The Women | Chapter 26 of 41

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

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If that was how they wanted to play, rough and tumble, cats with their claws drawn, well, she could play at that game too. For three full days she lay in that sweltering room, in the dark, while Frank pleaded with her and the little half-witted housemaid who couldn’t have been more than sixteen, ugly as a turnip and graceless and stupid into the bargain, brought her iced tea, lemonade and cakes. Plenty of time to brood, and brood she did. The gall of that crone, Mrs. Breen, that bag, that sack of bones with her lace-curtain Irish accent tripping around as if she were the lady of the house—and what had she had the effrontery to say in response to the simplest request for a salad properly dressed and a sandwich of cold chicken with a bit of mayonnaise and a slice of cheese that didn’t stink of the barnyard? “I’m nobody’s handmaid, ma’am, and if you want your victuals outside of the regular dining hours you’ll just have to help yourself like anybody else.” Victuals. Dining hours. It was all she could do to stop herself from snatching the hearing trumpet out of the odious reptilian claw and snapping it over one knee.
And the mother. There was an old dragon crouching over her hoard if ever she’d seen one. From the very instant they’d laid eyes on each other, in that exquisite living room with all of Frank’s things on display as if it were a museum—and it was, it was a museum, as fine and profoundly moving as any in the world—there’d been a mutual antipathy. A chill. As if a wall of ice, a thousand-year-old glacier, had sprung up between them. Frank had escorted her into the room on his arm and before she’d had a chance to catch her breath—all that rare beauty—his mother was there like one of the risen dead, tall, bony, white-haired, with a scouring look in her eye and a mouth that clamped shut so tightly it was a wonder she had any teeth left. “Enchantée,” Miriam had murmured, taking her hand, but the old woman said nothing in reply, merely looking to Frank and commenting, in the sort of tone she might have used while kicking the mud from her boots, “So this is the Parisian?” Only then did she look Miriam in the eye. “Or should I say, Parisian by way of Tennessee?”
Three days. To hell with them. To hell with everybody. She’d rather be back in Taos if it came to it, free of all this embroilment and animus, and she closed her eyes against the void of the ceiling and saw herself gamboling through a field of wildflowers in the cool pellucid sculptor’s light of the high mountains, her arms outspread, the pure white silk dancing round her on the breeze. But Frank wasn’t in Taos, Frank was here. This was his abode, his refuge, his poet’s tower shining out over the waste-land of boorishness and diminished taste, and her place was beside him. And he was concerned for her, she could see that, his face heavy, his voice soft and chagrined, the most caring man in the world. He must have come twenty times a day to inquire after her—Did she need anything? Was she feeling better? Wouldn’t she like to come in to dinner?—and at night he let all his need spill over her.
In the darkness, as they lay there side by side, she praised him, praised his vision and his genius and the way his great and giving soul was reflected in the beams that rose over them and the holy space he’d created within. She took his hand. Squeezed it. And gave praise, because praise was her main theme and her modus, but there was another theme here and it began to emerge even as his breathing slowed and the night wheeled overhead. “Frank,” she whispered, “Frank, are you awake?”
Snatched from sleep, his voice thick: “I’m here.”
“Your mother, Frank. And that dreadful housekeeper. I cannot”—her voice rising—“will not endure this sort of abuse much longer. Who is to be the mistress of this house? Tell me that, Frank. Tell me.”
On the evening of the third day she emerged from her room in time for dinner, taking her place at the table beside Frank as if she’d been sitting there amongst them each night since the roof had been raised and the table brought in through the door. This time—and she didn’t give a damn whether anybody liked it or not—she entangled herself in the conversation, letting no point pass unchallenged, whether it had to do with politics, pasturage, Paris fashion or the weather, and she let them know, all of them, Frank’s mother and his grown children, his adolescent boy with the open honest look Frank must once have worn in the long-ago, the draftsmen, the visiting architect and his wife and whoever else was there, that she was the equal of anyone and that from now on the entire establishment would dance to a new tune, her tune, hers and hers only.
