felt very settled, very content, as she sat at the escritoire the hotel had provided for her, writing. In the past week she’d gone through nearly a hundred sheets of fine mouldmade kid-finish paper, with deckled edges and matching envelopes, and had just that morning called down to the stationer’s to place her order for another hundred, these to be embossed with her initials: MMNW, Maude Miriam Noel Wright. Twice now she’d had to get up to rub hand crème over the second joint of her middle finger, where a callus had begun to develop as if she were some sort of grind, a nail-bitten secretary or bloodless law clerk who never saw the light of day, but she felt strong and her hand barely trembled over the paper. She’d had breakfast sent up to the room—coffee and a bun, nothing more—and then allowed the pravaz to take the tension out of her shoulders and free her hands for the day’s work.
She was writing letters—angry, slanderous, denunciatory letters—and addressing them to anyone she could think of who might take an interest in her situation. She wrote to her husband’s creditors, to the Bank of Wisconsin and all his clients—past, present and prospective—to the newspapers, her lawyers, and to him, most of all to him. He was a scoundrel, a fraud, that was what she wanted the world to know, and she would be damned if she would live out of a suitcase like a—a carpetbagger—while he paraded around in luxury with his danseuse. Her bill had been owing now for more than two months and the people at the desk had begun to give her insolent looks—and that she should have to endure such looks, she, his lawful wife, was unconscionable. Especially in light of the fact that the Dane County Superior Court had ordered him to pay her attorneys’ fees and per diem expenses while the divorce was being contested and he most emphatically was not living up to his end of the bargain. What’s more, she wrote, she was being threatened with eviction if the account wasn’t settled, and where would she go then?
She was in the middle of an urgent plea to the governor of Wisconsin, weighing a question of diction (should she use the term “blackguard” to describe her husband or did it sound too antiquated?; she wanted to call him a “heel,” because that was what he was, a heel and a son of a bitch, but then women of her class didn’t stoop to such language, not in letters to the governor, at any rate) when the telephone rang.
Her attorney, Mr. Fake, was on the other end of the line. “Mrs. Wright, is that you?” He had a low, considered voice, deeply intimate, as if he’d been born to collusion.
“Yes,” she returned, “I’m here,” and she couldn’t help adding a note of asperity. “And I’m doing as well as can be expected under the circumstances. The looks I’m getting—”
“Well, that’s why I’m calling. There’s been no movement on their side, none at all, we’re just simply deadlocked, and I think I may have a solution for you—”
She held her breath. This was what she wanted to hear—tactics, movement, action, her forces gathering for the assault. “Yes?” she said.
“There is simply no reason I can think of for you to have to continue living hand to mouth in some hotel when Taliesin remains community property. Taliesin is your rightful and legal home and I really do believe that if you were to move back in—”
“Move back?” She was incensed at the thought of it, all those pastures reeking of dung, the dreary vistas opening up to yet more pastures mounded with dung, the yokels, the insects.
“What I’m trying to say is that it might just force the issue.”
“But he’s there. With her.
“Precisely.”
All at once the image of Taliesin rose before her in such immediacy she might have been staring at a photograph. That yellow place on the hill—or of the hill, as Frank would say with all the pomposity of his ladies-of-the-club tones—that palace, that monument to himself. Oh, the idea warmed her. Taliesin wasn’t his to do with as he pleased—it belonged to both of them. Equally. That was what community property meant, the very definition of it. And if she’d been willing to allow him the use of it till the fair value of the estate was ascertained and they could make an equitable division of property, now she saw what a fool she’d been. How dare he try to exclude her when his prize breeding bitch was installed there, living in all the luxury he could afford her, sleeping in their bed, in their bedroom, commanding the place like some sort of upstart queen out of a Shakespeare play, Lady Macbeth herself?
“All right,” she said, crossing her legs and leaning forward to reach for a cigarette, “and how do you propose I go about it?”
A pause. Then the soft creeping tones, as smooth as kid leather: “Well, I’ve been thinking that you just might want to consider announcing a press conference.”
