The Women | Chapter 40 of 41

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

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Lunch. A sandwich from the restaurant, a moment to relax with the newspaper—umbrage in the Balkans and the guns thundering across the Continent, and what next, the Archduke rising up out of his coffin on angel’s wings?—before he went back to wrangling with Waller over money and Iannelli over the sprites, because the Italian, understandably but maddeningly, was balking at delivering the rest of the statuary without payment in hand or at least guaranteed. The sandwich was good, first-rate—Volgelsang really knew his business, give him credit there—and the newspaper was sufficiently lurid and bloody for even the most jaded reader, but Frank couldn’t help keeping one eye on John,176 who was at the far end of the room, up on the scaffolding, applying a wet brush to the polychromatic mural behind the bar. A pretty picture that, and John as precise and unerring a worker as his father himself. Details, details. This room, the tavern, was Waller’s number one priority and never mind the glories of opening night with Max Bendix and his hundred-piece orchestra sawing gloriously away and Pavlova pirouetting across the stage and all the rest, he was bleeding money through his pores till the beer started flowing right here, out of these dry and thirsty taps. (“I don’t give a damn about murals or sprites or anything else,” Waller kept telling him. “I just want the place finished and the tables full. Beer. I just want beer.”)
Of course, it was an insult, and he was determined to see the design realized in its every last particular if he was going to draw another breath on this earth, but he could hardly be blamed for the delays at this point. He took another bite of the sandwich. Lifted the glass of ice water to his lips. It was hot. Damnably hot. He thought of Taliesin then, of the lake, and how he’d give anything to throw off his shirt, trousers and shoes and plunge into the cool opaque depths of it and maybe give the fish a run for the money. He was thinking of that, of the fish and how Billy Weston’s son had pulled a catfish as long as his arm out of there just a week ago—an amazing thing, really, with its big yellow mouth gaping wide as if to suck in all the air in the valley and the barbels twitching and the tiny dots of its blue-black eyes that hardly seemed sufficient to take in the incandescent world that had loomed up on it so precipitately—when the stenographer from the main office suddenly burst through the door, looking as if she’d had all the blood drained out of her in a scientific experiment. He was going to comment on that, make a joke of it, a quip about the heat and how it was a leading cause of anemia in women under thirty, but her face warned him off. “Mr. Wright,” she said, out of breath, running sweat, paler than the stack of paper she kept to hand beside her typewriter, “you’re wanted on the telephone. Long distance. From Spring Green.”
Once, when he was young, younger than John was now, he’d seen a building collapse. It was a massive brick structure still under construction, men aloft, hod carriers rushing to and fro, the workmen all separately focused on their tasks but communicating as if by some extrasensory intelligence, the whole thing—men, materials and machines alike—a kind of living organism. He’d stopped to watch as he often had over the course of the weeks past, fascinated by the frenzy of activity and the way the building rose in discernable increments—different each day and yet the same too—and he was there watching when all that changed in an instant. More than anything he remembered the sound of it, the explosive snap of the beams buckling and the cannonade of one floor tearing through another, a roar of the inanimate animated, withering, unforgiving. And the screams. The screams that rose up out of a clenched fist of silence and the harsh soughing of the dust. He’d stood there for hours, the dread rising in him with a bitter metallic taste that constricted his throat—one man had been crushed till he was little more than extruded pulp; another had to be sawed, living, from the wreckage, two raw stumps palpitating there in place of his legs—and he’d wanted only to put it all right again, to build it back up so it would never fall. But Taliesin had fallen, was falling now, and it was worse, far worse, because this was fire and fire not only crushed you, it consumed you too.
The roar was in his ears as John pushed him into the cab and the cab hurtled through the streets, and it was there still as they pulled up to the curb and John jerked open the door and led him out of the cramped automotive interior and into the marble vault of Union Station. He held to his son’s arm through the crush of people and across the floor to the ticket window, his throat dry, his legs stripped of muscle and bone alike so that he could barely stand upright. And here were the reporters, their faces rabid and their mouths working—“Mr. Wright! Mr. Wright!”—and John shouldering past them and through the door and onto the platform where the local would haul them over the rails for five agonizing hours before the station in Spring Green rose up like a gravestone beyond the windows. And couldn’t they hurry? Couldn’t they call it an emergency and cancel all the other stops? Rush on through, red flags flapping and whistle shrieking as if the president himself were on board?
