The Women | Chapter 34 of 41

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

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She could hear the house settling in around her as the sun poised a moment on the fulcrum of the tallest mountain and then flickered out, the dry cold of elevation settling into the walls, the roof, the resisting panels of the windows. Soon it would be dark and then she’d have the night to lie through and another day after that. And what about the children? They would have been home from school by now—Julia’s Teddy and Joe and her own son—but the maids would have seen to them, Julia’s boys especially. And the husband. It came to her then that she was alone in the house with the husband, a man she’d never liked, a man like Edwin, closemouthed and inexpressive, as if to think and feel and reconnoiter the soul were a violation of some manly vow, as if to be insensate were the key to life. Well, she wasn’t insensate. She was alive. And she’d come here to get away from a man with no more feeling than a stone and to be with Julia, her dearest friend, a graceful high-spirited woman in the prime of life whose last pregnancy had been such a trial and who needed someone to be with, to laugh with, to feel with, and was it a surprise that in these last months she’d felt at home, truly at home, for the first time in years?
And now Julia was dead and she was a stranger in another man’s house.
The thought spurred her and she sat up abruptly. The moment of crisis had come. She had to move, act, see to the children. And her bags—she must get her bags packed, because she wouldn’t stay here, not another moment. And Frank. She had to telegram to Frank. At the thought of it, of what she would say to him—how she could even begin to tell him what she felt, the shock of the words on the nurse’s lips, Julia’s blood that couldn’t be stanched, a whole wide coursing river of it infusing every towel and sheet and garment till they were stained like the relics of the saints, the stillborn child as twisted and gray as a lump of wax propped against his dead mother’s shoulder, the night she’d spent, the fear and hurt and anger—she could feel the grief rising in her till everything shaded to gray and the mountains beyond the window fell away into the void. But she wouldn’t cry. She wouldn’t. There was no time for that.
The first thing was to change out of her clothes—she was still in the dress she’d worn yesterday—and put something on her stomach. But then she didn’t want to ring for one of the maids. The thought of that froze her. If she rang, they’d remember she was here still, they’d come to the door and enter the room and stare at her and speak and nod and put impossible questions to her—did she want soup, a sandwich, butter with her bread, jam?—and she couldn’t allow that. And she certainly didn’t want to go down to the dining room or the kitchen where she’d be exposed to him or the servants or the relatives who must have gathered by now or anyone else—and she realized, in that moment, that she didn’t want to see the children either. The thought of them, John and Martha, with their multiplicity of needs, their wants and fears and the onus that was on her to meliorate whatever they’d been able to glean from the maids when they learned that Teddy and Joe were strictly enjoined from playing and that their own mother was indisposed and not under any circumstances to be disturbed, made her feel paralyzed all over again. She had a vivid fantasy of slipping out the window, shimmying down the nearest tree and stealing away across the grounds that led to the street into town and the sidewalk that led to the train that led . . . to where?
To Frank. That was where the train led. To Frank.
She unfastened the buttons of her dress, pulled it up over her head and dropped it to the floor beside her, then went into the bathroom to run the water in the tub. The tiles were cold under her bare feet. She could smell herself, the dried sweat under her arms and between her legs, the odor of fear and uncertainty. When she reached for the faucet her hand trembled and she saw that and noted it and tried to look at it dispassionately as if this were someone else’s hand, but she couldn’t. Why was her hand trembling? she had to ask herself. Because of Julia? Because life had failed her and the shock of that was so insupportable she could scarcely stand to go on living herself? Because she couldn’t stay here and couldn’t go back to Edwin? Or was it something else, something she couldn’t name, the dark climactic moment of her life clawing for release? She twisted off the faucet and stood up. What was she thinking? She had no time for a bath. A bath was insane, ludicrous. The indulgence of a woman who couldn’t make up her mind.
She stepped out of her undergarments and sponged herself quickly, not daring to look into the mirror for fear of seeing someone else there, someone who would comfort the children and wait out the funeral, linger over her feelings as if they were beads on a rosary, subsume herself in someone else. Order flowers. Hide behind a black veil. That sort of person. As she dressed and began folding her clothes and arranging them in the suitcase, she was composing the telegram to Edwin in her mind—and the letter that would follow. Julia’s dead, Edwin. Or no: There has been a terrible tragedy. Julia died in childbirth. I cannot remain here in this house one minute longer. It is too painful. Come for the children on the next train. Your wife.