 
Her eyes were luminous, moist. She couldn’t seem to feel her feet, though she must have been standing on them. She had a sudden vivid recollection of her school days, Mrs. Thompson’s elocution class, the air sleepy with the scent of magnolia and she driving home her point about Tennyson’s use of the heroic simile with such force that the entire class came back to life and Margaret Holloway, the most popular girl in the school, gave her a look of such undisguised admiration from the second row left that the glow of the moment had stayed with her all these years. “I don’t know,” she said finally, steadying herself, “that I won’t be thrown out into the street.” But was this the moment for the photograph? Yes, and she posed for the flash before delivering the kicker:49 that she was left with no choice but to return to her rightful home—and that she intended to do so that very day.
“Mrs. Wright!” a reporter sang out, and she turned her eyes to him, a thin man in a gray suit with liverish eyes and hair that faded away from his brow in a pale blond crescent. “Can you give us some idea of your itinerary? ”
They watched her, these hounds of the press, ravenous, while she put a hand to her bosom and let a little Southern molasses accumulate in the lower reaches of her voice, on familiar ground now, the lady in distress—and she was in distress, she was, and they ought to recognize it, the self-serving sons of bitches. “Oh, I just don’t know. I really am all but indigent, I’m afraid.” And then the little dig she couldn’t suppress: “My husband may be able to afford a fine motor or the price of a first-class rail ticket, but I really am just as poor as a church mouse.”
Five minutes later, as Mr. Jackson led her to the elevator (Mr. Fake had had to excuse himself—he was in court that morning), the reporter caught up with her. “Pardon me, ma’am,” he said, nodding to Mr. Jackson, and she was thinking only of her pravaz, her nerves thoroughly jangled by the strain of the whole business, “but I was struck by what you had to say back there—you’ve had a pretty punk deal and no two ways about it—and I wondered if I might be able to help?”
She paused to take a good look at him, his jacket open now to reveal a fawn vest stippled with polka dots, the tight trousers hiked up over his glaring tan boots, and how old was he—twenty-five, thirty? Mr. Jackson didn’t say a word. Mr. Jackson was a friend of the press, a very good friend. She decided to be bemused. “And how do you propose to do that?”
“Well, listen—I’m Wallace, of the Trib? Mr. Jackson can vouch for me”—another nod for Jackson, which Jackson accepted and returned with an almost imperceptible dip of his chin—“and it just happens that me and my wife were planning on driving up to Baraboo this morning because her mother’s been having trouble with her feet and we’d be pleased if you’d—”
“Sure,” Jackson said. “I don’t see why not.” He was staring at her now, calculating, and she didn’t especially like the look he was giving her. “What do you think, Mrs. Wright? It might be interesting if this fellow and his wife were able to help you out here, don’t you think?”
“That’s right,” the reporter said. “Myra and I’d be more than happy to do anything we could. And Mr. Jackson can vouch for me, right, Harold? ”
 
At least it was a sedan. At least there was that. The reporter drove, and his wife—pregnant with twins, it seemed, or maybe it was triplets—sat beside Miriam in the backseat while another man from the newspaper, whose name flew in and out of her head three or four times in the course of the morning and well into the afternoon, sat up front. He was the photographer, or so she gathered, and that was the only thing of significance about him. The roads, of course, were execrable, and the motorcar’s coils or springs or whatever they were didn’t seem to function in any capacity whatever so that for the entire drive she was thrown from one end of the seat to the other like a rag doll, and the wife—Myra—had to cling to her to keep from being flung out the window herself. Conversation was glacial. They passed through two thunderstorms, stopped twice at filling stations, once for sandwiches in Madison and once in the godforsaken precincts of Mazomanie, where she felt an urgent need to visit the washroom.
All four of them got out of the car there—the pretense of Baraboo, if that was what it was, had long since been abandoned: they’d gone west out of Madison on a road she knew all too well and no one had a said a word about the presumptive mother and her podiatric crisis—and the two men had a good stretch and made a show of examining the tires while she and Myra used the facilities at the railroad depot. A brass plaque on the wall inside the door of the depot informed her that the village had been named for an Indian chief whose name, when translated into English, meant “Iron That Walks.” There were three people in the waiting room, one of whom—a farmwife in a kerchief—seemed to have some sort of animal partially concealed in a wicker basket at her feet.
Miriam insisted that Myra use the facilities first—what a nightmare it must have been to be pregnant in that place, in that heat, in that car—and she stood there staring at the wall for what seemed an eternity while she listened to the trickle of water behind the closed door. It was June. Hot. Muggy. The season of bugs. And they were everywhere, crawling up the walls, clinging to the ceiling, beating round the ticket window as if it were the only place in the world they could breathe and exude their fluids and scramble atop one another so they could produce yet more bugs. In the distance—and maybe it was over Taliesin itself—there was a peal of thunder.
