Varina, page 28
He looked up at her and then saw Jeff standing across the room and quickly stood and nodded his head and said, Ma’am.
V admired his map in progress and then noticed on his table a rectangle hardly larger than a postcard, fewer than two dozen wet watercolor brushstrokes muted and pale. Nevertheless, V recognized the view from Arlington across the Potomac after sunset with the raw capital city hazy and hopeful in the distance. She bought so many paintings then.
She said, I like that very much and would like to have it.
He said, Please take it. It would be my pleasure for you to enjoy it.
V said, No, this is too beautiful not to pay.
She gave him twenty dollars—a flashing double eagle fresh from the mint—and wrapped the thick paper in her handkerchief and eased it into her beaded reticule.
As they walked away, Jeff said, What was that about?
—I gave him twenty dollars.
—My God. He’s recently been booted from West Point. You could have gotten it for fifty cents.
—He wanted to give it to me, V said.
—Why didn’t you accept?
—Because I wanted to pay.
She had met Whistler again at an exhibition in London. He had become famous. The press variously made him out to be either a grand fop, a fraud, or a genius, as if those were mutually exclusive. Either way, prices on his paintings had become mind-numbing. He didn’t remember V until she mentioned the little watercolor and the shiny twenty-dollar gold piece, at which he rushed to kiss her cheeks and said, loud enough for the whole room to hear, You never forget your first sale.
V said to him, I’ve always wondered about something—probably because my husband barely escaped it himself—why did you have to leave West Point?
—Misbehaviors and misdemeanors, Whistler said. But it was the last and worst in a series of unsuccessful chemistry exams that finished me off. I was asked to discuss the subject of silicon. My essay was so lovely. The first sentence was brilliant. It read Silicon is a gas. And if silicon had been a gas, I’d be a general today.
FROM RICHMOND V ZAGGED over to The Greenbrier hoping to find Mary Chesnut or at least a few other people who might welcome seeing her, but the guests were nothing but rank strangers. After a week she moved on to Lexington—the one in Kentucky—and then down to Nashville. All along the way she and Jeff traded letters, always very politely exchanging suspicion, jealousy, resentment, blame, shared history, love of the children.
In one exchange he wrote that all he had left to plead was poverty. If she objected to him accepting Mrs. Dorsey’s hospitality, where else would she have him go? He was writing his eyes blind every day trying to dig them out of their hole. She wrote back reminding him of an old saying about being in a hole. Quit digging and start building a ladder. She told him she had drawn her money down low, and then Jeff’s return letter claimed he had almost none left to send her. So she asked, where would he have her go?
She spent six weeks of dwindling dollars in a shabby boardinghouse near the river in Memphis. Every evening supper was the same colorless mess—bowl of boiled potatoes and another of stewed chicken. She bought carrots at the market and gnawed them raw in her room just for the color.
She wrote Jeff a birthday letter:
This is your birthday, and I write, not to remind you, but to show that I have not entirely forgotten the day. How very sad anniversaries become. They are for the young and hopeful and for the very old and hopeless. A spark of expectation reveals the gloomy, weary waste.
A few days later she counted her dollars and then gave up and bought a ticket to the Gulf.
BEFORE THE LAST LEG OF HER JOURNEY V kept thinking about schedules. Jeff had sent a note saying Sara Dorsey planned a dinner for the three of them, about seven or seven-thirty the evening of her arrival. V’s train was to reach Biloxi at five. A carriage would pick her up at the station and deliver her to Beauvoir.
Leaving an hour or so at the cottage to, what? V wondered. Unpack? Greet? How do husband and wife behave after a year or so apart? She imagined a couple in their twenties, their first evening after only a few weeks. Oh, my. Then imagine this couple. V in the latter days of her forties and Jeff sailing headlong against the shoals of seventy. What then? Complaints of aching joints? Grudging liniment rubs? Attempts to renegotiate grievances three decades old? Refight every battle long since lost?
V decided to arrive twenty-four hours earlier than Jeff’s and Mrs. Dorsey’s careful plans, just to be able to take a breath and collect her thoughts. Reconnoiter. She had her trunks held at the station and stayed at a two-dollar hotel in Biloxi, a town she knew from before the war. It had been nice enough then, broad beaches, tourists in the warm months. Now the town huddled barren at the edge of the Gulf, ragged and brown as a scab. The railroad station, three hotels, three general stores, and a few dozen houses—some grand before the war—stood unpainted and in poor repair because now you had to pay people actual money to get such jobs done rather than just buying the people and owning their labor forever. Lumberyards and docks for fishing boats mostly appeared idle. She read a local paper and found that Biloxi had become the kind of town that gets awfully excited about prospects for a new fish cannery. On the streets, so many men were broken apart from the war. A crutch in place of a leg, a pinned-up empty sleeve, scarred faces lacking noses, eyes, ears they tried to hide in the shade of a low hat brim. The worst of them wore bandannas or frightening leather masks across half their faces, leaving the horror underneath to the imagination. All the way from Baltimore to Memphis she had seen the same.