When the suitcase was packed, she put on her hat and coat and went to the door to peer out into the hallway. Julia’s husband had made his fortune in silver—he had his own mining company somewhere off in those labyrinthine mountains144—and the house was a testament to his parvenu yearnings, a great rambling cloyingly decorated Queen Anne with twenty bedrooms and a congeries of shadowy hallways. It was the antithesis of what Frank had achieved in her own house, and she’d always loathed it. Until now. Now it was just the thing, dim lights in sconces creeping along the walls, staircases to nowhere, a subterranean feel to the hallways as if the architect were trying to replicate the tunnels of the mines themselves. There was no one in the hall. All was quiet.
The children’s room was on the second floor, just below hers. They would have had their dinner by this time and on an ordinary evening they might have been in the parlor, playing at games round the fire, reading, drawing, but with the house thrust into mourning, chances were they’d be in their room. It was getting dark, and in any case John wasn’t especially enthusiastic about the outdoors and Martha was too little yet to be without supervision, which was why she’d brought Lucy along to look after them. Lucy would be with them. And they’d be in their room. Martha would already be tucked in and Lucy would be reading her a fairy story while John sat at the miniature desk before the darkened window, sketching, and pretending not to listen. The thought calmed her as she slipped down the staircase, her ears attuned to the slightest sound—there were whisperings, a door slammed somewhere—and made her way up the hall to the children’s room.
To this point, she’d pushed herself forward, not daring to think beyond the impetus of the moment and the idée fixe that had taken hold of her, but now, her hand on the doorknob, she hesitated. For a long moment she stood there, listening, until Lucy’s voice came to her in the soft undulating murmur of storytelling. There was a pause, then Martha’s voice, a half-formed squeak of interrogation. Mamah pictured her, her daughter, not yet four and right there on the other side of the door, five seconds away from her arms, her miniature face pinched in concentration—Why? she always wanted to know. Why do they live in a shoe? Why did the blackbirds? Why?—and felt herself giving way. She was a disgrace as a mother, heartless, a failure, worse than any evil stepmother in any of the tales the Brothers Grimm could conceive. She was going away. Deserting her own children. Leaving them here, in this death-stricken house, with an Irish maid who wasn’t much older than a child herself.
Very carefully, so as not to make the slightest sound, she set down the suitcase and positioned it flat to the wall just out of sight of the door. Lucy’s voice went on, rich and sonorous, the sweetest sound in the world, the sound of comfort and security, maternal—maternal—and what was wrong with her? Why couldn’t she push open the door and take her rightful place there with her children? Because she didn’t love Edwin, that was why. Because she’d married him on the eve of the great precipice that marked her thirtieth birthday, even as both her parents had passed on that very year and he stepped back into her life and she thought she could bury herself in the ordinary and never know the difference. But Ellen Key knew the difference. Ellen Key, whom she knew by heart because Ellen Key was the true light and liberator and wisdom of the world and she was translating her work into English so that all women in America could know her and follow her to their own release. No one should live in a doll’s house, no one. And if a woman becomes a mother without knowing the full height of her being in love, she feels it as a degradation; for neither child nor marriage nor love are enough for her, only great love satisfies her. And where was that great love? Where was that soul mate? In Oak Park. Waiting for her.
John said something then, his voice twining with Lucy’s to make a song of the story, the nursery rhyme he’d grown beyond, and his tone was mocking and impatient, though he was listening, listening still, the colored pencil arrested in his hand. And Martha spoke up—Why?—but the door was thick, solid parvenu mahogany, and she couldn’t hear the substance or the answer either. Just the murmur of it. Guiltily, shamefully, she withdrew her hand and examined the pale flesh and the scorings of her palm a moment in the dim subterranean light. It wasn’t trembling. Not anymore. Her hand was as steady and decisive as any killer’s, any woodcutter’s with his axe poised over the belly of the wolf or witch’s with the oven ablaze, and it went to the handle of the suitcase even as she whispered her valediction in the new language, the language of heroism and sacrifice, and slipped away down the hall.
The sky hadn’t yet gone fully dark—it was a deep glowing tincture of cobalt shading to black in the east, a western sky, poked through with the glittering holes of the stars—but the grounds were dense with shadow. No one had seen her in the back hallway, though every time she heard a foot-step or one of the servants’ voices she froze in place. She had no desire to have to contrive explanations—she was beyond explanations now—and the suitcase would have given her away regardless. There was a moment at the back door when she thought all was lost, the housekeeper swinging through the kitchen doors with a tray of cut sandwiches and tea things for the husband and whatever mourners had gathered in the parlor, but she managed to duck behind one of the massive highboys along the wall till the woman, preoccupied with the tray and already garbed in funereal black, passed on by. Then it was a quick dash for the door and out into the gathering night.