When it was Miriam’s turn, she locked the door behind her, lit a cigarette and immediately extracted her kit from her purse. She needed something—but not too much, not her usual dose, just a modicum—to quiet her nerves. They were close now, no more than fifteen miles or so, and the thought of confronting Frank made her stomach sink. In one corner of her mind she saw him falling on his knees to beg her forgiveness, wooing her all over again, just the way it was in the beginning when he would have died for the touch of her, the lamps and candles lit and everything aglow with the presence of fine art and fine minds too, the little Russian sent packing, booted out the back door with her bags and her babies while the lord and lady of the house made tempestuous love to the keening of violins on the victrola—or to jazz, the jazz she adored and he was indifferent to. But in another corner—a corner that grew disproportionately till it filled all the rapidly expanding space inside her skull with pulsing clouds of color, the red of hate, the green of envy—she knew she would fly at him the minute she stepped through the door. She would . . . she would . . . She looked down and saw that her hands were clenched and the pravaz still lodged in her thigh, the skin uplifted round a single bright spot of blood.
The remainder of the journey was something of a fog. There was a side trip to Dodgeville, the county seat, to file the writs Mr. Jackson had arranged for in advance—a peace warrant for Frank, and just so she wouldn’t feel left out, one for his little Russian on a morals complaint. She might have called the justice of the peace by the wrong name and she seemed to recall something about a dog, but it was all inconsequential: she’d filed the complaints and the sheriff had been summoned to see them acted upon. The road curved and dipped and curved again. There seemed to be geese, ducks and chickens everywhere. Things flapped at the windows. The engine droned.
The conversation picked up as they got closer to Taliesin, that much she remembered, both men trying to get a rise out of her with questions about what she meant to do once they arrived and how she felt about her husband and about this dancer usurping her place, and one of them—the photographer, she thought it was—producing a flask of what he called “good Canadian whiskey”50 to take the edge off. “Here’s to Dutch courage,” somebody said, and the flask went round the car, the alcohol lodging like sand in her throat, and why was she so dry all of a sudden when everything around her was silvered and shimmering with the wet of the storm that blew over them in a burst and released the skies to a shattering sunstruck explosion of grace and eternal light? Why was that? And why did everything seem so much denser and richer than she’d ever imagined so that when the river flashed beneath them and the long low golden walls suddenly appeared as if they’d created themselves in that moment, just by her imagining them, she felt nothing but loss?
“Here,” she said, “here, turn left. Now right. There, that’s the gate there.”
What was odd—and it struck her immediately—was the confluence of automobiles collected at the gate, three, four, five of them, and a group of men in shabby suits stationed beside them. To a man, they wore their hats cocked back on their heads and to a man they were watching the progress of the sedan out of narrowed reptilian eyes, unmoving, unflinching, and she would have thought they were statues but for the faint blue traces of smoke rising from their cigarettes and cigars. It came to her then that these were newspapermen, gathered there to document her grand entrance—and that Mr. Jackson must have put them up to it. Publicity, that was his byword. And Mr. Fake’s too. Let the press do the work for us and you’ll see your husband come around smart enough. Her hands went to her hair, tucking the loose strands of it up under her green velvet turban, and as the car slowed to pull in at the gate she was busy with her compact and a fresh application of powder and lipstick.
Only then did she look up. The gate, which normally stood open, had been pulled shut and barred with a conspicuous padlock she’d never seen before. Standing there in front of it was Billy Weston and two of the other smirking inbred local morons who would have starved to death a generation ago if Frank hadn’t paid them to hang about the place and look busy. She saw the trouble in Billy’s eyes when she stepped out of the car and the reporters all snapped to attention as if they’d been reanimated, flinging down their cigarettes and converging on her in unison.
The shoulder of the road was a morass of dirty brown puddles—country life, how she hated it, and what had she been thinking?—and immediately her right heel sank into the soft earth so that she staggered momentarily before bracing herself against the fender. The reporters watched her with flat eyes, but none of them offered her a hand. The sun was in her face. She felt a finger of sweat trace the ridge of her spine. She took a moment to freeze them all with a sweeping look, then marched up to the gate.
