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Authors: Stephen Birmingham

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BOOK: Those Harper Women
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Leona closes her eyes. She makes of herself a long, heavy sack full of sand and, at one corner of the sack, there is a tiny hole and, very slowly, the sand trickles out, trickles out. Then, in another corner, another leak appears, and more sand pours out, slowly. All at once, unbidden, Edouardo appears and seems to hover over her closed eyes. “Oh, go away,” she whispers aloud. “Haven't you done enough?” You are banished, she reminds him. You are gone, finished, over, dead, out of my life and dropped from the face of the earth. She likes to think of Edouardo Para-Diaz as in outer space—circling the moon, perhaps, in endless orbit. Or landed there. Ah, Edouardo, she thinks, how do you like the moon? How do you like the Sea of Tranquility, or that other sea you would surely love—the Sea of Sighs? Any cold, beautiful place will do for you. And what are the things Leona Para-Diaz loves? I love the touch of soft things, the feel of cotton cloth, the feel of my hair between my fingers, the soft, smooth place at the back of a man's neck; and this place, the unannounced seasons, and the sea; all islands; and this house, and the tree-of-heaven in the garden, and the veranda where she used to have tea with Granny when she was a child, and the heavy, curving mahogany banisters on the stairs, and Granny's great Chippendale desk full of clutter that Leona was never allowed to touch, and the damp, salt-sweet smell of the rooms, and Granny's smell, and the smell of linen sheets that have been hung to dry in the sun. Is that list enough? And beautiful things: a celebration of lilies opening in a lilypond beyond their house on the coast of Spain. “How beautiful the lilies are!” Edouardo said. And she had wanted to say to him, Yes, and you are beautiful too—beautiful as a lily yourself, you beautiful man. Two identical-feeling tears form at the outer corners of her closed eyes and run down the sides of her face, into her hair, just above her ears. Oh, but this isn't the way, she tells herself. No, this isn't the way at all.

The words form in her mind again:

You see, Mother, the thing is

“Her first husband was a rip,” Edith is saying, “and that didn't last long. Her second was a decent sort, but apparently he didn't suit her either. The third of course, the Spaniard, was an absolute bad hat, a rotter, a thorough Skeesicks.”

“I met her between number two and number three,” Eddie Winslow says. And he chuckles softly.

“Why are you laughing?”

“I like the way you tick each one of them off, Mrs. Blakewell.”

“Now this last one,” Edith says, lowering her voice, “
he
was romantically inclined, it turns out, toward members of his own sex—if you can believe such a thing!”

“Well, I guess I can believe it.”

“Of course she made me promise, when she came here, that we would not discuss it. I can understand why she prefers not to talk about it. But now it seems as though she won't discuss
anything
with me!”

“As a matter of fact, I sort of promised her I wouldn't discuss her with you,” he says.

“Yes. Well, you see? That's how she's become. Secretive. But I do care about her. And why—” She has started to say, Why do I come upon her at times, and look at her, and see a look of absolute tragedy on her face? But she decides not to say this, and says, instead, “I want her to find the right person.”

He nods and puts down his glass. “I'd really better be going,” he says.

“Leona's upstairs resting. She'll want to see you. Won't you stay?”

“Don't disturb her. I'll be seeing her later on,” he says, rising and pocketing his notebook.

Standing up, Edith says, “I'm afraid I haven't been much help to you. Of course anything you want to know about the company you can get directly from Harold.”

“The fact is, Mr. Harper has refused to see me.”

“Refused? Why should he refuse? I'll tell him to see you.”

“Would you?” he says eagerly.

“Well,” she hesitates, “I can't actually
tell
him to see you. If he chooses not to—it's a man's world, and the two boys do run the business. Still, I can try. You see, Mr. Winslow,” she says, “the thing is that where the business is concerned
I'm
the one who's small potatoes.”

Following her out of the sitting room, he says, “This is a beautiful house, Mrs. Blakewell.”

“My father built it for my husband and me as a wedding present. But it's too big for one old woman. It needs a man in it.” She smiles at him. “Where are you staying on the island?”

“The Virgin Isle.”

