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Authors: Liza Klaussmann

Villa America

BOOK: Villa America
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These things I know:

How the living go on living

and how the dead go on living with them

…So that nothing is wasted in nature

or in love

—Laura Crafton Gilpin

 

 

The ordinary novelist has only one message: “I submit that this is one way we are.”

—Eudora Welty

 

T
he sky was as blue as a robin’s egg on the afternoon they pulled Owen Chambers’s body out of the Baie des Anges. It had taken three days before they could reach him—spring tides off the coast of Antibes, a lack of proper equipment—and he was almost unrecognizable when he was finally recovered, seaweed wending its way through his tangled blond hair.

He’d left a note before taking off in his plane on a March morning so warm it seemed like summer. But the letter had been spirited away by his friend Vladimir Orloff and its contents were lost.

Little was known about his life except that he was an American who had fought as a pilot in the Great War, that he lived alone, and that for a time, he’d been part of a circle of American artists and writers who had colonized the Côte d’Azur before they’d scattered, blown back to their home country.

He had few friends among the locals save a mechanic who’d worked for him, a couple of pilots from a nearby air base, and Vladimir, a White Russian transplant. So the funeral was a small, brief affair, and his stone was inscribed with only his name and the date of his death. The rest vanished with him.

  

On the same day that Owen was dragged from the sea, thousands of miles across the Atlantic in a dark hospital room in Boston, the heart of fifteen-year-old Baoth Murphy stopped beating.

His mother, Sara, and his father, Gerald, had kept watch for ten days while their son struggled to keep breathing, his body twisted in agony. When he was gone, Sara refused to believe that it was over and had to be forcibly sedated so that they could remove her from her child’s side.

Sara, a friend would say later, fought all her enemies at the gate, and once that was breached, she had no doors left to close.

Gerald, however, quietly slipped out of the room and stood for a while in the silence of the corridor, nodding gently, almost graciously, at anyone who passed by.

G
erald thought about Pitz all the way home from school—he thought about him from the moment the bell rang at the Blessed Sacrament Academy, during the long walk through Central Park, Nurse’s hand clamped painfully on his wrist, all the way to his house on West Fifty-Seventh Street—so by the time they reached his brownstone, his excitement was so great that he felt he might pee in his pants a little at the thought that the dog would be waiting for him behind the heavy black door.

Pitz had been his special birthday present when he turned ten, almost a year ago now. Mother had been sick with Baby, whatever that meant, and Gerald had been given Pitz. To teach him responsibility, his father had said. Gerald had heard the words, but they’d barely registered, because at the same moment, the wiry-haired fox terrier had bounded through the door into the drawing room.

Today his friend was exactly one year old and Gerald had smuggled him two butter biscuits from his lunch. He’d been very careful not to let the biscuits crumble in the pocket of his wool coat or to let Nurse find them.

Nurse hated Pitz. She said he was dirty and that he would bite them all one day and might even smother Baby in its sleep. Gerald knew this was a lie. Pitz was special. He had been his special present and now he was his special friend. Pitz was all-around special. Best of all, the dog could read his mind. Gerald had seen him doing it; Pitz would cock his head when Gerald was thinking something secret, and Gerald would know that Pitz knew what he was thinking.

  

Now, as the black door was opened at last, Pitz was waiting and Gerald almost cried with relief. He didn’t know why, but he feared that one day the door would open and Pitz wouldn’t be there.

“If you want to play with that filthy beast, it will be out in the garden,” Nurse said.

  

Gerald looked at Pitz, gingerly feeling the biscuits in his pocket. It was January and the wind bit into his nose, but he’d rather be freezing outside with Pitz than warm indoors with Nurse. He moved towards the back door.

“Gerald Clery Murphy.” Nurse could make her voice tower. That was the only word Gerald could think of for it, the way it seemed to grow bigger and bigger until it was looming over him. “What do we do first?”

Gerald reluctantly turned and headed for the stairs to change out of his uniform. Pitz just looked at him. He knew better than to try to follow Gerald upstairs when Nurse was around.

The house was chilly and the curtains were drawn against what was left of the day. His father said only invalids lived in warm houses. Murphys, he said, didn’t get sick, although Mother had been sick with Baby. Gerald had seen Baby, and Baby looked fine to him. Mother was very white, though, and would call out often for Nurse in a high voice, saying Baby was unwell or that Baby was strange.

On the second floor, Gerald had to be very quiet when he passed Mother’s door and the nursery so that Mother wouldn’t get upset. Nurse was marching behind him and he hoped she wouldn’t try to take his coat, with the biscuits, because then he would be punished and Pitz would be banished to the cellar again. Pitz was supposed to sleep in his basket in the little room off the kitchen. But it was so very cold there; it seemed cold even in summer. At night, if it was quiet, Gerald would sneak downstairs after his prayers and spirit the dog back to his own bed on the second floor.