“You, Billy Weston,” she snapped, “open this gate at once.” She’d been debating whether or not to cry out What is the meaning of this? in tones of high dudgeon, but there was no point: the meaning was clear. Frank—and his henchmen, these village idiots with their open collars, battered hats and filthy trousers—intended to keep her out.
From Billy Weston (a thin gawky man, so gray and pedestrian he was barely there at all, his eyes blunted and his mouth set): “I’m sorry, Mrs. Noel, but Mr. Wright says to admit no one.”
“The name is Mrs. Wright, as you know perfectly well—Mrs. Frank Lloyd Wright—and I live here. This is my house, not yours. Or his. Now you open this gate and be quick about it.”
No reaction. He exchanged a glance with the other two, but that was the extent of it.
“Have you gone deaf? I said, open this gate. At once!”
Suddenly she seemed to have her hands on the cool iron panels and she was jerking the gate back and forth to the grinding accompaniment of its hinges and to hell with her gloves, to hell with everything. “Frank!” she screamed, focusing all her attention on the inert face of the house rising up out of the hill above the dark sheen of the lake. “I know you’re in there! Frank! Frank!”
It was useless. She was over-exerting herself. She could feel her heart going and the sweat starting up on her brow beneath the tight grip of her turban. This was what he’d wanted, the scheming bastard—he’d planned it this way, to humiliate her. Well, two could play at that game.
She let loose of the gate as suddenly as she’d taken hold of it, wheeled round on the reporters and saw the look of awe flickering from face to face as the puddles reproduced miniature portraits of the sky, and the moths and bees and grasshoppers sailed across the field in bright streamers of color. “Boys,” she said, addressing them all even as she threw her shoulders back and stalked to the sedan, “where I come from we like to say there’s more than one way to skin a cat. If he thinks he can keep us out of here, he’s sorely mistaken.” She brushed by Wallace, who was just standing there watching her with his mouth agape, as if he were at a baseball game or a hypnotist’s ball, and threw back the door of the car herself. “Come on now, what are you waiting for!” she cried, and if she was flailing her arm like some soapbox preacher, well, so what? These were her troops, she saw that now, her men-at-arms, ready to storm the place at her command, and the thought exhilarated her. “Get in your cars, everybody. We’re going up the back road—and see if they can stop us!”
There was a burst of excitement, men squaring their hats and running for their cars, Wallace sliding into the front seat with the photographer and Myra lifting herself ponderously up across the running board and into the back, doors slamming, dust rising, a man’s voice echoing behind them—Hey, wait for me!—and they were off. Miriam held fast to the door handle, barking directions at the back of Wallace’s head. The green fields rushed past the window. The air was in her face. She was filled with a fierce joy, the joy of combat, of movement and action, her only thought to seize the initiative, catch Frank unawares, bring him to his knees. But when they arrived at the back entrance five minutes later, she had her second surprise: Frank had blocked the road with one of the farm trucks and there were three more men, men she didn’t recognize, standing before it with their caps pulled low and their arms crossed in a display of pugnacity. And obtuseness. And hatefulness. And, and—“Move this truck!” she commanded. “I insist that you move this truck right this minute!”
No one budged, not even so much as to shift weight from one foot to the other.
Wallace was there now (and what was his given name? Rudyard? Yes, Rudyard, after the English writer, or so he claimed), his jacket thrown casually over one shoulder, leaning into the fence as if he belonged there, as if he were a rube and hayseed himself. “Say, fellas, can’t you see your way to letting us up the road here for just a minute? We won’t be a bit of trouble—just want to take a picture maybe for the Saturday edition—and you know Mrs. Wright here, don’t you? Come on, be white about it.”
They might as well have been posts, stones, piles of dung stacked up and molded into the shape and form of men. “Bah!” she spat. “Don’t waste your time. Forget them. Lowlifes, lackeys, country morons.” She swung round, furious, even as both her heels sank into the muck. “Back to the front gate, boys—we’ll let the sheriff handle this!”
