Authors: Ed Ifkovic
I bristled. “No, I don’t think that she is.”
That surprised him. “You gotta get beyond the preachy shell.”
“I’d rather not. Sometimes when you crack open a nut, there’s nothing inside.”
“Are you calling…”
I broke in, impatient. “You do have free will, Dak.”
A shrug. “Yes, I like to believe that. But the Assembly of God is an evangelical church that mixes talking in tongues and salvation and forgiveness—all the trappings of tent-city Christianity—with my stepfather’s ironbound Calvinism and boilerplate predestination. Free will is just four-letter words strung together. The wrath of an Old Testament God. The mighty hand of God on my trembling shoulders. Always with the whisper of a benign blessing from Jesus, the lamb of God.”
“Why do you put up with it?”
He got a twinkle in his eyes. “Who says that I do?”
“Well, the evidence, really. You’re still in Maplewood. You’re in the church. You live in town. Lord, you are going to marry Annika.” I smiled. “Or are you?”
“I don’t know what to do. I keep nodding my head at everyone. You know, I had a talk with Annika and I think she might believe that I killed Evan. Imagine that! ‘Where were you?’ she asked me.”
“Did she know Evan?”
“Only as a fool who dared to flirt with her.”
“Why would he do that?”
Dak laughed out loud. “Because she’s a girl. Some men are like that.” He clicked his tongue. “Any girl. He has—had—to have every girl love him.”
“But I gather he mocked Gus Schnelling’s girlfriend, Meaka Snow.”
Dak grimaced. “Lord, the ice maiden. A chilly day of winter, that block of ice. Evan called her an igloo, you know…she’s squat and wide and…”
“So Gus hated him, too?”
“Yes, Gus hated him.” A pause. “And, well, Meaka, too. I know that Evan was stunned to see Gus show up in Maplewood. Picking up that job as electrician. Gus is up to something. Well, so was Evan. They were often together, Gus and Evan, but it was like…like they each didn’t dare let the other guy out of their sight. You gotta know where your enemy is, right?”
“What did Annika say about Gus?”
“She didn’t want him coming around. Either guy, really. Not that he did, but we’d bump into him in town. I mean, Annika has refused to come near the theater—she thinks it’s corrupting. But Gus would be handing out leaflets and, well, he’d strut his manly strut, all that tough-guy nonsense. He’d mutter about the master race or some such nonsense—and we’d keep going. Gus and I don’t talk.”
“You knew him in Hollywood?”
He looked away. “We all knew one another out there. A brief moment…”
I had little patience with that. “Everyone says…‘a brief moment.’ Folderol. Dak, you’re not telling me something. It has to do with Hollywood. Something
there. I feel it. And it led to murder. You and Gus and Evan…even Nadine.”
A downcast evasion. “No.” Then he summarized, “We all ran away from California.”
“And, oddly, you all end up in Maplewood, New Jersey?”
I reached out to touch his wrist and he jerked back. “Actually, no, Dak. There’s a reason all of you came here. And it has nothing to do with the Maplewood Theater. Evan could care less about being Louis Calhern’s understudy in
The Royal Family
. Nadine came here using her old stage name. In disguise, as it were. Gus, Hitler’s vagrant and mindless follower, does not fit into any group photograph of Maplewood, New Jersey. He belongs in a beer garden in Germantown with a stein in one hand, his other arm outstretched in awful salute.”
“I want you to be my friend,” Dak said suddenly. “I want you to believe I didn’t kill that bastard, Evan.”
We locked eyes for a moment. “I know you didn’t kill him.”
He grinned. “Thank you.”
I noticed Frank stepping out onto the stage, searching across the dim-lit seats, looking for us. “Yes, I do believe you, but you’re not telling me everything.”
A sigh. “I will.” He stood. “Not yet.”
“Dak!” I shook my head.
A broad smile covered his face. “Come with me. Quick. Before Frank yells at me. I
working tonight. Come. It’s my discovery.”
He escorted me out the back door, through the unlighted lobby, and, switching on a hallway light, up the stairs and into a lounge that was someone’s office. “There.” He pointed as he switched on a lamp.