She knew something they didn’t. She knew that Nellie Breen would be sent packing within a matter of days, as soon as Frank could find someone to replace her, and that in the morning he’d be having a long talk with his mother, emphasizing the fact that her rooms weren’t yet completed—why, the building itself—and wondering, especially with the season changing and the cold sure to come on soon, if she wouldn’t find it more comfortable back in Oak Park. At least temporarily. And she knew that when she went back into that pinched and darkened room this time it would be only to pack her things up and direct the maid to take them across the courtyard, through the loggia and into Frank’s rooms.
“You’re dismissed,” she heard Frank shout suddenly, his voice echoing down the courtyard through the open kitchen window, in full roar. “Can’t you understand that? You’re no longer wanted. Period. Must I repeat myself over and over?” The old woman came right back at him, her words chopping through the dull haze of the morning like so many swirling blades: “You think you can just toss me out? Without cause? So you can lie here with your—” Frank’s voice swelled to drown hers, there was a sharp tumbling explosion shot through with metallic tones, a clatter and tintinnabulation of cook pans, implements, perhaps even cutlery, and then the thunderous slamming of the door. In the next moment she saw him stalking across the courtyard, his shoulders clenched in fury, and she rushed to the window, her emotions surging—the bitch, the bitch, he was her hero, shining and golden, couldn’t the whole world see it?—and called his name as if her life depended on it.
He stopped in his tracks, spinning round to see where this new challenge was coming from. There was something about his posture, the shoulders, the fists, the gnomic big-headed stocky Welsh look of bellicosity, that brought her back to the scenes between them at 25 East Cedar Street before she’d gone off to New Mexico in capitulation, and that gave her pause. He was glaring at her, the compass of his fury expanding to include her now, as if she were to blame, and he cried out as if she’d just stuck a dart in his back. “What? What do you want from me?”
The moment was emblematic. She knew it, felt the knowledge run through her like a long shiver, but she was there at the open casement, not fifty feet from him, and without thinking, she just opened her arms to him. “Frank,” she crooned, drawing out the single syllable in the continental way—“Frahhnnk”—and she saw his face change. “Come here. Come to me.”
In the next moment he was there at the window, reaching out to wrap his arms around her, rigid with the residue of his anger. “Good, Frank,” she murmured, hugging him to her, and it was as if they were on a stage, because wasn’t that his mother’s face hanging in the window across from them? Yes. Yes. The ghost of an image, already fading. She gripped him, squeezed him, pressed him to her. “Good,” she said. “Good for you.”
Six weeks later, the scandal broke, and everything had to be recalibrated.
They were in Chicago at the time, he on his business, she doing a bit of shopping, hoping to find something suitable for winter in this last dreary outpost of civilization, which was, at least, preferable to the sheer barbarism of rural Wisconsin, Spring Green, for God’s sake—and no, she wouldn’t go to see Norma, not on her life, because Norma was now apparently the moral guardian of the state of Illinois, excoriating her mother both by mail and over the telephone wires for living openly with a married man, as if such a child chained to such a joyless belittling marriage with a man who was her inferior in every regard could know anything about passion and the higher life of the mind. She’d just come back to the hotel after stops at the milliner, her tailor and half a dozen of the less absurd shops that nonetheless featured things they were wearing in Paris two years ago, when there was a knock at the door. It was Leora.109 Looking flushed. “I must have missed you—I don’t know how, I’ve been waiting in the lobby for hours . . .
“But why? Whatever’s the matter?”
She could only sigh and draw her face down, throwing a quick glance up the corridor to where two men in bright ties, their voices jocularly entwined, were just stepping into the elevator, before she ducked through the door and fell into the nearest chair as if she’d been stricken on the spot. “He’s not here, is he?” she whispered, puckering her lips in a show of concern, her eyes jumping to the bedroom door and back again.
“Who? Frank?”
“He’s not, is he?”
