Authors: Ed Ifkovic
“Well, I do think he’s incapable of murder, but…”
He spoke over my words. “I’m not a worldly man, Miss Ferber. Nor is Clorinda. Though we surround ourselves with grand worldly trappings, possessions do keep so many from touching God. We’re sheltered from so much. There is so much I do not understand. I invited you because we wanted to voice our
of your friendship with Dakota. Your comforting support. I know you have no power to stem the inquiries of that foolish Constable Biggers, who lingers outside the temple with a pad in hand, watching, though I don’t know what for. But I suspect he has
Dakota as murderer. So Annika tells us. Preposterous. And dangerous to our church. All I’m asking is that you”—he faltered, struggled—“I don’t know…”
“Find the real murderer?” George tossed in.
A beautiful glow covered the tiny man. “That would be nice.”
“I’ll befriend Dakota, but…”
My voice broke off as the door opened and his wife rushed in.
Clorinda Roberts Tyler made an entrance that reminded me of an imperious Ethel Barrymore stepping before the footlights, pausing, expecting the roar of spontaneous applause. A moment purposely out of sync with the script—but did it matter? She was the blazing star in the night firmament. So, too, Clorinda paused, a quixotic smile on her lips, her hand fluttering in the air as though warding off pesky mosquitoes.
You saw a slight, slender woman, a willowy reed, whose velvety olive complexion and large stunning eyes immediately reminded me of her son, Dakota. A youthful woman, graceful, with her long dark hair flowing over her shoulders, covered with a black lace mantilla. As she moved, the diaphanous pink dress she wore flowed like gossamer. Eye-catching, mesmerizing, haunting—a woman in full possession. No makeup, not a trace of lipstick or rouge or powder, but the effect of that mobile face was one of utter glamour and appeal. Yet, when she passed under the overhead light, the actress understanding her spot, you caught the reflection of brilliant diamonds on her earlobes and gracing her neck: an angel in jewels, the sylvan sprite accented with top-drawer Tiffany jewels. Astounding!
She nodded to George and then to me, fluttering, gushing, inordinately pleased that we would visit, thrilled to meet such luminaries, renowned cosmopolites so far removed from her humdrum spiritual hideaway.
“I have fame but I don’t have genius,” she told us.
Tobias begged to differ. “Clorinda, your genius is the voice of God within you.”
I wondered how long this nincompoopism would last and whether I’d survive a full evening of their simplistic rapture. Already George was tapping a finger nervously on the arm of his chair and making gurgling noises.
“Dakota has mentioned you, my dear Edna. I must tell you he
—yes, indeed—our invitation to you and George here, saying it would
him, but I pooh-poohed that. An innocent boy, my Dakota.”
Hilda stood in the doorway and broke into the middle of Clorinda’s endless speech. “Dinner is ready.” Blunt, a little contemptuous. I supposed she tired of living in such rarefied atmosphere where the air got too thin and made breathing difficult. She turned away slowly, plodding back to the kitchen, one hand rubbing a hip.
“Come, come,” Clorinda cooed, and obediently we rose and followed her into the dining room where, under a blazing mother-of-pearl chandelier, the table was set for five.
“Another guest?” I asked.
Clorinda looked over her shoulder and dropped her voice. “My sister Ilona lives with us.” She pursed her lips. “She may or may not join us. Perhaps for dessert. She’s somewhat shy of folks, and
: This last word was pronounced so deeply, melodramatically, that even Tobias smiled.
Glancing at Tobias through the rambling, uneventful dinner of overdone roast and soggy potatoes and anemic salad, I made one observation: Tobias sat quietly most of the meal while Clorinda rattled on about her Assembly of God and her destiny and her love of animals (though none was in evidence), and her love of literature (though not a book was in sight). I realized that what Dak had told me was true: There were two things—only two, emphatically two—that constituted Tobias’ world, a love of God and a love of Clorinda. Both seemed to have coalesced into one entity so his obsession was somehow monomaniacal. He stared at her with such rapt absorption that, at times, he held a fork in midair, entranced by a platitude he’d doubtless heard sail a hundred times from her lips. A little scary, this scene, for I suspected the battle of dual allegiances created some restless nights for the devout puritan. Or maybe not. The eternal feminine with the glow of God within. All very baffling to me, the secular Jewish nun of the Upper East Side. The Jewish slave girl on the ancient Nile, as I often referred to myself.