He shut his eyes and heard the roar. And it was a merciful thing because the roar drowned out the shouts of the newsboys who were there now and who would change faces and jackets and hats and mob every station stop along the way to hawk the very latest up-to-date special edition: Murder at Taliesin, read all about it!; Taliesin Burning to the Ground, Seven Slain, Seven Slain, Seven Slain! It was John who kept them off and John who took the conductor aside and arranged for a private compartment, John who spotted poor Edwin Cheney standing there stricken in a circle of reporters and spirited him into the compartment before they could work their beaks in him and their talons too. Five hours. Five hours on that train staring at Ed Cheney’s shoes while Ed Cheney stared at his. Five hours. Seven slain.
He didn’t pray. He hadn’t prayed since he was a boy. But each minute of that journey was a slow crawl to Calvary and the moment when they’d stretch him on the Christ tree and drive the nails in, and all the while he imagined the worst and hoped for the best, and maybe this was prayer, maybe this was what prayer was after all. What he didn’t know was that Mamah was dead, her corpse so incinerated as to be unrecognizable. What he didn’t know was that John Cheney was dead too and that Martha, with her graceful limbs and her mother’s ready smile, was writhing under the wet towels they’d laid over her, her hair and eyebrows gone and her skin fried like sidemeat in a pan, or that she would die by the time he got there. He didn’t know that Brunker was dead, didn’t know that Lindblom would soon follow him or that Brodelle was already gone. And he didn’t know that Billy Weston, concussed, burned and bleeding from the scalp, had grappled with the Barbadian and chased him off before running to Reider for help and then come back to unfurl the garden hose and play it on the fire while the victims lay there stretched out on the paving stones of the courtyard like so many sacks of grain. Burned-up grain. Rotten grain. Grain fit only to turn into the earth. Or that Ernest, the very make and model of his father, lay there among them, unconscious and dying from his wounds while one of the neighbor women tended him and Billy struggled with the hose, numb to everything but the infernal scorching heat on his face.
Then it was night. The dead were laid out on the porch at Tan-y-deri, the stink of incineration riding the air till it overwhelmed everything, till there was no use for the organ of smell except to admit it. There were no mosquitoes. No fireflies. Even the lake seemed dead save for the faint traces of movement there where the firemen and the neighbors had formed a bucket brigade to quench the coals. He couldn’t look at Mamah—there was no use in that. It was shock enough to see the form of her, laid out in her twisted sheets, and the blood-color there like rust stains.
People thrust things at him, his sister fussing over him, black coffee, a plate of food, but he didn’t want any of it. He wanted to lash out, wanted revenge, wanted to meet violence with violence. If he could have laid hands on Carleton, he swore he’d tear him apart, just as if he were some beast in the jungle. They’d found the man at five-thirty that evening, hidden in the furnace where the fire wouldn’t touch him and he’d tried to kill himself by swallowing acid, the burns of it there like long pale fingers clawing at his lips and spots of it scorched through his shirt. By then, all of Taliesin was an armed camp, people beating the woods, searching the cornfield stalk by stalk, the sheriff loosing his hounds and shouts and alarums going up everywhere.
They were going to lynch him, that was what Andrew Porter had said, the noose already dangling from the limb of one of the oaks in the courtyard and all the farmers in high color and itching at the triggers of their .22s and shotguns and deer rifles, but the sheriff stood against them, and he and his deputy dragged the Negro out and handcuffed him and spirited him off to the Dodgeville jail, a mob of men chasing the car and cursing him all the way down the hill. He was there now, in a jail cell, unable to speak or to give any reason for what he’d done, for this hate and mayhem and devastation that had laid everything to ruin and grievously injured the souls of so many good people, because his vocal apparatus was destroyed and he wouldn’t take up a pen to write a word though the sheriff stood over him and the reporters clustered three deep on the courthouse steps. Frank never did get to see him, and that was just as well, because it would have been like staring into the face of the devil himself—that sooty abandoned face, that blackness without surface or limit—but at some point they ushered the wife into the room and he looked up from the chair he was sunk in and saw her standing there before him.177
There was a sheriff’s deputy in the hall. Boards creaked. Footsteps echoed on the stairs. The coroner was there, the undertaker, the house alive with comings and goings, doors creaking shut and open again, voices drifting from room to room. They were nervous—Jennie was nervous, Andrew, the servants, the whole community—and they would have a scapegoat, a black scapegoat, and here she was.