“Why, no—he’s at the office. Working. You know that—he works all the time, works like a stoker, day and night, the vigor of the man”—and here she had to smile a not-so-private smile because she’d already informed Leora, in some detail, about their nights together.
“Have you a cigarette?”
Without answering, she went to where her purse lay open on the table by the window, extracted her cigarette case with an absent glance at the mosaic of sun-splashed roofs below her and the great blue void of the lake beyond, and came back across the room with her hand extended, thinking of the hats she’d bought—and the shoes—and thinking she might model them for Leora, because she respected her opinion, though if truth be told Leora was hardly original in her dress. In the next moment, she’d lit Leora’s cigarette and one of her own—Frank be damned: she’d smoke if she pleased, anytime, anywhere—and settled into the armchair beside Leora’s. “So,” she said, exhaling a rich blue cloud of Turkish tobacco, “what is all this about Frank? Something in the papers?”
“It’s that maid,” Leora said, her voice a whisper still, as if she were afraid someone might overhear her, though Frank was gone and the walls were as reasonably thick as one could expect from an American hotel. “Mrs. Breen?”
“Yes? What about her?”
“It seems she’s got hold of some letters, letters you wrote to Frank when you were separated? And gone to the press with them.”
“But how would she—?” The answer came to her before the question was out of her mouth—and, of course, she was thinking aloud in any case—the hateful pinched face of the puffed-up little woman invading her mind’s eye even as she saw her rifling Frank’s drawers under the pretext of dusting or mopping or whatever it was she did at Taliesin when she wasn’t presiding over her reeking pots of greasy bland overcooked victuals. But the treachery of the woman—and how could Frank associate himself with people like that? Defend them, even? Mother Breen, he called her, and before she’d laid down the law for him he’d actually praised the woman for her efficiency and, astonishingly, her cuisine.
“I’ve got the clippings here for you, in the event you hadn’t seen the papers.” Leora, head bent beneath the stiff shelf of her hat, was digging through her purse. “Here they are,” she said, handing her a neatly folded section of the morning paper and then focusing her big blinking eyes on her as if she expected her to collapse under the weight of a few lines of newsprint. “She’s accusing Frank under the Mann Act.110 And reporting you as an undesirable alien, if you can believe the nerve of this woman—the newspaper says they want to deport you.”
The fact was, she couldn’t really make out much more than the headlines—NEW SCANDAL AT WRIGHT LOVE BUNGALOW—without her spectacles, but before she could rise from the chair to go search them out, she heard herself say, “Deport me? But my passport states quite clearly that I’m an American citizen. It’s ridiculous. I might have got the thing at the consulate in France, but . . . you know I’m an American. Everybody does. What in God’s name are they talking about, deport me?”111
Leora’s voice went cold. “Frankly, Miriam, I don’t know. But they’re dragging your name through the mud. And your reputation too.” She cleared her throat, tapped the ash from her cigarette and reached for the clipping. “They’re saying that you and Frank—they call you ‘the noted sculptress from Paris,’ by the way—have been cohabiting at his ‘love bungalow’ in defiance of any conventional notions of morality and that Mrs. Breen felt she had to come forward as a matter of conscience. She’s quite devout, it appears. Roman Catholic—the worst, the very worst. And she said—” Leora hesitated. Blinked her eyes. Blinked till Miriam thought she must have developed some sort of tic like the dropsical old man who used to sit all day at La Rotonde, contorting his face and spitting into a handkerchief, and who was very likely dead by now, dead of blinking and quivering and spitting. Or maybe exasperation. Maybe that was what killed him.
She could feel the metallic burn of outrage in the back of her throat, though she was elated too—the noted sculptress!—and she rose up out of the chair in a shiver of anticipation and hate. “Said what?”
“Well”—another flurry of blinking—“that she felt she had to come forward because of the children.”
“Children? What children?”
“Frank’s children. She says they were there.”