“Poor man. You must be miserable. Do you know how many gallons of water it takes to flush a toilet?”

“I admit it's something I've never thought much about, Mrs. Blakewell.”

“Five gallons! While the rest of us hoard our fresh water, and use salt water in our toilets, the Virgin Isle Hotel flushes away thousands of gallons of fresh water daily in its Mrs. Joneses. It's a disgrace.”

Crossing the drawing room she sees Nellie crouched in a corner, about to plug in her vacuum cleaner, and she gestures to Nellie to delay, please, her vacuuming until the guest has left. Nellie is a good girl, and has been with Edith many years, but one must keep reminding all these girls of certain things, again and again. “If you have time,” she says to Mr. Winslow, “you really should go over and take a look at what's left of my father's old house at Sans Souci. It burned in nineteen thirty-five, but the foundations will give you an idea of the size of
that
place. No one knows what caused the fire. My mother used to claim that the Roosevelt administration burned it down. She said that Mr. Roosevelt's agents burned it to spite her because she was trying to sell it to the Navy. If you go, you will notice three enormous urns standing on what used to be the terrace. In the old days they were filled with plants and shrubs, and there were four urns. But suddenly, one morning, a few years after the fire, there were only three. Someone must have walked off with one of those urns, though they must have weighed tons apiece. Why would anyone want an iron urn? It's always interested me.”

“Yes,” he says, “well—”

They are at the front door now, and moving out onto the long veranda that stretches the length of Edith Blakewell's house. “If you are writing a story about us,” she says, “you mustn't believe the stories you hear about the Harpers. Gossip travels differently on an island than it does on a land mass, remember that. It travels in circles because it has no place else to go. And there are some people here, a few, who still resent my family. You'll hear that I am practically the Charlotte Corday of the West Indies, and—” smiling at him, touching his arm “—that I absolutely devour handsome young men like you. Pay it no heed.”

“Yes. Well, thanks very much, Mrs. Blakewell.”

Callers are so few; she would like to detain him. Standing on the veranda, she says, “Do you like my garden, Mr. Winslow?”

“It's a nice garden. You've got a nice view of the sea too.”

“I never look at the sea,” she says with an impatient gesture. “The sea is just something that takes people away from here. I look at the shore. It is the shores of life that have meaning and importance to me. The shores are where penetration begins, where humanity begins. An island is
all
shore, all edge, all lip. The sea rushes against it, but the lip fights back. Have you ever thought of that, Mr. Winslow?”

Running his finger under the band of his collar (poor thing, he looks so hot), he says, “Yes, I guess you're right.”

“None of the others ever saw it that way—Mama or Papa, or my brothers, or my husband, or my daughter. Leona—perhaps. But mostly it is my thought.” And then she says absently, addressing the garden, really, more than Mr. Winslow, “And then of course there was the Frenchman.”

“Who is the Frenchman?”

“A Frenchman who once worked for my father. One of the flies. One of the swarm.”

If it is background material Mr. Winslow wants, there it is, a beginning. Perhaps it is not the story he came to get, but it is a story nonetheless and perhaps, without knowing it, Edith is offering it to him out of sympathy for him, tossing the Frenchman to him as one would toss a ball to a bored and panting puppy on a sweltering afternoon. The place seems proper, the garden, and the time, and, inside her, a voice says, “Quick! Go pick up my Frenchman. If you don't, I'll not give you another chance.” They would, of course, have to go back into the house and begin all over again, and Leona would have to join them, and hear the story too. But he says, “Well, I'm only concerned in this story with members of the family—” shifting his weight from one foot to the other.

They move to the top of the veranda steps.

“I've just thought of something,” Edith says, “something my daughter Diana, Leona's mother, once said. About Papa's houses. The house at Sans Souci burned, and the house at Morristown is now a Roman Catholic convent, and the Paris house is owned by a French
duchesse
. And Diana said, ‘Fire, God, and Royalty have taken over Grandpa's houses. If he knew, I imagine he'd approve.' Diana can be witty. You may use it in your story, if you'd like.”

“Well, thanks. Maybe I will.” He starts down the wide stone steps.