What he saw was a very young woman, a girl not much older than his own daughters. If he’d noticed her before, when he’d hired her or glanced up to see her flitting in and out of the kitchen or hurrying across the courtyard with a basketful of tomatoes and greens from the garden, it was only in passing. She worked for him. She was doing her job. Mamah praised her. And, of course, he had other things on his mind. She was an employee and you only noticed employees—really looked at them—when they were late to work or drunk or sleeping on the job. When they stole. When they murdered people.
The lamps were low. A moth sailed lazily across the room. But for John—who’d never before laid eyes on Taliesin because his mother, in her jealousy and her rage, wouldn’t hear of it—they were alone. The girl stood just inside the door where the deputy had left her and soon she’d be in the jailhouse too, because she was the Negro’s wife, a Negro herself, and everybody in the county knew they’d plotted this horror together. Her dress was plain. She was thin. And her face, when she lifted her chin to show it to him, was gaunt, hollow-cheeked, smudged with traces of dirt where she’d wiped back the tears, and the socket of her right eye seemed to be bruised, as if someone had taken a poke at her, but for all that she was beautiful. Beautiful in her simplicity and her innocence. He saw that right away—she’d had nothing to do with this. It was the husband, the husband alone.
John had stood when she’d been led into the room. He was leaning against the near wall, his arms folded across his chest, shifting his weight from foot to foot in a spasm of nervous energy. He was his father’s protector now and the tug of that responsibility jerked at him and jerked again. “Well,” he said, “what have you got to say for yourself?”
She shook her head, a long slow meditative roll from one shoulder to the other, and she held out her palms, splayed her thin fingers and opened up her face—not to John, but to him. “A judgment,” she whispered. “It a judgment. Dat what it is.”
He could see John go rigid. His son was about to throw it back at her, bully her, but he cut him off. “Hush, John,” he said. “Enough.”
Gertrude—that was her name, wasn’t it?—was staring down at her feet, bare feet, the nails neatly trimmed and glowing against the shadow of her skin, canescent almost, and there were traces of wet ash on her ankles and the pale underside of her arches. What she’d said had shocked him and he was struggling to recover himself. A judgment? That was what the press was calling it, the sermonizers and tub-thumpers, and for one hard moment he saw how wrong he’d been, how cruel and selfish. He’d lusted after Mamah. Thrown everything over. Ruined Kitty, ruined Edwin, alienated a whole community and spat in their faces. And here was the result of it, seven slain and a scared young black woman going to jail and maybe worse, Taliesin in ashes, Billy’s son dead and gone. And Mamah. And both her children. He wanted to deny it, wanted to call it fate, bad luck, anything, but the words wouldn’t come.
John couldn’t restrain himself any longer. How dare you say that? ” he demanded, his voice fracturing with the rush of his emotions, his father’s protector, the golden walls, the forbidden city. “It was your husband. A maniac. A black—”
“No,” she said, and she was shaking her head again, long-faced and slow and mournful. “On me. It a judgment on me.” She lifted her eyes to him as if John weren’t even there. “That I should marry wit’ such a man—”
There was the sound of voices raised out in the yard, the heavy tramp of feet on the floorboards of the porch. A dog began to bark. He felt himself closing up again, angry suddenly—he was the victim here and it was all these others who were in the wrong because they wouldn’t allow a man to live in peace the way he saw fit. He wasn’t going to let God or his ministers or this scrawny Negro woman or anybody else dole out guilt because the onus was on them—they were the murderers, not he.
Her voice had broken. Her eyes clawed at him. “He was a good mon, sir, so good to me. We—I jus’ seventeen in Bridgetown and he say he love me, all the time he say he love me, and I don’t know what dat is, I don’t know, I still don’t know . . .”
She was sobbing now, her chest heaving and both hands gone to her eyes. “A good mon,” she kept saying, “he was a good mon,” till John stepped forward to open the door on the deputy’s furious red face and the people crowding in behind him, strangers come to share in the outrage, and all he could think to say, the aggrieved victim, bereft and inconsolable, was “Take her away.”178
At some point, his sister was there with something in a cup for him to drink and then she took him upstairs to the bedroom and laid him down on the bed by the darkened window, and for some strange reason, as she turned off the lamp and stood silhouetted in the light of the door, murmuring the sorts of things only women can command in times of heartache and affliction, he called her Kitty. “I’ll be all right, Kitty,” he said, though he knew he wouldn’t be, and as he lay there sleepless, listening to the voices in the dark and the breathless haunted groans of the two survivors laid out in the parlor (Fritz, who would recover from his burns and a forearm shattered in his plunge through the window, and Lindblom, who would die by morning), she began to emerge from the shadows, Kitty, not Mamah, and wasn’t that the strangest thing? He saw her whirling away from him in the blue satin gown her mother had made her, Cosette to his Marius, and half the girls there were Cosette while the boys favored Valjean and Javert, Kitty, with the elastic limbs and the red-gold hair that piled up like waves on a beach . . .
