Authors: Gail Godwin
Tags: #Psychological Fiction, #Nineteen fifties, #Nuns, #General, #Psychological, #north carolina, #Teacher-student relationships, #Catholic schools, #Historical, #Women college graduates, #Fiction
(Beatrix, someone downstairs is frantically ringing our gong. It makes no sense. The next gong is scheduled for the Angelus at noon. I must go see what is the matter.)
Late Tuesday night, September 11, 2001
St. Scholastica Retirement House
Two nuns setting off for a walk
they seem closer tonight, Mother Galyon?”
“They do, Mother.”
“That’s what I thought. Even though I can only see them out of the corners of my eyes. The Carolina Cherokees believed the sky was a great overturned bowl that we live under. They called it the sky vault. Did you ever hear that when you were in Mountain City?”
“No, Mother. But you were in Mountain City a great deal longer than I was.”
The former headmistress, who had been instrumental in curtailing Mother Galyon’s teaching career in Mountain City, did not respond to this. They continued along the gravel drive, the crunch of their steps amplified by the uncanny new silence of the skies. All aircraft, except for military fighter jets and medical helicopters, had been grounded, all airports closed indefinitely. The nation was on high alert. Were these coordinated attacks only the beginning of more of the same—or worse? Would we go to war, as we did after Pearl Harbor? But against whom, and how?
Knowing that the chatterbox fastened to her arm could not endure silence for very long brought a paradoxical measure of relief to Mother Galyon. When the next unimaginable thing could strike from the sky vault at any moment, you welcomed the familiar intrusions.
“Well, you and I logged in forty-one Boston Catholic deaths tonight. I was surprised there were that many, weren’t you?”
“I guess it would have seemed more natural if they had waited.”
“Waited for what?”
“Oh, to hear the president’s speech—to see what was going to happen next. To—I don’t know—hold out for some singularity in their deaths. Thousands, the president said. All those bodies in flames falling through the air. Innocent people starting work at their desks—or thinking they were safely aboard flights to California. Forgive me, I know I’m rambling, but those two planes from Logan were supposed to be headed west; by the time they went over us the real pilots may already have had their throats cut. Probably the exact moment the hijackers were flying over our house, some passenger who knew the route was thinking, Why have we suddenly turned
doing, Mother, when Sister Bridget started banging away at that gong?”
“I was reading a detective novel.”
“You know what I was doing? I was dictating that little confessional tape that you suggested. I had almost reached the end of the second side. But after the events of today, how could I possibly send such a cassette to Beatrix down in Mountain City? It would seem all out of proportion, and she would lose respect for me.”
“Why don’t you put it on hold for now, Mother. For all we know we all may be dust and ashes within a few days.”
They reached the gates at the end of the estate and retraced their steps: the cautious homecoming of four old safely shod feet. Tonight the TV screen in the nuns’ parlor, usually visible through the window, was blocked by heads gathered round it, watching the endless replay of falling bodies, crumpling towers, dust-covered people running, running …
Thursday midmorning, February 14, 1952
Henry Vick’s office
Downtown Mountain City
“MR. COXE FOR
you, Mr. Vick.”
“Oh, put him through, Sherry.”
“No, sir, I mean he’s come to see you on foot. Want me to send him in?”
This may not be good
But Ollie Coxe’s face was beaming as he entered. “Well, old buddy, here’s an unexpected valentine for you. I thought I’d deliver it in person.” The lawyer pulled a folded letter from the breast pocket of his overcoat and handed it over to Henry, who scanned it disbelievingly. It was from Rex Wright’s lawyer, J. D. Wheeler, who quoted the full context of his client’s short letter within the body of his own.
“‘Brenda and I are bailing out,’” Henry read aloud.
“Of course, if Mr. Wheeler could have bothered to pick up the phone and call long-distance, he’d have spared us half a week’s worry. He had Wright’s letter on his desk this past Monday. Wright wrote it a week ago Saturday.”
The same day Chloe had been with them in Barlow.
Henry reread the lawyer’s letter, searching Rex Wright’s brief incorporated missive for a subtle snag. He found none. Rex Wright was bailing out, which was as final as an ex–squadron leader could get. After a day spent in his stepdaughter’s company, Rex Wright wrote, it had been made clear to him that she would be better off remaining in the care of her Catholic uncle and the nuns’ school where her mother had been so content. He withdrew all future claims as legal guardian. In turn, he asked to be absolved from any future obligations to the young lady. The remainder of Mr. Wheeler’s letter addressed those concerns.
“Can it be this simple, Ollie? Does this mean it’s really over?”
“Unless you want to hold out for Chloe’s college expenses in an escrow fund. After all the fuss he’s made about being her legal father, we’d have a damn good shot at it.”
“I’ll be happy if you can fix it so he won’t bother us again.”
