Authors: Eric Dezenhall
“Green eyes? A dimple? You look in the mirror lately, son?”
“Claudine has green eyes and a dimple, too. That's not enough to convict, sir.”
The president ambled to his bookshelf, and studied the titles with his reading glasses. He paged through Faulkner's
until he came to a highlighted passage. He began to read aloud in his peach-schnapps voice:
“Because there are some things, some hard facts of life, that you don't forget, no matter how old you are. There is a ditch, a chasm; as a boy you crossed it on a footlog. You come creeping and doddering back at thirty-five or forty and the footlog is gone; you may not even remember the footlog but at least you don't step out onto that empty gravity that footlog once spanned.”
The president returned Faulkner to the shelf, removed his reading glasses, and awaited my response. Hearing none, he asked me, “And what do we learn from Mr. Faulkner?” he asked.
“You're telling me that this time I may step in a ditch, sir.”
“I'm not telling you a thing. I'm shrewd, but I'm not wise. Faulkner was wise, but he wasn't shrewd. Shrewd men don't become writers. You, son, are up against a cunning greater than your own. I don't know if that cunning is a woman or time itself, but don't get yourself into something you can't get out of. What was that Yiddish proverb your grandfather taught you?”
“Entrances are wide, exits are narrow.”
“That's the one. Now, you need some assistance, I suppose, and I promised you some. What have you got in mind?”
I handed the president a piece of paper, which he studied. “Now, son, all you want me to do is say these few lines here at a press conference, and we're square?”
“That's all I need for now.”
“Will I just blurt these lines out like I have Tourette's syndrome?”
“No, an issue will surface in the news prompting a question.”
“Yes, sir. The rest will take care of itself.”
“Heck, boy, the last time you told me that, I ended up sending B-2 bombers over Damascus!”
“You know you wanted to, sir.”
“I suppose.” The president studied the typed sheet of paper. “Now, Jonah, given this entrance you've given me, I'd like to know a bit more about the exit.”
“You mean, what else I may request of you.”
“I'm not sure yet.”
“So, I may be about to launch World War III?”
“Absolutely not. Just, perhaps, another Civil War.”
“Somehow I believe you,” the president said, rubbing his eyes. “The Polks were Scots, weren't they?”
“Originally, yes. Why?” I asked, surprised by the non sequitur.
“Those crazy Scots were all tied in with the Freemasons. You ever heard of the Knights of the Golden Circle?”
“It sounds vaguely familiar.” I winked at him.
“So you have. I figured as much. I also figure I'm not the only one you've got roped into this.”
“You are correct, sir.”
“You recognize that certain things can't be run out of the White House. I suppose you'll need that Panamanian friend of yours?”
“Yes, sir. I'll keep you posted through Tigger, if you'd like.”
“I wouldn't like, but I suppose like doesn't have much to do with it. Naw, you stay in touch with Tigger and she'll talk to Dexter.” There was a fleeting surge in his pupils. So, he knew about them, too. “Now, let's me and you pray.”
“For what, sir?”
“For the poor son of a bitch who's about to find himself on the receiving end of the plagues of Jonah Eastman.”
I do not think I have anywhere eaten fruit of such delicious flavor as this tree produced.
âGeorge Washington Polk, master of Rattle & Snap
“Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Johnâ¦”
The horse trailer dropped me at the edge of Zion Road in Canaan, Tennessee, a demarcation on the map near Mount Pleasant. For security reasons, Mickey and Irv didn't want me to be dropped off right outside the gates of Rattle & Snap. I knew from a map that it was a few miles down, off of Route 43 South. I mounted Shpilkes from a nearby fence post and began riding him bareback. Every few hundred yards, I had to alternate hands between holding the reins and my canvas duffel bag.
The sun was on its slow descent, but it was still light and very hot outside. The housing was sparse. Most of the homes that I did see were ranches made of brick. I passed very little landscaping, but a huge amount of rolling land. A small, hand-painted sign read
. All kinds of surreal thoughts dominated my short ride.