“Good-by,” she calls from the top of the steps. “Goodby.…” She watches him through the garden and out the gate, and in a moment she hears his car start up.

The garden is dry and withered-looking. She has let it go badly. There is so much that needs doing to it. Behind her, in the house, she hears a summer door open, then close, and the low whine of Nellie's vacuum cleaner in the drawing room. (What a queer hour to vacuum. Five o'clock.) And, endlessly and invisibly, the evening birds chatter in the jungle foliage beyond the garden.

Suddenly the past, with its stories, seems a journey that stretches behind her like a corridor, a corridor as long and narrow and crowded as her veranda. Her veranda is filled with porch swings and wicker furniture and hanging wire baskets of old ferns whose fronds reach to the floor, and collections of seashells from Lord knows how many long-ago shell-hunts of Leona's when she was small. And, like the veranda, the journey doesn't seem to stop at the steps, but to run on down them to the walk, and wind through the garden to the gate, and out the gate into the street and down the long hill in a luckless joyride. She was four years old when Katharine Lee Bates wrote “America the Beautiful.” She is exactly the same age as the Eiffel Tower. The journey is a long and bumpy distance. Once, when Leona was seven years old (while Diana and Leona's father were trying to solve their insoluble domestic problems), Leona sat on the veranda painting a water-color picture of the outline of Signal Hill and the cloudless sky above it. She showed her grandmother the picture.

“But look, Leona,” Edith said, pointing to it. “You've left a big white space between where the green of the hill ends and the blue of the sky begins. Look at that horizon again. The blue and the green come together.”

But Leona shook her head. “No, Granny,” she said, “I've been up to the top of that hill, and they don't come together.”

Sometimes this is the way Edith Blakewell feels—like a strip of white space between the future and the past. A strip of white space disguised in green lace and emeralds. Slowly she turns and walks back into the house, and into the library. She begins turning out the lamps.

“Hello, Papa. What do you think of me now?” It is an unnecessary question; she knows exactly what he would think.

After her father died, when she and Harold and Arthur and their respective wives had gone through the house at Sans Souci, dividing up the furniture, deciding what should be sold and what should be kept and who wanted what, the only thing. Edith had asked for was the Sargent.

“Nothing else, pet?” Barbara Harper, Harold's skinny wife, had said. “But why would you want that? Everybody knows how you hated your father, pet.”

“Perhaps if I can hang his portrait in my house, I can get used to him,” Edith had said. They had had to cut Papa's frame in sections and roll his canvas, to get him out the front door of his house, and into hers.

On her way up the stairs Edith meets Leona coming down—hurrying, very pretty in a dress that looks like flowers blowing in the wind.

“Where are you going, Leona?”

“To a cocktail party, Granny. Some people named Chisholm. Do you know them? No, I guess you don't. How was the interview?”

“I don't know how much help I was to him. He asked a lot of questions about your Uncle Harold. Is Harold up to something, Leona?”

Leona laughs and runs down the rest of the stairs. “He's
always
up to something, isn't he, Granny?”

“He isn't in some sort of—difficulties, is he, dear? Your Mr. Winslow seemed to imply—”

Leona looks quickly up at her grandmother on the stairs. Then she dumps her purse on the lowboy in front of the hall mirror, and many little tubes and sticks and pencils come rattling out. She pushes them around, picks up a lipstick, uncaps it, and begins applying color to her lips. “Well,” she says to the mirror, “just leave Eddie Winslow to me, Granny. I know how to handle him.”

“He seemed like a nice young man.”

“Eddie? Yes, he's a good egg.” She recaps the lipstick and, leaning close to the glass, pulls one lower eyelid down and looks at the eye.

Edith comes one step down the stairs. “Leona,” she says, “can we talk a minute?”

Leona looks up at her imploringly. “
Now
, Granny? Gosh, I'm late already. Later, huh?”

With her hairbrush, Leona yanks one lock of her dark hair straight up and, with the comb in her other hand, quickly rats the hair. It makes an electric sound, and Leona makes a sour face at the result.

“Is someone picking you up?” Edith asks.

“I called a taxi, Granny.”

BOOK: Those Harper Women
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ads

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