Frank’s children?” It took her a moment. A series of images ran through her head—Thomas in diapers, the girls nattering over their dolls, their hair in ringlets and their dresses spread out round them like parachutes fallen to earth, the glittering black eyes of a random infant in a perambulator, tiny immaculate fingers and toes, pink skin in a bubble bath—but none of them seemed to have anything to do with Frank. Children? Frank didn’t have any children.
“That’s what it says.”
“But they’re grown. They’re adults. Two of them are married, for God’s sake. And the youngest—he must be twelve or thirteen, at any rate—went back off to school the week I got there. In Chicago. Or Oak Park—at his mother’s.”
Leora gave an elaborate shrug. “You know that. I know it. But they’re still his children.”
Frank’s response was to pack her into the car that very night and drive up to Wisconsin as if they were fugitives. The following day—it was early November now, the fields frost-burned, the windows aching with the cold—he gave a statement to the press denying everything. His attachment to Madame Noel, he said, was purely spiritual and to think of conducting a love affair under the eyes of his mother—who had been living at Taliesin for some months now—was preposterous. Madame Noel was a brilliant and highly sensitive soul who could only find solace in the company of her fellow artists and who was, accordingly, a member of the Taliesin atelier that included himself and a number of architects, draftsmen and artisans. Further, he and his attorney, Mr. Clarence Darrow, were looking into prosecuting Mrs. Breen—an embittered, discharged domestic who had written several letters threatening both Mr. Wright and Madame Noel—for the theft of his private property and misuse of the mails.
When the reporters had left, he sent his draftsmen out into the fields on the pretext of repairing the fences or raking up the stubble or some such thing and took her into the studio. “Miriam, I really do regret all this publicity,” he said, sliding into the seat behind his desk as if he were easing into a bath. “It’s the last thing we need, especially after—” he made a vague gesture. “And I’m sorry you’ve been dragged into it. But please, sit down, sit down, make yourself comfortable.”
“No, I won’t sit, Frank.” She was irritated on a number of counts, not the least of which was having to cut short their Chicago sojourn in order to eat flapjacks and freeze her marrow out here in the dismal dull cloud-hung barn-stinking hind-end of nowhere. “And I won’t hide myself away out of sight as if I have something to be ashamed of. I’m not ashamed of our love, Frank—are you?”
He picked up his spectacles and fiddled with them a moment before clamping them over the bridge of his nose as if to examine her more closely.112 He looked like a bank examiner, a livestock appraiser, his eyes distorted and rinsed of color. “Of course not, but that’s not at issue, not at all.”
She cut him off. “What is, then?”
“I simply cannot afford—and you know this as well as anyone, Miriam—another blowup. In this neighborhood especially, not after what happened here summer before last—”
“The dead woman again. It always comes down to her, doesn’t it, Frank? Well, I tell you, I am not going to hide myself away. I’m going to proclaim the truth of what we are and I don’t give two figs for what anybody thinks. Including you.”
“Damn it, Miriam!” He stood so abruptly the chair pitched over behind him. In his excitement he began waving his arms as if he were trying to shoo a cow out of the garden and the gesture froze her inside. She wouldn’t be intimidated. She wouldn’t. “You don’t understand. You talk about—”
“I love you, Frank.”
“—love, yes, love, but that’s not what this concerns. This concerns scandal, Miriam, the kind of scandal that will destroy all the goodwill I’ve patiently built up among my neighbors here . . .”
She held herself perfectly rigid. “That’s the only truth, Frank. That’s all anyone needs to know.”
“No, Miriam, no, it’s not. They’re going to publish the letters and Clarence says it’s too late to stop them.”
The letters. To bloody hell with the letters. She never flinched. Never took her eyes from his. “Good,” she spat. “Let them. Let the whole world know what I feel for you. Let them see what a true and good and noble love is, a love for the ages, a love that shines like the brightest star in the firmament.”
And then (was she catching cold?) she brought her handkerchief to her face to dab at her eyes—and let him fume, let him rage at her—and very gently, very softly and delicately, blew her nose.113


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Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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