“That painting.” He drew me closer and I was staring at a tiny exquisite landscape of a splashy waterfall and ancient weeping willows and spotty moonlight: delicate, luminous, compelling. “I can’t believe it’s here. It’s an Asher B. Durand.” He did a quick two-step, a vaudeville routine, and went, “Ta-da! Look!”
“I have no idea…”
“The great Hudson River Valley landscape painter. He was born in Maplewood when it was Jefferson Village. He died in 1886. He loved landscapes, painted the wild scenery of Orange Mountain. Maplewood is in a valley, you know, and he loved the mountains, wandering through forests of black walnut and pine and…My hero. I just came upon it hanging there, valuable, a museum piece. He’s forgotten now. No one cares. You know, when I was a boy, doodling, drawing, a teacher told me that Durand was a distant relative of my mother, way back when. He’s what made me want to paint and draw.”
“It’s gorgeous,” I agreed.
“I started wandering in the woods, a boy hunting for grasshoppers, but I ended up sketching them. I wandered the same paths, Miss Ferber. You know, there’s an old milestone marker in Maplewood Park beyond Tuscan Road—Five Miles to Newark. Old Indian trails, I imagine. The South Mountain Reservation.”
While we were talking, his face underwent a magical transformation, the dark droopy gloom of his features transmogrifying into a vibrant, mobile boy’s face, electric. His body rolled and twisted, backing up, his face peering closely at the painting, staring into my face, desperately wanting me to understand the awesome beauty of this personal discovery. So alive, so transported, this young man: the artist lost in his own pure world. For a moment, the two of us standing there, quiet, quiet, Evan’s murder did not matter, nor the prosaic machinations of the church he was yoked to, nor the workaday job he had at the theater. And for a moment I forgot about the world out there: Nazi tanks lumbering through Alpine landscapes as beautiful as that of this Durand oil on canvas. No, here was a young man who had found a moment of joy that held him, and, wonderfully, took me with him.
The spell was broken by the sudden appearance of Frank who bustled in, his face scarlet. “Dak. Miss Ferber. What’s going on? This is a private office.”
I simply pointed to the Durand landscape, but Frank refused to look.
“I wanted to…” Dak began.
Frank cut him off. “You need to get back to work, Dak.”
Dak bowed to me, smiled weakly, and sheepishly left the room.
“I’m sorry, Frank.”
“It’s not your fault, Miss Ferber. He’s a troubled boy. An innocent, that one. A decent boy.” He looked toward the empty doorway. “I’m worried about him. I like him. I’m like his father…”
“But you’re not his father.”
He stammered, “I know, I know. It’s just that I don’t like the way people treat him. His family. Evan murdered, and I’m afraid for Dak who is…”
“Who is innocent,” I finished.
Frank breathed out and seemed to lose energy. “Thank God someone else understands that. Thank God.” Then, a pained look. “But why was he following Evan that afternoon? It wasn’t by accident that he spotted Evan. He told me today that he went looking for him. Why can’t he keep his mouth shut?”
The voice on the telephone was creaky, yet authoritative. No hello—just “Miss Ferber. Tobias Tyler here.” For a moment I had no idea who the man was. Then Tobias Tyler repeated his name, louder this time, and added, “From the Assembly of God.” Another pause. ”Dakota’s parents.”
I could hear irritation in his tone. This was a man who expected you to know him.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Tyler. This is unexpected.” I’d been sitting in a rocking chair in my room, the
in my lap, unread.
“It shouldn’t be unexpected—it’s just overdue. You see, ever since you and George Kaufman came to town—I don’t attend theater so I was the last to know—I’ve wanted to speak with you. You don’t remember me, but we’ve met, though many, many years back, and only one time. I was a younger man…”
“Tobias Tyler.” My mind wrestled with the name. “Your mother was Maris Bradford Tyler?”
A soft chuckle. “Of course. I’m her only son.”
“You stopped into her apartment…”
“Yes, a brief encounter. My mother liked to gather famous people to her home.”