This doesn't look like heaven.
Maybe this whole obsession has been in my head.
Maybe I have a mental illness.
Maybe Claudine isn't as beautiful as I remembered.
What if she has lost all her teeth?
Am I going to be lynched?
“The bride is too beautiful.”
I am regretting this.
I have a gun.
I dismounted at first sight of the pillars. The house was planted a quarter mile from the road. Holy Moses, this house.
was a middle-class word for a residential dwelling. I could not identify the right word for what rose through the haze. So this is what Springsteen meant by “mansions of glory.” Does one kneel at a sight like this, or dismiss it as a hallucination? Cross one's self? Await revelation? There were no seas for God to part, no bushes to burn, no arks to surf toward Claudine's Corinthian columns.
I pulled a sport jacket out of my duffel bag and slipped it over my shirt. This would make me look more regal for the Polks. Regal, the name of a Buick.
I also wore a western-style belt with a thick silver buckle that Mickey had bought me on a trip to Nevada years ago. I must have looked like an orphan. Which I was. This duffel bag had seen better daysâit had been to Cuba with Mickey.
I proceeded with awe to a low iron gate, which was closed. This was tricky. I had heard a lot about Southern hospitality and assumed that there might be some gate etiquette, so I stood pondering the metal for a few minutes. I noticed a Civil Warâera cannon just beyond the gate. It was pointed toward me. Nice. Then I heard the queerest thing. I could have sworn that the Devo song “Working in the Coal Mine” was blasting from one of the mansion's windows. I had one of those netherworldly sensations of not being certain that I was, in fact, here.
Suddenly angry, I dropped my duffel bag against the brick post that supported the gate and turned Shpilkes around.
“We're goin' over,” I told the horse.
“What, you can't wait two minutes for somebody to open the gate like a normal person?”
I heard the horse say.
“Jumping bareback no less.”
“I came too far, beast. And so did you.”
From the horse.
I squinted at the gate, and kicked Shpilkes on, hard.
I should be institutionalized. This was my main thought as Shpilkes galloped toward the gate. I crouched down and wrapped my arms around her neck while holding onto the reins. Together, we flew over. Shpilkes's mane blew upward in the sudden breeze, and then down. I looked over my shoulder at the gate, tough-guy style, thinking,
Ain't nuthin' but a thing.
Rattle & Snap was not the biggest residence that I had ever seenâPhiladelphia's Main Line had its shareâbut it was the grandest. The faÃ§ade was made of a buttery stucco. White trim, like frosting, had been neatly sculpted around the edges. Ten alabaster pillars supporting the structure appeared to be giant birthday candles. As I approached the front portico, I became hungry. I wanted to eat this place. The yellow ribbons tied around the pillars for our hostages punctured my appetite, and snapped me back to attention.
To the south of the mansion, humidity floated above the soil. An old black man stood by an even older stable, with his wrist balanced on the handle of a shovel. He wore a straw hat, not unlike the kind that other men of his generation wore on the Boardwalk in the summer. He slowly raised his hat in a gesture of respect and I waved at him. He pointed to the colonnade front of the mansion in an encouraging way, so I moved through another gate, this one open.
A handsome, coltish boy of about fourteen emerged from the front of the house. He set his hands on his hips and gazed at me studiously. I instinctively wiped my nose as if a giant green worm had been swinging from it.
“I know who you are,” he said
. “I saw you take the gate.” Good.
“Who am I?” I responded.
“You're that guy, Jonah, and that's a horse called Spilled Kiss,” he said. He had elegant features similar to Claudine's.
“What's your name?” I asked.
“Robert E. Lee.”
“Give me a hint, please.”
“The Declaration ofâblank.”
“They call me Indy or Six. That's for Independence Polk the Sixth. You'll meet Indy Four soon enough.” There was a number missing. The father.