“Tobias has such a strong faith,” Clorinda was going on. “It fairly stuns. I am not worthy.”
“My dear, please.” He sighed. “But we must
on solving our worldly dilemma now.”
I interrupted. “I appreciate your invitation, but I must tell you—I don’t know what I can do to help Dak.”
Both stopped, gobsmacked. Perhaps my tone was a little too cutting.
“Dakota,” Clorinda whispered.
“I know, I know.” I was frustrated. “But I’ve already said that I…”
Tobias looked at me closely. “Scandal.” His voice hummed the word, trembling. “Scandal. Awful scandal. Our church—my whole adult life, Miss Ferber—is predicated on what I deem one hundred percent morality. The ethical life. How else to lead our parishioners? The lost and saddened, the lonely, the misfits. Ours is a church of salvation after rigorous denial.” He glanced at his wife. “Since Dakota has returned from that…that sad sojourn in Hollywood and other wanderings throughout America, well, we, Clorinda and I, have embraced him as savior. When Clorinda and I are gone to our reward, Dakota and Annika must lead…”
“That’s an awful weight to thrust on one man.”
I sensed George nodding his head.
“He wants it.”
“Are you sure?” George asked.
“This Annika…” I began but stopped. The temperature in the sweltering room had become arctic.
“Murder will kill us.” Tobias spoke slowly, spacing out the words.
George smirked, then apologized. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled, “but it’s a…a wonderful line.”
Tobias’ face got scarlet and his voice trembled. “You mock us in a house of God’s servants.”
Clorinda was the pacifier. “Now, now, Tobias.” A dry chuckle. “Forget it. George is the jokester—that’s how he sees the world. His bread and butter. We see it differently. Ours is the bread of life.”
Tobias nodded and leaned toward me. “I believe the real murderer must be caught. And it will not be Dakota.”
Clorinda fussed, running her hand through her hair. “They should be looking at this Gus fellow. An evil man. Annika tells me he’s a godless Nazi.”
Tobias smiled and lovingly touched Clorinda’s hand. “That is why I wanted Miss Ferber here tonight. She agrees with us.”
Kindergarten exercises, I told myself: contentment found in throwaway words, answers grasped at as though they were golden rings on a child’s merry-go-round. Conversation that looped back around until every line was an echo of something said moments before.
George, having none of this, addressed Clorinda, smiling at her in an expression I recognized as preamble to a cruel jibe. He never cared what folks thought of him. “How did you get into this God business?”
She ignored the slight, laughing uproariously. “I have to remember to take your statements with a grain of sand, dear George. People like us are sent to test the waters of absolute belief. Anyway, Tobias and I sometimes call our church the Church of the Wild Oats. Redemption on the road out of Sodom and Gomorrah. Tobias searched the desert, a lost man. And so did I, a bumbling sinner on the West Coast, where sin is commonplace.” She narrowed her eyes a second. “And expected and oddly celebrated. Dakota comes by his roving days honestly—a son of his mother.”
“The long trek to sainthood.” I was looking at George.
Clorinda reached across the table and patted my hand. “Exactly. How true!”
Irony and sarcasm, I guessed, were George’s province, while mine was the glib truism.
“I left Maplewood for Hollywood just around the time the Great War began. I wanted to be in the silents. You know, I’d seen a Cecil B. DeMille movie in downtown Newark, and that’s all it took.
Birth of a Nation
—I think it was. I was young, pretty, flamboyant, felt stifled by Maplewood and the Congregational Church we attended. My mother had died when I was ten, and my father raised me and my younger sister, Ilona. Sadly, but perhaps providentially, my father was a stern, demanding country doctor, much respected, if severe. He trucked no disobedience. This furniture”—she pointed around the cluttered room—“came from the old house on Tuscan Road.”
Tobias smiled. “When I first visited that house, I felt at peace. The glitzy Park Avenue was gone forever. This was serenity.”
Clorinda hadn’t stopped talking, and never looked at Tobias. “I fought my dear father, headed to Hollywood, acting in some forgotten silent two-reelers. The distressed maiden with the goo-goo eyes. Absurd. ‘Oh sir! I’m just a motherless lass!’ That stuff. Finally, hungry for something, I married another actor, the dashingly handsome Philip Roberts, who swept me off my feet. He’d just appeared in a William S. Hart western—he was the swashbuckling type, you know, dark, handsome, with a captivating moustache.” Her voice fell. “Then my world crashed. I was carrying our child—Philip chose the name Dakota if it was a boy, proud of his love of westerns, would you believe?—and one afternoon a streetcar jumped its tracks and struck Philip. He died weeks before Dakota was born.”