The evening shadows were deepening when they pulled back up to the gate, and where had the time gone? As soon as she flung open the car door she could hear the bullfrogs starting up in the lake, eh-lunk, eh-lunk, a sound so dismal she wanted to cry,51 wanted to tear her hair out and fall down on her knees and beat the earth with her fists—to be locked out, locked out of her own house, and in the evening no less, at suppertime, when she’d stood behind those commanding windows in her best clothes more times than she could count, entertaining brilliant and celebrated people while the whole countryside could do nothing more than whip up their buggies and shovel their manure and gape and wonder—but she told herself she had to be strong. And she was strong, stronger than he was, Frank, the milksop, the little man, and of course he was nowhere to be seen. Billy Weston was still there with the other two, though, looking tense. And the gate was still locked. She looked up at the windows of the house glazed with the declining sun till they were like blind eyes and even if she’d had binoculars she couldn’t have seen inside—not from here, not from the road—and the thought of that made her furious all over again.
But who was this? A beery calabash-headed man in some sort of uniform that was distended like sausage casings round the midsection and down the tubes of the legs, and he was coming forward now, separating himself from the crowd—and it was a crowd, the yokels gathering for the show with their chew and their cigars and their big-knuckled pasty faded women as if they’d been summoned by the fire whistle, Frank Lloyd Wright and his locked-out wife the best entertainment in town—and suddenly it dawned on her that this was the sheriff himself. “Ma’am,” he said, touching the brim of his hat.
She should have been pleased to see him, should have thanked him for turning out at such an hour to do his duty and succor her in her time of distress, but the very look of him infuriated her even more. This was her hero? Her knight? Her paladin? His shoulders sagged. He wouldn’t look her in the eye. “They’ve locked me out of my own house,” she said. “And he’s up there right now, gloating. Him and his, his”—she wouldn’t say “whore,” not here, not in front of these people, though that was what she was—“his slattern.”
He smacked his lips, dug with one delicate finger at something lodged between his teeth. “Who would that be, ma’am?”
“Who? What do you mean ‘who’? Frank Lloyd Wright, the man named on the peace warrant. Are you going to go up there and arrest him?” She let her eyes rove over the crowd, then gestured angrily at Billy Weston. “And these men? They’re, they’re . . . obstructing, that’s what they’re doing. Obstructing justice. Arrest them. Arrest them right this minute.”
Someone let out a laugh and then the laughter became general, rising abruptly and then dying out when she swung round on them, furious. “Laugh,” she snarled. “Laugh, you idiots. And you”—pointing a finger at Billy Weston—“I’ll have you fired, the whole lot of you, the minute I get control of Taliesin.”
“Well, ma’am, I don’t, uh”—the sheriff was fumbling in his breast pocket for the warrants, two thumbed-over slips of paper that could have been used as wadding at this juncture—“well, these men say he ain’t up there. And her, neither.”
She was astonished: Wasn’t he going to do anything? Had he been bought off, was that it? Had Frank somehow got to him?
“You mean to tell me you’re just going to take their word for it?” she said, fighting to control her voice. She was glaring at him now, and he was a small man too, for all the puffed-up flesh of him, a conniver, a fool, a coward. “Well?” she demanded. “Aren’t you going to look for yourself? Aren’t you going to do your duty? Your sworn duty? Isn’t that what you’re here for?”
He snatched a look at her, then dropped his eyes and began working at the dirt with the toe of one worn boot. “I suppose I”—he glanced up at Billy Weston—“well, I guess I could, maybe, well, just take a look around the place, considering these warrants and all.”
They all watched him gather himself up and shuffle to the gate, watched Billy Weston produce a key to release the padlock and swing back the bars to admit him, and they all watched as he trudged along the road and on up the hill to the house, the weariest man in the world. A feeling of anticlimax settled in—they’d wanted action, a raw burn of emotion, the seigneur on the hill exposed and humiliated, handcuffs, protestations, the puff of flash powder—but there was only this, this heavy-haunched, slope-shouldered figure receding in the distance and the frogs eh-lunking and the sun stuck fast in the treetops. People began to stir. One woman produced a sandwich. The newspapermen convened over cigarettes, and the farmers, trained to patience, squatted in the dirt and began to talk in soft voices. Before long the birds would go to roost, bats would flicker over the water and the whole countryside would become comatose as if a switch had been thrown.
Miriam was having none of it. Her shoes were ruined. Mosquitoes had bitten her—were biting her even now. She’d come all this way, produced the warrants, summoned the sheriff, endured more abuse and humiliation than any woman could be expected to take for even a single minute of a single day in an entire lifetime, and still she was locked out! Before she could think she was at the gate, a sign there—NO VISITORS ALLOWED—and she was jerking at it till the screws gave and she flung the thing down in the dirt and stamped on it with both feet as if it were the effigy of Frank himself. And now they were roused, all right, everybody on their feet—this was what they’d come for and she was going to give it to them. “You see!” she cried. “You see how it is? The sheriff can pass through these damned stinking gates and I can’t? I, the legal owner of the property, of the gates themselves? Is that right? Is that what this country has come to?”