I heard the sound of footsteps across a wooden floor and, from behind a pillar, Claudine bounced down the front steps, limbs flailing. She wore a gauzy, lime-green sundress that made her eyes roar with life. Dizzy, I dismountedâor fell. She didn't look at me until we were face-to-face. My stomach growled. She hugged me hard, eliciting eye rolls from Indy Six. I kissed her and got her ear. Suave. Claudine gave Shpilkes a kiss. The animal looked at me, human again:
“You're a dead man.”
I responded with my eyes:
“But look at her!”
Claudine had not lost her teeth. In fact, I wondered whether or not I should have been more heartsick all along, seeing her now. Pain was the only human response to her. But I was here, and being with her gave me something on which to drape the pain.
“I knew Spilled Kiss was coming, but I didn't know
bring her down.”
“I kind of fibbed to your grandfather. He hired me as the stable boy.”
“Stable boy. He said it was a guy named John.”
“Like I said, I fibbed.”
“I'm so glad you did. Six,” Claudine said to the boy, “take Spilled Kiss to the stable.” Six rolled his eyes, but obliged. “And turn down that Devo song!” Devo blasting from a plantation bedroom. Nothing made sense, but it had become a fun kind of confusion now, like when I had taken Claudine into the casino.
“I'm told I'll meet Four later.”
“Why, ye-es.” Claudine's eyes descended. “My father was Five. Indy Four is out camping on the grounds somewhere. He'll be back tomorrow. You look so tan.”
“I live at the beach, remember?”
If any other eighteen-year-old woman said “Duh,” it would have floated by me. This duh was evidence of brilliance, wit, grace.
I backed up a few feet to behold Claudine. In the sunlightâI had only seen her at nightâher hair had a few light highlights. Her skin was a hue darker than I had remembered, perhaps from the sun, and her cheeks were flawless and flushed.
Was it humanly possible to be in love with someone's epidermis?
This wasn't love, it was psychosis, or some kind of poisoning that had to pass through me. Not content with simple worship, I wondered if it was somehow possible that her radiance was a mirageâthat it was some kind of molecular convergence in my
that had projected the collectivity of God's gifts onto an average creature.
“C'mon inside and get some lemonade,” Claudine said, grabbing my duffel bag and hauling it up the massive steps before I could stop her. “We'll set it here for a spell.”
My eyes darted between Claudine and the columns.
“The columns were made in Cincinnati,” Claudine explained. “They were delivered in pieces by rail to Nashville, then by oxen down here.”
“Just like my columns,” I said. Claudine flicked my shoulder.
The entryway was huge, with two smaller columns supporting it. Claudine explained that with the advent of modern plumbing, the Polks chose to run pipes through the columns rather than break through the walls, which were three bricks thick. The bricks had been fired here on the property by slaves during the construction of the mansion between 1842 and 1845.
A huge portrait of an imperious-looking Polk man glared down at us from the rear wall of the foyer. He wore a grand ring with an unfamiliar stone in the center.
“George Washington Polk,” Claudine said. “He built Rattle & Snap.”
“Where did he live before here?”
“In a cottage where the barn stands now. You'll see it out back later. The captain of the Union soldiers came inside the house with a torch. He saw this painting of George, which was hanging right here, and he noticed his Masonic ring. He ordered his soldiers to stand down. The captain went to the top man for the Union in the region, General Don Carlos Buell, who also happened to be a Freemason. General Buell was in Columbia not long after he took Nashville. He gave his captain orders not to destroy Rattle & Snap. He said, âYou are not to destroy the home of a Masonic brother.' All of the Polk plantations were spared.”