I cut him off. “I do remember the afternoon.” My voice was cold now. “Not a pleasant memory, I’m afraid.”
He cleared his throat. “I guess she had her biases.”
“And then some.” My words were snarled, purposely.
Again the soft chuckle. “All behind us.” I heard him breathe in. “And I’m not my mother. Her prejudices were unfortunate and…”
“These days transferred onto a world stage, no?” I finished for him.
That confused him. “What?”
When I’d published
to great success and garnered a Pulitzer Prize for Best Novel, the bejeweled grande dames of Park Avenue issued invitations to lunch or tea, a habit of lionizing I soon tired of. George Kaufman referred to it as “artists being fed to the lions.” I’d allowed myself, at George’s suspicious request, to be feted by Mrs. Winthrop Bradford Tyler, an especially rubicund and enormously wealthy widow in her sky-high penthouse. A tiresome woman. “Maris” to her intimates, of which I was not one. Dripping in diamonds and black velvet at midday, Maris Bradford Tyler blathered on and on about her love of the arts, of artists, of
(which she heard was wonderful), on and on, dreadful, an eternity, a sinkhole of inanity. At one point George mentioned reading G. B. Stern’s
, a wonderful best-selling saga of generations. Mrs. Bradford Tyler heaved her tremendous bosom and roared, “A book about Jews. I tossed it into the fire.”
Silence, long and heavy, as awful as it gets. In my most brutal tone, “And yet you fed me lunch today.”
George quipped as he threw down his napkin. “Oh my God, Edna. You never told me.”
At which point George and I both stood and stormed out of the apartment.
“Yes,” I told Tobias now, “I remember your mother fondly.”
He wasn’t listening. “I must have been—what?—forty-five? I’m sixty now. An old man.”
“What can I do for you?”
“An invitation to dinner, you and Mr. Kaufman.”
“I don’t think so. We’ve…”
Suddenly a diffident tone colored his words, an urgency, a little desperate. “Please. We need to talk about Dakota and the…the murder. His mother and I…”
Rarely one to forgive the sins of the parent, I nevertheless relented. “I like Dak.”
“You’ll come then?”
“I’ll check with George.”
A pause. “I’ve already spoken with him. He said he’ll come if you do.” That news rankled, truly. What game was this? But now his voice grew strange. “I’ll send a car at seven. One of the trusted churchwardens who drives for me. A fine fellow name of Alexander. A safe driver.”
“I’m more leery of what happens
I arrive, sir.”
But he’d already hung up the phone.
Tobias Tyler was rich, heir to a fortune built on gas boilers and turbines, a magnificent pile of money that mostly remained intact after the Crash of 1929, though I remembered hearing that he holed up in the Park Avenue penthouse after his mother’s death and was afraid to leave. Well, obviously he had ventured far from that crystal tower. And here he now resided. While waiting for the car to pick us up, George had shared other tidbits of the man’s scant and lucky biography: Tobias, the notorious skinflint—legend had it he’d battled a homeless street bum for a dropped penny—was now spreading his fortune in the name of Christ. The perennial bachelor had been born-again and had fallen madly in love at middle age. “There’s hope for you yet, dear Edna,” George had sniped.
I ignored him. “A strange story.”
“Well, he found God.”
“In Maplewood?” I raised my eyebrows.
“A life with the renowned evangelist, Clorinda Roberts Tyler.”
“Everyone talks about her as if she’s famous. I never heard of her.”
“You need to read the trashy tabloids. The
“Don’t your letters count as pulp fiction?”
“Wisdom, Edna. I send you bits of wisdom.”
At that moment Alexander pulled up in the town car, and George and I were ceremoniously bowed into the backseat. We didn’t speak for the short ride.