Sometimes Nurse checked, and if she found Pitz, his friend would be locked in the cellar. Sometimes Nurse wouldn’t let Pitz out until the following afternoon, and Gerald would see his friend’s eyes, haunted after a day down in the dark with no food or water. When this happened, Gerald knew it was his fault and he wouldn’t try to smuggle Pitz upstairs for a while. But inevitably, after a week or so, he would chance it again.

“Give me your coat,” Nurse said, holding out her strong hand to Gerald. “You can wear the play coat outside in the muck.”

Gerald was trying to think of an excuse to hold on to it when he heard his mother’s voice from behind the nursery door.

“Nurse,” his mother cried. “Nurse. Come see to Baby. She has a color on her. A most unnatural color.”

“Now, we must stay calm, Mrs. Murphy,” Nurse called out briskly, turning from Gerald. “Baby is well. I will be with you directly.”

“Nurse, come. Do,” his mother said, but her voice was less agitated. Then, a few moments later: “Yes, yes,” as if she were talking to herself.

Gerald didn’t wait to hear any more and raced up the next flight of stairs, his coat and its precious cargo safe from Nurse’s grasp.

He took off his uniform, laid his knickerbockers over the chair, and folded his shirt and sweater for the morning. After changing into his play clothes, he slipped his wool coat on again and made the perilous journey back down to Pitz.

Kneeling on the floor at the foot of the stairs, Gerald wrapped his arms around the little fox terrier and laid his cheek against the dog’s neck. There was the earthy, animal smell—fresh bread and leaves—and Pitz’s coat, coarse like his hairbrush, pricking his nose.

The dog let himself be held by the boy, patient, unmoving, despite the smell of the biscuit in the boy’s pocket. The boy made a small sighing noise, like a prayer.

It was the first warm thing Gerald Murphy had touched all day.

  

Gerald ate his supper alone at the small table in the nursery. Besides the table, the room had one little chair, a board to do sums on, a rocking horse with an uncomfortable seat (a present from his uncle), and a couple of ledger books in which Gerald was supposed to practice his handwriting before meals.

There used to be two chairs in the nursery, but the companion had been removed when his brother, Fred, had gone away to school. Gerald didn’t really miss him; Fred had never been unkind, but he spoke to Gerald the same way the streetcar conductor did. Politely, as if he were there but not there, somehow. As for Baby, she was too small to eat in the nursery with him, but Gerald hoped she might get big enough soon so that he would have someone to talk to.

The one good thing about the nursery was that it had a large window, rounded at the top, that looked out over Fifty-Seventh Street, and Gerald could watch the people go by and wonder about them while he ate his boiled beef.

Tonight, as he was halfway through a particularly tough nugget of meat, a hansom cab drew to a stop two doors down. Gerald shifted his chair around the table so he could keep his eye on it. A man in evening clothes alighted, followed by a woman in a dark blue dress, her gloved hand resting lightly on his. A single brown, wrinkled oak leaf fluttered down onto the man’s hat. The lady tipped her head in slightly towards her companion, and Gerald thought he could see her smiling at something the man had said. The way she smiled reminded him of Father’s friend in Atlantic City.

Father had taken him there last spring so that he could see the boardwalk and also to get some fresh air. Mother had said that she didn’t like the look of Gerald’s pallor, which she put down to a bilious nature. This frightened Gerald a little, because he didn’t know what it meant, and it sounded dangerous. He wanted to ask Father about it and almost did when they were on the streetcar on their way to the ferry slip. But once on the steamboat that would take them across the North River to the train at Paulus Hook, he forgot all about it.

At first, before the boat blew for departure, Gerald was absorbed by the advertisements in frames hanging on the walls of the long mahogany cabin. He knelt on the bench to get a better look until Father rapped him slightly with his cane. Gerald quickly righted himself, but it took all his effort to keep from swinging his legs.

When the ship set off, Father rose and, beckoning him, strode out to the deck. It was a raw morning and the sky hung very gray over the harbor, the Manhattan piers like tentacles reaching out through the mist, saying,
Don’t go, don’t go
. There was a huge steam liner docked at one of them. There was also a thrilling tugboat with a big, fat
C
painted on its stack that passed so close to them that Gerald thought if he reached out he might be able to touch it.

He wanted to lean into Father’s side, to feel the gray, lightweight wool of his suit. Father always wore the same kind of suit, but Gerald could never remember actually touching it. He thought he might risk it, it was so cold. He inched slightly closer, but Father moved away at the same time, his arm extended, his finger pointing at something.

“Gerald,” Father said. “Do you see that big building there? If you walk up six blocks, that is where I work.”