A motorcar and two carriages stood in the drive and she gave them a wide berth, though it wouldn’t have mattered if the drivers had seen her. She was nothing to them—an anonymous woman with a suitcase, wrapped in her best coat and with her face shaded by the brim of her hat, bisecting the drive behind them and stepping out into the street. Her plan, and she was formulating it even as she shifted the weight of the suitcase from one hand to the other, was to go to the hotel and see if there was a car there to take her into Denver. From Denver she could catch a train east, to Chicago—and Frank would be there at the station to sweep her up in his arms. He’d have a suitcase with him too, and he’d board the train with the mob of passengers and ride with her through the hills and stubblefields of Indiana and Ohio and upstate New York, all the way down along the Hudson to Manhattan. They’d find a boat there, a great high-crowned steamer rising up out of the tide at one of the piers on the lower West Side, a boat to Bremen, and once they reached German soil they’d board a train to Berlin, where he was to meet with Herr Wasmuth to prepare his portfolio for publication and spread his fame throughout Europe. That was what they’d talked about, time and again: Berlin. And here it was, right before them.
She held that image, sidestepping the ruts of the street and passing from light to darkness beneath the streetlights as a wind off the mountains ruffled the collar of her coat: the two of them, together, turning their backs on all these . . . complications. If he was willing, that is. If he was brave enough. If he loved her the way he said he did. She was afraid for a moment—she was risking everything, every sort of censure and embarrassment, and what if he stalled? What if he wouldn’t stand up and do what he had to? What if he couldn’t raise the money? What if Kitty’s hold on him was stronger than she’d supposed? But no, no, none of that mattered. And if it did, it was too late now. She hurried down the street, feeling like a fugitive.
She stopped at the telegraph office to wire Edwin about the children and she forced herself to be cold and precise and to think of nothing but the matter at hand, and then she wired Frank. She told him she was coming. That everything they’d dreamed of in their letters was unfolding before them. That she was his. And that the time had come to prove that he was hers in return. Then she found a man to take her into Denver and when she got to Denver she bought a one-way ticket to New York via Omaha, Burlington, Chicago, Elkhart, Cleveland, Buffalo and Albany, and settled herself in at the station to wait.
It was just past nine in the evening and the station was all but deserted. She looked up at the lunar face of the clock and watched the second hand creep round, tick by tick, as if reluctant to let go of each of the hash marks in turn, her mind accelerating far beyond it, expanding in ever-widening coils that spiraled from one subject to another even as her stomach contracted round a shriveled nugget of fear and excitement. And hunger. Because she hadn’t eaten. Couldn’t eat. Didn’t have the stomach or the time. The clock crawled. There was a woman standing at the ticket window clutching the hand of a girl of Martha’s age. Two men, dressed identically in cheap gray suits, sat on the high-backed bench across from hers, cradling their hats in their laps and surreptitiously studying her. One of them absently stroked the nap of his hat as if it were a kitten, and what was he—a Pinkerton? A dry-goods man? A husband deserting his wife?
She had an hour and a half till the train came—or was scheduled to come—and she couldn’t settle herself, couldn’t stop the racing of her mind and the propulsive beat of her heart, and she wouldn’t be able to relax or even think properly till the porter led her to her compartment and she shut herself in. She gazed beyond the two men to the doors leading to the street, half-expecting Lucy to burst in with the children on either side of her, all three of them sobbing aloud and imploring her to stay. Or Julia’s husband. Or the sheriff. Wasn’t she breaking some sort of law? She must have been.
Finally, just to do something, to distract herself, to rise up off the bench where it seemed she’d spent her entire lifetime though she saw with a sinking feeling that it had been no more than five minutes, she decided to go into the restaurant. She felt the eyes of the two men on her all the way across the expanse of the marble floor, her footsteps echoing in her ears like gunshots, each step a cry for solace, and then she was pushing through the door and into the restaurant. Which was a cavernous place, poorly lit. At first she couldn’t see much beyond the door, but then a waiter emerged from the gloom and showed her to a table backed up against the wall. A scattering of people, mostly men, were seated at the other tables, drinking and gnawing away at sandwiches and chops, and a couple—middle-aged, gaudily dressed—were grinning at each other amidst a clutter of plates and sauce bottles at the table across from hers. Everyone looked up as she came in and set her suitcase down beside her, and the drama of the moment both shamed and exhilarated her. She wasn’t used to going out in public alone. She’d always had Edwin there, breathing propriety at her side, the children shielding her, Frank strutting up and down as if he owned every square inch of every place he stepped into. Now she was on her own.