Tobias and Clorinda Tyler lived in a sprawling stone mansion out beyond ritzy Burnett Terrace, an imposing home of excessive gables and medieval stone turrets and heavy leaded glass, stolid and dark, a burgher’s paradisiacal trophy appropriated from an earlier century. An extension, I supposed, of the opulence of Tobias’ genteel Park Avenue upbringing. There was a crew of gardeners in sight, all short and dark, all climbing into the back of a pickup as they ended their day’s work. Italianate lawn statues and Baroque fountains dotted the pathways. Beyond the circular driveway, visible when the car turned, was a two-story Victorian guesthouse set back among towering oak trees, painted a harlot’s red with black shutters and a jazzy white porch, an incongruous ladybug plopped down in the shadow of the sober mansion. Banks of Hawthorne trees lined the rolling fields—and I supposed there was no chance you might ever glimpse a neighbor. Even should you want to.
As the car pulled into the driveway of the mansion, I spotted a tiny man standing in the open doorway. It had to be Tobias—he looked as if he’d toppled from a Mayflower gangplank. Dressed in a severe black suit with black tie, arms folded across his chest, he looked the undertaker at a viewing. Or one of the Salem judges.
A compact little man, wizened, with a drab oval face, he blinked his eyes nervously, glanced back and forth from George to me, as though uncertain where to focus. This squirrel of a man stepped back, grinned foolishly, showing stained yellow teeth, and led us into a drawing room.
Massive mahogany furniture from another century, dark and forbidding, filled the large space so that walking a straight line was impossible. I wove my uncertain way around clunky claw-footed tables and brocaded sofas, past overstuffed ottomans and knickknack-cluttered bookshelves, my fingers grazing old-fashioned, yellowed antimacassars draped over the backs of chairs. A provincial museum, I considered, a room that stopped in time when Victoria died and Edward stumbled onto the royal throne. That was it, I realized: It was all so…British. Colonial. Imperial. Fussy. Here was Prince Albert’s specter, the puritanical consort, bowing us in.
“Clorinda is tied up at the Assembly temple,” he informed us. “Regrettable, I’m afraid. But she’ll be here shortly. Being the preeminent spiritual leader on the East Coast has its liabilities.”
I glanced at George. He was staring, open-mouthed, at a stuffed wolverine placed, lifelike, on a mantel. A taxidermist’s catastrophe, to be sure, its fur matted and faded. Worse, its glass eyes had shifted in the sockets so that the poor animal looked wall-eyed, one eye facing the Atlantic Ocean and the other the Pacific. Keeping an eye on all of America. George kept nodding his head at me like a dizzy schoolboy, compelling me to look at the monstrosity, but I’d already taken in the hideous décor, this anachronistic space that stunned conversation.
George and I sat on a lumpy sofa, opposite the little man.
“We’ve looked forward to meeting the famous Clorinda,” George said without a trace of sarcasm, still not diverting his eyes from that sad animal.
An old woman plodded in, dressed in a frumpy black-and-white maid’s uniform, and clumsily placed a tray of biscuits and cookies before us. A pitcher of iced lemonade rested next to them, slivers of bright yellow lemon floating on the surface.
“This is Hilda.” Tobias indicated the matronly woman who merely grunted. She maneuvered her ancient self around the cluttered room with admirable dexterity.
“She’s wonderful.” Tobias watched her retreating back. “We inherited her from a woman in Newark, where she’d been a faithful domestic since coming from Sweden ages ago. Clorinda’s a loving spiritual woman, but she can be a demanding taskmaster. She demands a smoothly run household. Hilda can read our minds. I simply sit in my study and work on my book.”
“Your book?” George said too loudly.
“A study of all the foods and herbs mentioned in the Bible and their symbolic implications…”
Neither George nor I said anything.
“Will Dak be joining us for dinner?” I broke in.
He shook his head vigorously. “No, his mother thought it best if he
be here. Just us, discussing this…this unpleasant development. That horrendous murder that, I fear, might tarnish the good work of our Assembly of God.” He looked toward the window as though expecting a stone to be tossed through the glass. “So she’s sent them—Dakota and Annika—off to visit parishioners over to South Orange.”
I struggled to create a sentence. For a minute we sat in silence. George kept making a clicking noise, unhappy. Finally, I sputtered, “Tell me about your Assembly of God.”
“You’ve heard of it, of course.”