She could feel it all boiling up in her, a stew of rage and hate and despair, and she fed on it till there was no coming back. The sign was there at her feet and she kicked it till it skittered away from her and suddenly she was whirling around on them all, shouting now, the veins rigid in her throat. “You!” she cried, focusing on the nearest man, a farmer in overalls. “Aren’t you ashamed? All of you, all of you should be ashamed of yourselves. Isn’t there a man among you? Nobody to aid a lady in distress against these, these—” but another sign caught her eye, the Taliesin sign itself, set in glass, and she was snatching up the first thing that came to hand, a stone the size of her fist, and here she was battering the glass till it shattered in a rain of bright hard nuggets and she flung the stone away from her in a single savage gesture.
“Miriam!” somebody called. “Here, Miriam, pose for a picture!”
She wanted to wreck it all, tear the place down, see it in ashes. The dirt leapt at her, the sky collapsed. And what was this? A stick. She had a stick in her hand—Miriam, a picture!—and the photographer was setting up his tripod for the flash, Wallace scurrying to help him, the farmwives gaping, Myra swelling and swelling till she was ready to burst like a soap bubble, and at the very moment, the moment she was posed there with the stick held high, vengeful, heroic, imbued with the power of Diana the Huntress and Queen Elizabeth and every other woman who’d stood up for herself against the tyranny of men, Billy Weston and his minions sprang in front of her with a canvas tarp and the flash flashed on nothing.
 
“Yes,” she was saying, “yes, I’m sure he was in there all the while, laughing up his sleeve. That’s what insults me more than anything else—to think of him thinking he’s got the best of me, and truly, Leora, I’ve never been so mortified in my life—”
There were flowers on the table, two dozen long-stemmed roses in a shade of red that edged toward violet, a color that reminded her of the sacred heart of Jesus glaring from the statue outside St. Mary’s Church in Memphis. Frank had paid for the flowers—indirectly, at any rate—because Mr. Fake and Mr. Jackson had got him to cough up some of what he owed her, and given the mood she was in she felt she needed flowers. Just to cheer her. And she needed a glass of champagne too, and strawberries in cream and a piece of smoked sturgeon to pick over till her fingertips smelled of the smokehouse and the sweet imbricate slabs of flesh.
Leora made a sympathetic noise on the other end of the line, a noise so faint and vague you would have thought she was in California still and not just across town, on Lakeshore Drive, visiting her sister.
“And the newspaper account was disappointing too. Didn’t you think so? Really, ‘Miriam Storms Taliesin; Repulsed,’ and that sort of thing. Or what was the other one? ‘Miriam Lifts Taliesin Siege; Returns Home.’ Makes me out to be—oh, I don’t know. Pitiful.”
“Or sympathetic,” Leora said. “People can’t help but sympathize—”
“And the photograph. They blocked the one that would have done me justice—I told you that, didn’t I? And this one they printed . . .” She was staring down at the newspaper, open to the picture of her posed against an anonymous backdrop of twigs and shrubs instead of the gate itself, her cape flaring, her face distorted under the burden of her hat. You couldn’t even make out her features—and was her face really that wide? There seemed to be a glowing white ball descending from the turban and nothing more than two poked holes for eyes and a slash for the mouth as if in some child’s drawing. “I don’t know, do you like it?”
“Honestly? No. It doesn’t quite . . . but what do you expect from the newspapers? ”
Very slowly, as if it represented all the wealth of the world, Miriam poured herself a second glass of the wine, for which she’d had to bribe two bellhops and the man at the desk—the real stuff, they told her, the finest, when in fact it was no better than the rotgut they served in the speakeasies. But it bubbled and frothed and it reminded her of better times. “I did like this,” she said, “in the second column? ‘You are nothing but a bunch of blackguards,’ she shouted to the defenders grouped in front of the locked gate. There’s a certain courageousness to that, don’t you think?”52
“Do you know what I think? I think you should consider a suit—”
“I am. We are. Mr. Fake said just this morning—”
“No, no—I mean against her. For alienation of affection. Margery Mc-Caffery sued her husband’s secretary that time I was telling you about . . .” Leora lowered her voice to a whisper. “The secretary disappeared the very next day—probably ran to her mother in Barstow or some such place. And when he came crawling back, Margery just laughed.”