“I can do that, you rascal. So, you let her go to Barlow against my advice.”
“She was bent on going, Ollie. She said her mother—she said Agnes would have wanted it. I let her drive down with Madeline Stratton, who was attending a baby shower over in Statesville. I knew Chloe would be fine with her. Madeline dropped her off and picked her up a few hours later.”
“Well, our little Chloe sure must have been busy during those few hours.”
“Busy enough to change Rex’s mind, it seems. She said he flew off the handle and packed up all of Agnes’s things and sent them home with her and Madeline.”
“You didn’t have an inkling he might bail out?”
“I thought it was more likely he was planning a switch in tactics. When Sherry told me you had come in person to see me, I was expecting you to tell me a new bomb had dropped.”
“Well, here’s your bomb, old buddy. But I need it back for my files. I’ll have a copy made for yours. Sure you don’t want to press for that college escrow fund? I’d enjoy the back-and-forth with Mr. J. D. Wheeler of Barlow.”
“Absolutely sure. May I offer you something from Malcolm’s sideboard?”
“You know the answer to that, my friend. Like you, I don’t touch the stuff until sundown, and then only a solitary savored ounce. But I’ll settle for my usual nostalgic peek inside those handsome cabinet doors. Yep, it’s still the mirror image of Daddy’s bar over at my place of work: the single malt and the Cutty snubbing each other in the forefront, the Woodford Reserve standing apart in isolated splendor, poor Tio Pepe and Cinzano languishing in their dusty corners. If you ever decide to part with this magnificent piece of Sheraton, you’ve got a buyer.”
“I’ll will it to you,” Henry told this person he had once ridden tricycles beside, the man who, like himself, inoculated himself nightly against alcoholism before it could sneak up on him. Henry’s mother and Ollie senior had taken their drying-out vacations at the same West Virginia retreat, often at the same time. “What do you think those two get up to in that sequestered spa?” a not-so-well-meaning colleague had once teased Malcolm Vick. Henry, drawing plans in an adjoining office, had held his breath through the appalling silence that followed. “Oh, mainly walks and cards, I would think,” came Malcolm Vick’s unruffled reply in its own good time. “Once a pecker is pickled, I understand it can’t get up to much else.”
His workday thrown off balance by the capitulation from Barlow, Henry put on an overcoat and scarf and headed down windy Patton Hill to take a fresh look at his library site. The south corner lot at the end of Church Street had been empty since First Savings had burned to the ground in 1949. Vick & Vick’s brown-and-gold sign, set in the lavish winter grass planted last fall, announced the home of the future library. Groundbreaking was scheduled for the first Saturday in April.
Sheltering in the portico of the Shriners’ temple across the street, Henry tried to envision four unnecessary Doric columns inflicted upon his clean, open design. What would Alvar Aalto have done? But the Finnish architect was a genius and a free spirit, and Henry knew he was neither. Aalto’s first set of plans for the municipal library in Viipuri had encountered its own snags. They turned down his idea for a rooftop garden with outdoor reading rooms. Then the site itself was moved and Aalto had to start over. However, the new location, in a spacious park, gave him more freedom. His thinking changed. He pared away classicism and simplified radically, concentrating on the uses of light: keeping it off the stacks but giving the patron plenty of natural light through strategically placed barrel skylights. The Viipuri, an early masterpiece of International Modernism, opened in 1935, when Aalto was thirty-seven. Three years younger than Henry today.
En route to Rome, Henry and Antonia had stopped overnight in New York to see the Aalto exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. Both of them were moved by the architect’s simple, childlike sketch of a reader at a library table, arrows representing light zeroing in on his open book from many directions. Antonia had loved the slapdash modesty of the drawing. “He was so intent on working out his problem he couldn’t be bothered to make it pretty.” She liked people who kept their focus on what mattered.
After the war, the Viipuri library, no longer in Finland but in Russia, had been abandoned and left to fall into ruin. Antonia was buried beside her in-laws in the Vick family plot at Riverside, a five-minute walk from Henry’s house.
Two Saturdays ago, he and Madeline had devised their plan to get Chloe safely to Barlow and back. How pleased she would be to hear how well their efforts had turned out. On the off chance that she might be buying more supplies for her mother at Commercial Stationers, he set off in that direction. But then he remembered that today was a weekday and sixteen-year-old Madeline would be in school.
He examined the offerings in the window of Winston’s Men’s Store, contrasting his wintry reflection in its prewar overcoat with the mannequins arrayed in spring suits with narrower ties and rakishly tilted panama hats. Henry had put off buying new clothes for years. Now, since he would have Chloe permanently in his life, he’d better smarten himself up. He would take them both shopping for Easter clothes.