“Of course.” I hadn’t, to be sure, but thought it best to agree. There was a reason for this summons and I needed to hear it.
His voice got low, solemn. “When I found Jesus, I realized how I’d best spend the vast monies I didn’t do anything to earn. In my middle age, wandering, a lost soul, I sought an answer from God. A pilgrim adrift in America listening to street-corner prophets.” A sweet smile. “It took a long time coming, let me tell you.”
George was smiling. “I’d have thought God would send messages more quickly. He seems to control the phone lines.”
Tobias narrowed his eyes, disapproving. “You’re having fun with me, Mr. Kaufman. That’s quite all right. That’s your
George sat back, amused.
Tobias went on. “A number of years back I had to be in California and I chanced upon Aimee Semple McPherson’s Angelus Temple. A magnificent woman, that one, inspired.” He breathed in and bowed his head. “That changed my life. A year later, hunting down a revival service in Buffalo, the night of a raging snowstorm, I chanced upon Clorinda’s service. Here it was, a dark night with impassable roads, Buffalo as a howling wilderness out of the Old Testament, and yet this ramshackle rented Sons of Pythias hall was jam-packed with devout souls—farmers, mechanics, soldiers, housewives, all breathing the ethereal air of Jesus Christ. And Clorinda, magnificent in rainbow-colored robes and with a voice tinkling like crystal, took us all up to God’s kingdom.” He half-rose from his seat and grabbed his heart. “A year later I begged her to marry me.”
“And you moved here?” From George, with only the mildest tinge of disbelief.
“It’s Clorinda’s childhood home. Maplewood, and her long-held dream of bringing Jesus back with her. The foundation of an empire would start here. Since her early days as an itinerant preacher traveling the hinterland in a broken-down bus, begging for quarters to print her devout messages, at one point with little Dakota tucked at her side and saying her prayers, she’d longed for permanence.”
“The Assembly of God,” I said.
“Exactly. A magnificent shrine to God, patterned after Aimee Semple McPherson’s Angelus Temple. So here we are. Jesus comes to Jersey. Since I built Clorinda’s temple, her reputation has swelled. Like high tide. Massive, massive. A sanctuary, my friends. A place of old-fashioned morality and rectitude. Look out the window at the world. What do you see? Sin and frivolity and orgies and drinking and smoking and profane love. And now the ugly specter of war in Europe. This is because we’ve stepped away from Christ. The Bible burned. Lost lives. Jonathan Edwards, who thundered at sinners in the hands of an angry God, dangled them over the pits of hell, once traveled from New England to New Jersey, and died with his message. Fire and brimstone—the true meaning of the Bible. Not the namby-pamby soft-center close-your-eyes-to-sin that passes for religion in some quarters these days. Oh no! Here, again, there is a live revival in Maplewood. The Old Testament lives and breathes.”
George grunted. “Alexandria, Athens, Rome, London, Maplewood.”
“Indeed!” Tobias beamed. “Clorinda is the world’s most loving woman, charity itself, a blessing. A beautiful creature. I never married until my fifties because God had me wait for perfection.”
George choked on a cookie.
He went on. “The church and Clorinda are one. A rich legacy.” His face then scrunched up, worried. “Do you see why I invited you?”
That jarred. “Ah, Tobias, I don’t see…”
“Dakota is like a son to me, Miss Ferber. A fitful, wayward teenage boy when I met him, hell-bent, rebellious, a dreamer. But I knew—Clorinda convinced me—that God’s master plan meant he’d be prodigal, a temporary wastrel, a gifted lad who would finally extend the power and the glory of the Assembly of God. We’d branch out from Maplewood—to Newark, to New York, New England—to the West.”
this path?” I tried to make eye contact.
He squinted at me. “It’s not his choice. Would you defy God, Miss Ferber?”
George rocked in his chair. “Edna likes a good challenge. She’d take on God if He insulted her.”
“That’s why this murder nonsense must be squelched. Dakota told me that you”—he stared into my eyes—“favor him, trust him, understand his innocence. You can be his advocate.”