We passed by a staircase to the right of the foyer and into a dining room, which was, get this, attached to another dining room. Two mammoth, carved pocket doors could be slid open and shut depending upon the number of guests. There was yet another staircase, even grander than the first, beyond the dining room. Beyond the second stairs there was a room that had no clear purpose, with small appliances, quilts, and photos scattered about, in a sense announcing, “This is what happens when you have so many roomsâsome of them lose their way.” Beyond this room, toward the rear of the house, was a large, modern kitchen.
Claudine retrieved a huge pitcher of lemonade from a humming Zero-King refrigerator and poured two glasses. She then tugged me up one of the staircases through a large living room that overlooked the front columns and into a bedroom where everything was puffy, even the photos. There wasn't a thing in this room you couldn't lie down on and fall right asleep. The huge four-poster was made of cherrywood.
“Polk girls have slept on this bed for centuries,” Claudine explained. “And we all were taught the same prayer about these posts to say before bed. I say it every night.”
“How does it go?”
She tilted her head to the side and blushed:
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John,
Bless this bed that I lie on.
One is to see
Two is to pray
Three and four are to
Keep me from harm's way.
There was a silhouette of Claudine as a little girl near the door. I could tell by her turned-up nose. On a nearby table, there was a photo of Claudine at about six or seven. She was with her father, who was in uniform. She and Indy Six had his features, I decided. Claudine had been a coltish creature, I thought, and I knew that I would have fallen in love with her had I met her then. Other boys might not have noticed herâskinny, awkward, and quiet. But I would have seen what she would become.
There were four large bedrooms upstairs in the main part of the house. Claudine's was the fluffy-puffy one. Indy Six's bedroom furniture was a disparate collection of old desks, beds, and bureaus colliding with piles of vinyl albums from the likes of Devo, the Eagles, and REO Speedwagon. The whole room was an afterthought, a monument to male adolescence, in which furniture, like everything else, was a part of the adult conspiracy. Six emerged from the bathroom with a spot of shaving cream on his chin. I think he put it there on purpose.
“Hey, Jonah, wanna listen to some music?” he asked.
“Aw, c'mon, man.”
“Six,” Claudine asserted. “Jonah just got here, a-kay?”
Claudine explained that Indy Six had never known his father very well, and they both thought Indy Four was a nut. “Six will gravitate to you, Jonah, like the moon to the earth. You don't mind, do you?”
“Of course not.”
Indy Four's bedroom in the rear of the house scared the wits out of me. There were glowering photos of Leonidas Polk, the “Fighting Bishop,” and muskets along the wall. Leonidas was a Confederate general and the brother of George Washington Polk. There was a bronze bust of another scary-looking Polk glaring out at me. The bed was massive and unmade, as if Indy had been having a pillow fight with the Founding Fathers.
We breezed by the elusive Mrs. Polk's bedroom, which was sparse and neat, scarier in a way than Indy Four's. Ancient wallpaper with the Polk family crest aligned the walls. Claudine didn't concentrate on the room, and I wasn't inclined to go inside and look around.
Somehow, we ended back downstairs before a portrait of Andrew Jackson, a Polk family friend. Jackson's hair appeared flamelike. It was painted by George Washington Phillips, according to Claudine. I nodded at the name, as if I knew it, but I was just responding to how everybody around here seemed to be named after America's first president except for me. I felt like reintroducing myself as Benjamin Franklin Eastman and whipping up a Philly connection.
“All these dudes you've got on the walls looked pretty serious,” I said.
“You bet they were,” Claudine agreed.
I tugged at my shirt, and wondered why I was still sweating.
By the ghost of Jefferson Davis, there wasn't a vent, not a duct, not a humming window unit. All
and no AC. I needed air-conditioning. It was in the Talmud. I was raised in a casino. Noah's Ark had air-conditioning. God told Noah to bring two Westinghouse units, one for port, the other for starboard. Maybe the Freon imperative (along with the Kung-Pao-chicken-is-okay-for-Passover ethic) hadn't made it to the New Testament. Maybe the South wanted to compensate for slavery by saving the ozone. Heck with it.
Look at her.