In the window of Skyland Studios was a single photograph on an easel against a drape of gray velvet: a black-and-white portrait of a pensive bride looking down at her bouquet. As he stood there trying to fathom the source of its charm, Antonia’s face seemed to float in the gloom above the portrait. Then he realized it was Cornelia Stratton, in her black developer’s smock, wryly observing him from the other side of the glass. She motioned him into the studio.
“That’s an intriguing photograph,” he said. “I didn’t realize you did that sort of thing.”
“And what ‘sort of thing’ is that?” Cornelia challenged him. Would Antonia have had those dry lines at the sides of her mouth? Or would living fifteen more years have left different etchings on her face?
“There’s a psychological quality in an old-fashioned pose.”
“Tell me more, Henry. Yes, I’ve hit on something and I know it. Do you have a moment? Where were you going, anyway?”
“I’ve been over at the library site, aggravating myself over those damn columns they’re hell-bent on sticking on.”
“Well, you can do a modified Howard Roark. Stick on their columns in some sort of freestanding way that won’t compromise the structure and then dynamite them some dark moonless night.”
Henry wasn’t always in the mood for Cornelia’s aggressive wit, but today it hit the spot. “To tell the truth, I’m at loose ends. I’ve just had my major worry pulled out from under me like a rug. Chloe’s stepfather is withdrawing all claims. He leaves her to me and the nuns and wants no further business with any of us.”
something was up when Madeline told me about Rex packing Chloe off with all those boxes. So our errand for Agnes was a success.”
“It looks that way, though I’m still not sure what went on down there.”
“Madeline said Chloe slept all the way home under her mother’s coat.”
“Then she went straight up to bed and slept all day Sunday. Sunday evening she came downstairs and said everything was going to be all right now. As if she were the one reassuring me. Apparently she and Rex had this confrontation over purgatory. Chloe said she saw exactly the moment when he let go of her. ‘I disgusted him’ was how she put it.”
“Disgusted how, I wonder?”
“Well, you know, I don’t like to cross-examine her. I want her to feel she can tell me what she’s comfortable with and stop at that.”
“I’ll send Tildy over. Tildy is a champion cross-examiner. She’s been exhausting me, trying to winkle school memories out of me for that play. Listen, Henry, she found this note Antonia had written to Suzanne. It was inside the back cover of an old trigonometry midterm, the fall of our senior year. My sister alluded to something that happened out at the Swag and said it might be wrong to go on with their plans to take vows together.”
“It must have been that night Smoky and I threw our engagement party. I have no idea whether the note was just a draft that never got sent, or whether Suzanne received it. Tildy found it in a box of Tony’s things under the window seat. It was very oblique. Just that something would be wrong in a way Tony didn’t have words for, and then something else about good turning to bad. I don’t quite know what Antonia was trying to say, and yet somehow I feel I do.”
“Yes.” He nodded, having been caught off guard.
“Henry, come back into my inner sanctum and let me show you my new toy.”
Cornelia locked the front door and hung up the Out to Lunch sign. “I’m between secretaries. Madeline says I’m too hard on them. But I’m no harder on them than I am on myself.”
Cornelia’s new toy was a beautiful old view camera, a Deardorff, of glowing red wood and gold-painted metal. It was mounted on a tripod with its bellows extended, and Henry found himself seated on a low wooden stool in bright light. His sister-in-law’s voice from under the photographer’s hood informed him of her progress. She was composing her image of him upside down. All he was required to do was sit there, in three-quarter profile, as she had arranged him. He could keep his eyes closed so he would be less likely to blink when she was ready to shoot.
“This is interesting, Henry; I can see things in your inverted image that I hadn’t seen before.”
“Uh-oh. Watch out.”
“Aren’t you curious about what things?”
He gave a purposely bland laugh. “Are you sure I could take it?”
“Just for that, I am going to leave you in suspense.”
“Now open your eyes and count to ten and please don’t blink.”
“Was the bride’s portrait done like this?” Henry asked, after they had gone through the procedure several more times.
“Oh, no. That was an inspired candid shot. It was right after the marriage—the party was back in the vestry signing the register and she was standing off to one side examining her bouquet, thinking who knows what? But the moment I saw the image forming in my developer pan I knew I had caught something. What you called psychological. So I splurged on a platinum print. With platinum prints you get the deepest range of shadows. I’ve been teaching myself how to do them. I’ve tried to learn fast because the failures are expensive. Listen, Henry—now do
move your head!—what did you mean when you indicated you knew what Antonia may have been saying in that note to Suzanne?”
Well, I gave her the opening, Henry thought, so no use equating myself with the deer who suddenly discovers that the friendly woodland photographer has crosshairs in her lens. I have known Cornelia and her crosshairs ever since she was a supercritical little girl. And both of us loved Antonia.
“We talked about it some before we got engaged,” he said, deciding to tell her some but not all. “She said Suzanne’s determination that they do this thing together was diluting her own vocation.”
“That was her word—‘diluting’?”