She’d thought she might have a cup of tea and a bun perhaps, but once she was seated and looking over the menu, she realized how hungry she was. The waiter set down a plate of celery and olives, then a basket of bread with butter. She dispatched it all without thinking and then ordered a steak, medium-rare, with fried potatoes, a vegetable medley and a green salad with Roquefort dressing. Did she care for anything to drink? Beer, perhaps? A glass of wine?
The waiter—a man in middle age with a paunch swelling against the buttons of his jacket and hair that looked as if it had been barbered in the dark—stood over her. He was dressed in a well-worn and faintly greasy suit he might have borrowed from an undertaker and he was giving her a knowing, even insolent look, as if he knew all about her, as if every night married women who were deserting their children to run off with their lovers paraded before him, one after the other, drinking deeply to deaden their thoughts and the guilt that weighed them down like a leaden jacket. She held his eyes—she wouldn’t be intimidated. The man was an oaf, a servant, no one she’d seen before or would ever see again. “Wine,” she said. “A bottle of Moselle.”
She’d learned to appreciate wine the first time she’d gone to Europe, on her honeymoon, when she and Edwin had toured Germany, and while she was hardly a sophisticate, she knew enough to rely on the German wines with which she was familiar. And this one, as cool and cleansing as the issue of an alpine spring, had an immediate effect on her, taking the tenseness from her shoulders and warming her where she was coldest, in her heart. And if she was a woman drinking alone in a public place, what of it? She was independent, wasn’t she? Would Ellen Key have thought twice about it? Or any European woman, for that matter? She was having wine with her meal, absolved of guilt, worry, the panic that had gripped her earlier, and she cut her meat and tipped back her glass and never once dropped her eyes. Let them look at her. Let them have a good look. Because soon she would be on the train, hurtling through the night, and all this would be behind her.
When the train pulled into the station at Chicago, Frank was waiting for her on the platform. Despite herself, despite the wine and the gentle swaying of the compartment and the purely positive and loving thoughts she’d struggled to summon, she’d spent a restless night and a day that enervated her with a thousand pinpricks of conscience and uncertainty, and when she saw him there, sturdy and shining and undeniable, she felt the relief wash over her. They would be together now and tonight she would sleep the sleep of the possessed, her skin pressed to his so that every cell and pore of her could drink him in from head to toe . . . The brakes hissed. The station rocked and steadied itself. She caught his eye then and he gave her his world-conquering grin and started across the platform for her and she was so overcome with the tumult of her feelings that it took her a moment to realize that his hands were empty.
He didn’t take her in his arms—there was no telling who might be watching, she understood that—but he seemed so stiff and formal she very nearly lost her nerve. “Mamah,” was all he said and then she felt his hand at her elbow and he was guiding her through the crush of people, down a corridor and into an office of some sort, a single room with desk and filing cabinets and a fan fixed overhead, and she realized with a start that he must have hired the room for an hour so that they could have a private interview. But why? Why didn’t he have a suitcase with him? Why hadn’t he boarded the train with her?
He shut the door behind her and she felt afraid suddenly, certain he was going to deny her, construct a wall of excuses, abandon her as she’d abandoned Edwin and her own motherless children. “Frank, what is it?” she demanded, breathless now, her blood surging with the chemical sting of panic, iodine running through her veins, acid, liquid fire. “Where’s your suitcase? What’s going on?”
“It’s all right,” he said, pulling her to him. He kissed her. Held her so tightly she could barely breathe. “I just need more time, that’s all, just two days, three at the most—to, to raise the money. Good God, this is all so sudden . . .”
She held to him, her chin resting on his shoulder, the smell of him—of his hair, his clothes, the body she knew so well—working on her like a tranquilizer. She trusted him. Absolutely. He was hers, she was his. But still, she pulled back. “Sudden? We’ve been talking about this for a year now and more. I left Edwin in June.”
“Your telegram, I mean. I’ve been—I was, well, since you telegrammed all I’ve done is run from one place to another, selling prints, soliciting clients for advance funds, trying to do something, anything, with the projects on the boards. I need more time, that’s all.”145
She softened momentarily, then hardened all over again. “And what of me? What am I to do?”
“Go on to New York as planned. There’s a hotel there I know—I’ve already reserved rooms. And I’ve booked passage for two on the Deutsch-land for Friday. Don’t worry. Don’t worry about anything—I’ll be there as soon as I can. Do you need money?”
“Yes,” she said, “yes, I do,” and the implications roared in her ears with all the opprobrium of a cheap novel, and what did that make her, a woman who takes money in exchange for her favor?