In the morning, the sun rose out of the hills in a dark bruise of clouds and the clouds spread over the valley like a stain in water. By noon, it was like dusk. He felt the humidity the moment he rose from his sweated sheets, heavy air bearing him down and his shirt wet before he put it on. He’d fallen into a dreamless sleep sometime in the early hours, listening to a solitary bird—a whip-poor-will—riding up and down the glissando of its liquid notes till he’d gone unconscious along with it. He didn’t know how long he’d slept, but when he woke he was fully and immediately present. He knew where he was and why he’d come and that his loss and misery were continuous and that he wouldn’t taste his breakfast or his lunch or his dinner either.
He tried to comb his hair, but it was a snarl, and when he lifted his arms to smooth it back he was assaulted by his own odor. He smelled of yesterday’s sweat, a deep working stench of fear and uncertainty that no soap or eau de cologne could ever drive down. For a moment he thought of going down to the lake for a swim, but that wouldn’t be right either, not if Mamah couldn’t join him or her John and her Martha—no, he would wear his odor, deepen it with the sweat of digging, the pickaxe riding high over his head as he stabbed at the earth and loosened the teeth of the yellow rock that lay clustered there along the black gums of the soil, because every grave was a mouth that opened and closed and swallowed till there was nothing left.
There was breakfast. A hush of voices, people tiptoeing round the house like ghosts of the departed. He sat for a moment with Fritz—the hair gone, the scalded scalp, gauze pillowed up like a spring snowstorm—but the boy didn’t seem to recognize him. Then he went out into the yard to smell the thin poisonous odor of the smoke that still rose from the ruins across the way, and there were people here as well, too many people, and so he walked down the hill and back up again to Taliesin and into the burned-out courtyard. That was where Billy Weston was, both his hands bandaged and a white surgical strip wrapped round his skull so that he looked like a casualty of the war. Frank saw the blood there, a slow seep of it accumulating at the temple, a wound that would never heal. “Billy,” was all he could say, and Billy, a rake in one hand, the streaming hose in the other, could only nod in return. For a long while they just stood there, side by side, and then they bent forward and began to rake the ashes.
In another place, all the way across the world in Paris, where the talk was of nothing but the war—the insuperability of Plan 17, the fierceness of the French cavalry and the defects of the German character—Maude Miriam Noel was just sitting down to breakfast at the Café Lilac. She’d chosen a table under the awning, out of the sun, though the day was lovely, so tranquil and warm you’d never know a war was going on not a hundred and fifty kilometers away. It was her skin. She’d been out for a walk along the Seine the day before, and though she was wearing her hat and carrying a parasol, she hadn’t bothered with gloves because of the heat, and now the backs of her hands were red—or worse, brown. She’d rubbed cold cream on them, but she couldn’t help noticing the faint rippling of the flesh there—wrinkles, they were wrinkles—and that worried her, worried her deeply. Old women had wrinkled hands, parchment hands (“Lizard skin,” as Leora used to joke all those years ago when they were both young and could barely conceive of what a wrinkle was, at least in relation to themselves), and she wasn’t an old woman. Not in fact or by any stretch of the imagination. Men stopped to stare at her as she went down the street, and not simply men of middle age, but young men too.
But here was the waiter. A little man—so many of them were little men, not simply among waiters or the French, but men in general, so very pinched in spirit and disappointing when you most needed them. This particular waiter—Jean-Pierre Something-or-Other—had stared into her face on innumerable mornings through all the seasons of the year, at least since she’d moved into her little apartment at 21 rue des Saints-Pères, with the window boxes trailing blood-red geraniums above the antiquités shop so crammed with marble and pictures in gilded frames it could have been a museum itself, and yet each time he presented the menu with a “Bonjour, madame,” it was as if it were the first, as if he’d never laid eyes on her before, as if she were a mere tourist and interloper. Which infuriated her. She’d complained about him to the management on more than one occasion, but the management, which consisted of a terminally weary old lady in a stained blue kerchief (yes, with lizard hands and an eternally dripping nose) and her entirely deaf husband, hadn’t seemed moved to do anything about it. And so here he was. And here she was. Because she’d be damned if she’d go even half a block out of her way to the next café—this one was hers, her territoire, and she was willing to fight for it. Or at least endure a certain degree of rudeness, day after day, meal after meal.