The odor of the fish rose to her nostrils, vital and strong, blunting the perfume of the roses. She lifted her forefinger to her lips and idly licked it. Alienation of affection. She hardly knew what it meant beyond the literal meaning of the phrase, but the idea of it appealed to her. She closed her eyes and saw the blanched naked face of that woman in the hospital, childlike and afraid, little Olga, put-upon and harassed. And how did she rate Frank? She didn’t. Nobody did. Nobody.
“Don’t you see? That’s the way to flush them out.”
 
She filed the suit at the end of August in the amount of $100,000, Mr. Fake arguing that Mrs. Olga Milanoff, the Montenegrin dancer, had deprived her of her husband’s society for the past eighteen months, a society she valued, after careful consideration, at some $5,500 a month. The only response from Frank was through the press. He dismissed the suit out of hand, claiming it was just one more attempt on his wife’s part to annoy and harass him, and he refused to divulge the whereabouts of Olgivanna—it was no business of his wife or her lawyers either, he informed a reporter from the Chicago Tribune by long-distance telephone from Taliesin. Which only confirmed what Miriam had known all along—that he was hiding her there. He might have managed to pull his strings and get the warrants dismissed, both of them, but if he thought she was going to give in, he was as deluded as the fools who thought the Great War would last no more than six months. Oh, his little dancer was there, all right—of that Miriam had no doubt. She could picture her cowering someplace in that labyrinth of moldy rooms and reeking outbuildings, afraid of the light of day, confined to the kitchen and the pantry with the servants and the mice, jumping at every sound, and not just the reporters after her now but the process server too.
Yet the fact remained that the summons hadn’t been served and you couldn’t very well sue an apparition. Miriam brooded over that as August gave way to September, her resources dwindling even as Frank reneged on the hotel bill and Messrs. Fake and Jackson began to press her with statements for services rendered and the walls of her rooms seemed to close in on her as if she were the one caught in a snare and not Olgivanna. It rained for two days and she did nothing but sit at the window and watch the patterns the water made in the street. The black cars streamed by like hearses. People huddled beneath umbrellas—but at least they were going somewhere, doing something, anything, even if it was hateful. She was not one for stasis. She needed movement, action, excitement, and who didn’t but the dead or the soon-to-be-dead? She called Mr. Fake. Repeatedly. He had no news for her. Mr. Jackson would take the phone. He had no news for her either. And then they were both out and the secretary was very sorry.
Just when she’d begun to give up hope, when she found herself going down to dinner with her face discomposed from sobbing into her two cupped hands for what seemed hours at a time, when the pravaz went dull and she thought the rain would never let up, Mr. Jackson telephoned to report that Taliesin was hers. He’d arranged for a court order granting her admittance—those workmen had no right to keep her off her own property, no right in the world, and the court had come down firmly on her side—and he offered to drive her all the way up to Wisconsin himself. She could take possession of the place, move things in, do anything she liked with the artwork, the furnishings, the livestock. She could cut down the trees, drain the lake, sell off the corn, fire the staff wholesale and let the dust and cobwebs accumulate till the place looked like the catacombs under one of those old churches in Italy. If it struck her fancy, she could board up the windows, order a dozen Victorian loveseats, hang doilies from the famous cantilevered eaves. And Frank could do nothing to stop her.
This time when she stepped out of the car, there was only Billy Weston at the gate. She stood there glaring at him under the hellish sun, enduring the mud and the insects and the assault of rural odors while Mr. Jackson handed over the papers and the two conferred. Even then, Billy stalled. He had to go up and telephone to Mr. Wright’s lawyer, he said, and, infuriatingly, made her wait there at the locked gate while he ambled up the hill, disappeared into the house for a good ten minutes, and then ambled down again. “Only her,” he said, addressing Mr. Jackson as he turned the key in the padlock and grudgingly pulled back the gate. “That’s what the papers say, only her. Not you.”