“Here,” he said, and he opened his wallet to her and they kissed till she felt the rigid heat of him ready to run right up inside of her and then he was sitting with her in her compartment on the train, holding her hand in his, and the conductor gave his shout and Frank stepped back on the platform and waved at the glass as the wheels jerked and the station fell away behind her.
If there was a moment that made it all worthwhile, a single moment she might have captured with a photograph and pressed into an album of memories, it was when she stepped through the door of the stateroom high out over the roiling sun-coppered waters of the Hudson and saw him standing there, his arms open wide to receive her. He’d kept her waiting three days in that hotel in New York and she’d never left the room, not once, for fear of discovery. Her thoughts had weighed on her. She missed the children. She slept poorly. Edwin would have been back in Oak Park by that point and the alarm would have gone up, every gossip and scandalmonger in town putting two and two together, and would he send a detective out after her? Would he be that petty, that vindictive? Even Kitty, poor dull Kitty, must have known the truth by now. And, of course, though Frank had come to her the night before, they were constrained to go aboard separately—to take separate taxis even—so as not to show their hand. She’d been in a state all morning, everyone she laid eyes on a potential betrayer, the desk clerk, the doorman who showed her to the cab, the driver himself, and she felt all but naked as she stood there on the pier waiting for them to see to her luggage before she could go up the gangplank and vanish amidst the crowd. Until she was there, until she felt the ship plunge and rise majestically beneath her feet, she kept bracing for the moment that someone would shout, There she is! The deserter! The adulteress! Stop her!
Frank had decorated the room, flowers everywhere, pottery, a selection of his Japanese prints propped artfully in the corners. She saw the sunlight caught in the portholes as if in a private universe, the scent of the flowers supercharging her senses, the geisha in their elaborate robes smiling benevolently on her from the confines of their frames and Mount Fuji, distant and white-clad,146 lending its aura of solidity to the delirium of happiness that washed over her. “There’s no stopping us now,” Frank said, his smile widening. He snatched her arm before she could think and whirled her round the room to the strains of an imaginary orchestra, all the while humming in her ear. Then he showed off the appointments as if he’d designed them himself, fretted over her as she put her things away, insisted on a promenade of the decks while the horn sounded and the ship pulled back from the pier and the gulls rode a fresh breeze out over the river. “And let’s eat,” he cried. “Let’s have a feast to celebrate. Anything, anything your heart desires. Because this is the first day of all the days to come, the first day of freedom to do as we please. Isn’t it grand?”
And she felt it too, thinking of Goethe, the translation she’d been making for him as the hours ground themselves out like cinders in that lonely hotel room, Faust, thinking of Faust: “ ‘Call it happiness!’ ” she recited, holding tight to his arm, “ ‘Heart! Love! God! / I have no name / For it! Feeling is everything!’ ”
And it was, till the second day out when Frank turned the color of liverwurst and couldn’t get out of bed. “I’ll never make a pirate,” he told her, his voice faint and throttled. She watched him hang dazed over an enameled pan, his stomach heaving, watched him contort his limbs and walk shakily to the toilet, watched him sleep and groan and pull the blankets up over his head as if he could hide away from the pitch and yaw of the heavy seas that blew up around them for the entire two weeks of the journey. She sat by him all the while, nursing him, reading aloud, drilling him on basic German phrases—Ich spreche ein wenig Deutsch; Ein Tisch für twei, bitte; Moment! Es fehlt ein Handkoffer!—and he was utterly childlike, like John when he had the grippe, like Martha. He would take broth only. He was always cold, wrapped miserably in his blankets. He complainedincessantly. Edwin—that stone, that block—was like an admiral compared to him. But none of that mattered, because feeling was all and Frank was a repository of feeling, a bank of feeling, fully invested. She read to him till the words went numb on her tongue, she laid a wet compress on his brow, massaged his shoulders and the cramped tight muscles of his calves. He was miserable, but she was strong and each day getting stronger.
When they arrived in Bremen, he recovered himself. He ate so much in one sitting—dumplings, Spätzle, Sauerbraten, Schmierkäse, pickles and kraut and rich thick slices of pumpernickel slathered with butter—she thought he would burst. By the time they got to Berlin, he was his old self, prancing at her side, his cane twirling and the tails of his cape flapping in the brisk breeze he generated all on his own, and when they entered the Hotel Adlon on Unter den Linden, everyone turned to stare as if the Chancellor himself had arrived. He strode up to the desk, pulling her along in his wake, spun the register round with a flourish, and in his slashing geometric hand signed Frank Lloyd Wright and Wife without thinking twice about it.


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Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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