The waiter handed her the menu as if he’d just found it in the street, and she waved it away—they both knew perfectly well that she’d all but memorized it and wanted only deux oeufs, poached, accompanied by a pair of those little English sausages and the sauté of tomatoes, avec café noir sans sucre. They both knew, and yet every encounter was played out as if it were the first, as if they were players in an Oscar Wilde farce. Then the waiter was gone and at some point the coffee appeared and she reached beneath the table for her bag and the newspapers Leora had sent her from Chicago. She liked to keep up on events in the States, especially now that the war had broken out, but she always had, because as Frenchified as she’d become she was still an American girl at heart, Maude Miriam Noel, the Belle of Memphis. Just the other night, at a gathering in her flat over a very nice Beaujolais and croquettes of crab she’d produced herself, an Englishman by the name of Noel Rutherford—Noel, and wasn’t that a cozy coincidence?—had told her how utterly charming her accent was. “You’re from the South, I presume,” he’d said—“Richmond, perhaps? Or perhaps deeper? Let me guess: Charlotte? Savannah?” And she’d smiled up at him—he was tall, lean, with that constricted muscular energy so many of the English seemed to cultivate, his hair as sleek and dark as an otter’s, and she’d begun to see real possibilities in him—and positively drawled, “Oh, no, honey, you’ve got me awl wrong. I’m a Memphis girl.”
She spread the papers out before her. Took a sip of her coffee. Of course, the past year had been hard on her, what with the way she’d been thrown over by René and that unfortunate incident with the carving knife—and she would have stabbed him, she really and truly would have and gladly gone to the Santé Prison for it, if he’d only stood still long enough. And there was her cat. Mr. Ribbons—or Monsieur Ribbons, as she liked to call out from the door and watch him scamper across the street, his tail held erect above him. When he’d begun to spit up blood, she immediately suspected the crabbed odious horse-faced woman downstairs of poisoning him, and there’d been another regrettable incident over that, though the veterinarian assured her that the animal had died of natural causes. Yes. Certainly. Natural causes. What else could it be? At the thought of it she looked up sharply over her reading glasses, riveting the waiter with a look, which he ignored, and where were her eggs? Had they sent out to the provinces for them? Did it take a Cordon Bleu chef to set a pot of water boiling and dice a few tomatoes over a pan?
She was irritable, and she would have been the first to admit it. It was the war, the uncertainty, the rumors. Everyone said it would be over in six months, but what if it wasn’t? What if the Germans pushed through and marched into Paris? What if there were shortages, rationing? Would the cafés be deserted? Would her landlady raise her rent? She’d thought of going back to Chicago, to Norma, but that was distasteful to her in so many ways she could hardly count them. So many of her friends—the Americans and English, at any rate—had already left, the Belknaps, Clarissa Hodge, the Payne Whitneys. Even her closest friend and confidante, Marie-Thérèse, had gone away to the country, deserting her when she most needed someone to confide in, and not just over René but the creeping fear that started as a kind of upset of her stomach and radiated all the way down to her toes and back up her spine to the nape of her neck, the fear that everything she knew and loved was wearing down and coming to some awful end.
The waiter sauntered up with the heavy ceramic plate and slipped it onto the table as if he were placing a bet at Auteuil before vanishing like a magician, only to reappear in the depths of the café, a freshly lit cigarette jutting from his mouth. She spread her napkin across her lap, adjusted the newspaper and her reading glasses, and cut into one of the sausages. It was then that the headline caught her eye: SEVEN SLAIN AT TALIESIN. And under it: Love Bungalow Murders. She set down the fork and began reading—the story was so horrific, so compelling and awful, she couldn’t help herself; it was like a novel, a romance, and here was the hero of the affair, Mr. Frank Lloyd Wright, in half-profile, staring out nobly across the continent and the sea too. Her breakfast went cold. The coffee sat untouched. The waiter never so much as glanced at her.
She read through the article twice and then sat for a long while studying the photograph. Very slowly, as if she couldn’t control it, she began to shake her head from side to side even as the tremor crept up her spine one vertebra at a time, as if a series of individual fingertips were poking at her in succession.
The poor man, she was thinking. The poor, poor man.


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Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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