“I’m so sorry,” I told her.
“I floundered, lost interest in movies, and one afternoon, distraught, I wandered into Aimee Semple McPherson’s church. It was as though I’d been led there—driven like the Magi toward Bethlehem, following a star in the sky. I devoted the next few years to her crusade until, well, I began to distrust her…her authority. Her sincerity. She forgave sins too easily, especially her own. I went out on my own, traveling, preaching, and eventually met Tobias in Buffalo. Destiny.”
“And Dakota?” I asked. “I gather he was on the road with you.”
A long silence, uncomfortable. A ragged sound from deep in her throat. “Not at first. Well, he was a baby. A little boy. Later on I took him with me—taught him to preach. You have to understand my father, Edna. An old man, rigid, bitter. He thought kindness a dangerous trait. When Dakota was born, I was still an…an actress. Whatever that means. He insisted I bring Dakota back East, where he had Ilona care for him in this small town, quiet, decent, away from the nonsense of Hollywood. I had to agree. My sister had to agree, though she resisted. She refused at first, and still insists the heavenly charity crippled her life. I was still grieving over Philip’s sudden death. So his first days were here—in my sister’s care.”
“And a lot of thanks I get for it, let me tell you.”
We all jumped. I actually screamed, which I regretted—too much the showboat ingénue feeling menaced.
In the doorway stood a shriveled woman dressed in a charcoal gray dress that sagged below her knees, a gigantic rhinestone brooch stuck onto her chest like a bug splattered on a car windshield.
“Ilona, you sneak in like a cat.” Clorinda wasn’t happy.
“I live here. I told you I’d come down for dessert. Maybe. Then I’m startled to hear how I raised that brat of yours, for no credit. None. A delinquent, that boy, sassy, angry all the time, messing up in school when he drew pictures of dead winter trees. He never fit in.”
Clorinda’s voice broke. “Ilona, meet Edna Ferber and George Kaufman.”
A sickly smile, humorless. “I’m charmed.”
Ilona had been described as the younger sister of Clorinda, but looked much older, haggard even, wrinkled, a woman beaten down. She leaned on the doorjamb, insolent, observing us harshly.
“Join us?” Tobias stood and pulled out a chair.
Ilona cleared her throat. “Oh, I don’t think so. I’m a bit under the weather. The heat God sends us this time of year.” She chuckled. “I suppose—to prepare us for hell. He’s doing a good job. Clorinda, I heard your nonsense about father’s didactic authority. Does anyone recall anyone asking me if I wanted to deal with a squawking baby while you partied the night away in California? No, I don’t think so. I made him a God-fearing boy, and you sent letters telling him to explore the beauty of life, to seek adventure, to sing from the treetops—or some such crap. And off he goes. Mama’s boy. Then one day you’re back, religion now seeping out of your pores, and you take him to your bosom. Turn him against me. And I’m left alone, the shunted spinster in a mausoleum. A vicious father dead. The house I lived in all my life given to you, the mother of the family heir.”
Tobias was glowering. “This is no time for such revelation, Ilona. We have guests. We all do what we have to do in life.”
She grimaced. “Oh, please. Spare me! And now you look for ways to protect the church from the sheriff’s knock on the door. Dakota the murderer!”
Clorinda screamed. “Enough.” She turned to me. “Ilona sees herself as the church mouse, the ignored, the…”
“The woman begging for crumbs at your”—she pointed at Tobias—“abundant table. Good night.” She turned on her heels and left the room. A voice from the hallway. “A murderer!”
“Well,” George began, folding his napkin and placing it on the table. “We must be going. It’s been…”
“I’m so sorry,” Clorinda jumped in. “Ilona is so unhappy.” She squinted. “Yes,
. She has refused to accept Jesus into her life and…”
“Well,” echoed George, standing up.
“Dakota is our future,” Tobias whispered.
Clorinda pleaded with me. “Edna, we don’t know where to turn. I don’t like Dakota spending so much time at the theater. I know the evils of the stage. I also wanted to talk to you about that. I begged him not to take that unnecessary job there. The theater can be so corrupting.”