The Mark Cross Company, Father’s company. They made leather goods and saddlery, Gerald knew,
for the discerning gentleman.

“What is that big building?”

Father looked at him, annoyed at the question.

“That is the American Surety Building.”

“Why is it so much bigger than the others?” Gerald asked, chancing it.

“It just is,” Father said.

“How did they get it to go so high?” He knew he was on thin ice.

“It’s called a skyscraper. They could build it so high because they wanted to.”

Gerald looked at his father. He was staring out at the big building. Gerald could tell he was thinking. He saw that expression sometimes when he was brought into Father’s study to say good night and his father would be reading, his hand resting on top of his smooth head.

“That is something you must learn, Gerald,” his father said now. “You and your brother. To decide to do something and then follow it through to its end. That’s how they built that. That’s how anything worth doing gets done.” Father tapped his cane against the railing and then turned and walked back inside. Gerald followed, still wondering how they had built that big building and who had climbed that high into the sky without falling.

After the boat, there’d been a long train ride, during which Father read the quotations of a man called Ralph Waldo Emerson to him at great length (Gerald knew this was the man whose bust sat in Father’s study giving him the beady eye every time he snuck in when he wasn’t supposed to), and then they’d arrived in Atlantic City.

Gerald had been to the seaside before, but never one that looked like this, with its enormous hotels and busy wooden sidewalk right next to the sand, and piers standing high like clowns on stilts, stretching for miles out into the water. Also, there were shops selling all sorts of things Gerald couldn’t make out, and couples whizzing by in rolling chairs made for two. There was a huge ice water fountain at the entrance of Young’s Pier. Gerald got a pickle pin from the Heinz Pier, which had just had what Father called a “grand opening.”

He stayed very close to Father on the boardwalk, but then Father pointed to a large building with a giant flag on top and told him that was their hotel. It was the United States Hotel, which sounded very impressive to Gerald.

In the evening, Father said he was going to the theater to see a famous French actress in a play. Gerald didn’t want to be left alone in the room by himself, but Father never liked fuss, so Gerald didn’t say anything when his father left the room in his evening clothes, extinguishing the light as he went.

Gerald lay in his bed in the darkness and thought about another game, one he was teaching Pitz to play. Gerald would line up his toy soldiers, the ones he’d gotten in his stocking for Christmas, and the dog would knock them over with his nose, one by one. Gerald shut his eyes and tried to picture his friend. Then he rolled his pillow up next to him and put his arm around it, pretending it was Pitz, and went to sleep.

The following morning when Gerald woke, he heard laughter coming from the sitting room that separated his bedroom from Father’s. He opened the door and wandered out. In the fresh light, he saw a dark-haired lady in a mauve dress lying over Father’s knee, laughing. She immediately went quiet when she saw Gerald, but Father’s expression never changed. For a moment he wondered if Father was Father; he didn’t look like himself. He looked lighter somehow, nicer.

“Miss Church was just looking for her glove, Gerald,” Father said, giving the lady a gentle push off his lap.

“Oh,” said Gerald, rubbing his eyes. He stole a glance at his own pajamas; they were rumpled.

He looked back at the lady. She had a nice face and a very nice smile, and Gerald wondered if she was to spend the day with them. But then Miss Church gathered her cloak and, holding up a glove, said: “Well, I’ve found it. Good-bye, Patrick.” And then: “Nice to meet you, Gerald.”

Gerald smiled. “Good-bye,” he said.

“We’re leaving,” Father said after Miss Church had gone. “The bellboy will be here soon. Pack your case.” Whatever joke Father had been sharing with Miss Church he seemed to no longer find funny, his face set back in its usual expression.

“May I have breakfast?” Gerald asked, suddenly feeling very hungry.

“Breakfast is for ladies and invalids,” Father said, “and people who miss trains.” Then he rose and went into his bedroom, shutting the door with a small
clack.

Gerald looked at the door. He liked closed doors, liked the way they looked, so neat and quiet, and so smooth.

  

He had finished his boiled beef, and the lady and gentleman from the hansom cab had long since disappeared inside the house two doors down. Gerald rose from the small table, retrieved one of the ledger books and a pen, and began to draw—a door, with panels for eyes. But he couldn’t make it come out right, so he drew a leaf, trying to capture all the small bones in it. That’s how he thought of dead leaves, like small brown skeletons but made from lace. Finer even than the lace his mother wore to church.

The light from the lamp near him had dimmed a little by the time he finished. He looked out and realized that it had begun to snow, big heavy flakes covering the branches of the trees like white moss. He wondered when Nurse would come to get him to say good night to Mother and Father. Perhaps she had forgotten. Out the window, another man, this one with a dog, strolled past, and Gerald imagined himself and Pitz one day, walking together on a January evening, snow falling on them, exchanging their thoughts about the world.

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