She felt strange coming up the drive, everything so familiar—the crunch of the gravel under her feet, the shadows, the angles of the buildings, the way the courtyard opened up like a pair of welcoming arms—and yet different too. How long had it been? Two years—better than two years. But Frank never stood still, that was for sure. He’d been busy since the fire, she could see that, new roofs sprouting over the living quarters, the back buildings more elaborate, more fully integrated into the whole. And the house was beautiful, she had to admit it. There was an aura of peace about the place, everything so still and ageless, and she had a thrill of recognition that took her all the way back to her years in Europe and the first time she stepped into the arching recesses of the Pantheon or St. Peter’s Basilica. She was wrought up, of course she was, but the simple transparent beauty of the place had a calming effect beyond all thought of confrontation and loss, and the memories came back to her in a rush.
There may have been a lock on the gate, but there were no locks on the doors—Frank didn’t believe in keys53—and she passed through the courtyard and slipped in the main entrance. It was like plunging into a pool, cool and mysterious, the stone pillars burnished with an aqueous light, the wood glowing as if it were wet, and everything silent as a dream. He wasn’t there. She wasn’t there. Nobody was. All those rooms, all that empty space, and not a soul around, not even the servants. For a long while, Miriam hesitated at the door, breathing in the scent of the place, orienting herself—Frank was gone, vanished, and he’d ducked out on her again, the coward, the bastard, the little man—and then, gradually, it came to her that it was better this way, and her heart decelerated and her breathing slowed, and step by step, she entered deeper into the house and began to explore.
Every detail, every change, leapt out at her,54 and it was almost as if the flesh of a new house had been stretched over the bones of the old—and it had, because all this had been burned, but for the stone itself, hadn’t it? She ran her hand over the rough pillars to feel the grit there, sat in the chairs, took in the views out the living room windows like an interloper, a thief of views. The more she explored—or was she snooping, was that what it was?—the more agitated she became. She saw the new carpets, the furniture, new artwork to replace the old. He’d been extravagant here, sparing nothing, and all the while pleading poverty to the court. But then he was just a two-bit schemer, wasn’t he? A liar and a skinflint. He took from the rich and gave to himself and he didn’t give a damn about anybody so long as he got what he wanted.
She moved through the house like a detective in a dime novel, examining everything, the canned food in the cupboard, the table set for an uneaten meal, the dirty plates in the sink, the unmade beds—he’d decamped in a hurry, she saw that, but it gave her little satisfaction. There were the sheets in the master bedroom, sheets that smelled of him—yes, she raised them to her face—and something else too, another presence, her, Olgivanna, the usurper in her husband’s bed. For a long while she sat there on the edge of the bed, her mind ranging so far that she forgot all about Mr. Jackson waiting for her at the gate and Billy Weston, whom she was going to sack the minute she had the opportunity, and all the rest of the toadies and ingrates too, and she might have stayed there till night came down but for the two very sympathetic gentlemen from the Bank of Wisconsin, Madison, who knocked meekly at the door to inform her that her husband was in arrears on his mortgage, which, sadly, had been inflated by the rebuilding loan, and that they were foreclosing on the property forthwith.
Unless, of course, she, as co-owner, could come up with the sum owing.
And how much was it?
Twenty-five thousand on the mortgage, plus a further chattel mortgage of $1,500 and liens for unpaid bills of $17,000, totaling, in all, $43,500.
She invited them in, apologizing because she was unable to offer them anything under the circumstances, and she sat there in Frank’s grand living room with its gleaming treasures and baronial views, staring numbly at them, thinking first of her pravaz and then of Frank—he’d outmaneuvered her again, that was what he was thinking. Wherever he was. Out of the country, no doubt. Living in a cheap hotel where no one asks any questions. Maybe he was wearing a false beard—that would be funny, Frank in a false beard like some baggy-pants comedian on the vaudeville circuit. He thought he’d put one over on her. Thought he was having the last laugh. But he’d lost Taliesin and Taliesin was his life. And he stood to lose a whole lot more any day now. Because what he didn’t know was that Mr. Jackson was also representing the little Russian’s husband—Hinzenburg—and that the husband had brought adultery charges against him. And more: he was suing Frank for $250,000 for alienating the affections of his wife and daughter, filing a writ of habeas corpus for return of the child and offering a five-hundred-dollar reward for capture of the fugitives. Even then, even as she sat across from the lip-licking bankers and let her gaze rest on one of Frank’s precious Chinese Buddhas, the sheriff of Sauk County, Wisconsin, was circulating photographs of him. And of her. And of the child.
Yes. And who was having the last laugh now?

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