Taking the grand scheme—leaving the mal works of humanity out—Biloxi was only a wee ugly interruption of luminous Gulf and dense pine and palmetto scrub forest, a place scoured periodically by hurricanes, plagued by malarial mosquitoes, fat snakes, and thick bull alligators submerged to the nostrils in black swamp water, dreaming of an epoch before man. Nighttime, the air ripped with their bellowing.
She walked along the beach remembering long ago, when the children were tiny, spending five beautiful months in a rented beach house west of town. Give the children buckets and spades and they could occupy themselves for hours at the shoreline while V sat in a sling chair under an umbrella and read. Jeff came once or twice to visit for a few days when he had politics or business in New Orleans. She had been so happy she stayed past the summer and halfway through November. All the tourists went away and the days drew short and almost cool. Humidity drained from the air, leaving the sky pure deep blue. Most days, after supper, she and the children went back to the beach and stayed until the moon and stars appeared. She had wanted to own a house there. Nothing elaborate—a place where little sandy feet and smears of jam sandwiches on the furniture would be welcome. So Jeff bought a dozen acres stretching from the water back into alligator marsh. But they never built the house. Events got in the way. Now, all the children she planned to build it for had died or grown up.
AT FIVE THE NEXT AFTERNOON, pretending she’d just arrived, V met the carriage at the station and was carried down the sand road from Biloxi to Beauvoir. When they turned off the road to the house, the broad beach and Gulf stretched on one side and lawn on the other. Beauvoir was not grand, but it was pretty, with big windows and deep galleries. The main floor sat at the top of tall steps so that hurricane tides might surge underneath with minimum damage. Jeff’s cottage was a miniature of the main house, a small square with porches around three sides, a parlor across the front half with tall windows on three sides, and two tiny bedrooms across the back.
Quarter past seven, V and Jeff walked across the lawn from the cottage to the house. No flirting, no holding of hands. They walked as if wearing armor. Inside the front door, Sara and V hugged, kissed cheeks. It went as intended, polished and utterly empty. V had done it a thousand times in Washington and Richmond with people she loved and people she hated. She could hardly remember what Sara looked like decades before
They sat in the parlor for half an hour and drank Sazeracs heavy on the absinthe. V set it aside, too much like sucking a licorice stick.
—How was your trip from Baltimore? Sara said.
—It was travel. Annoyances and delights. I took my time getting from London to here. How many months has it been?
—Well, whatever. I’m so happy you’ve finally arrived. Jeff’s work is moving forward at a steady pace and I’m sure your presence will only speed it along.
V sat and looked at them both, watching for a flicker. A particular gradation of intimacy.
Sara said, It is a difficult story he’s trying to tell. Just the truth of it is hard enough, much less making sense of it. Never mind all that business of interpretation and reinvention.
V said, I read things now about the South back when we were young, and it’s like they’re describing Arcadia and believe it really existed.
Jeff sat with his eyes away from the light. Five tall triple-hung windows looked out to the Gulf, and he aimed his head just to the side, like trying to see a faint star. With his dim eyes, his view might have been nothing but beautiful rectangles—horizontal bands of gray water and blue sky—set in a cream-colored wall. He tipped his head as if listening to the rhythm of low waves breaking and drawing back against sand, over and over, a black mesmeric hiss.
—Jefferson makes daily progress on his book, Sara said. Some days good and others less so. But pages accumulate.
—Don’t look at your feet. Look far down the road, V said.
Jeff entered the conversation, saying, By that you mean, what?
—Where you want to be rather than where you are. A wagon driver said it to me somewhere in the northern part of Georgia.
—Well, Sara said, you’re right about the long view. Poets can burn themselves in the sun for a single poem, a page. A book, though, calls for shade and time. That applies even to the entertainments I’ve written, and much more so to the history of a nation, its rise and fall.
V barely suppressed her laughter, a stage gesture meant to be readable from the upper balcony. Meant to provoke. She said, The Confederacy was not the Roman Empire—just four apocalyptic years. A blink of the eye with a horrible cost. Walk around Richmond or Lexington or Biloxi and count empty sleeves and pant legs and face masks.
Jefferson seemed not to hear, maybe listening exclusively to the tide.
SUPPER READY, they moved to the dining room. Sara said, I hope our simple food here on the Gulf suits you. The boats didn’t come in with good fish today, so we’re having oysters and shrimp, potatoes browned in bacon grease, and greens from the garden sautéed in the same pan. For a salad, sliced red and yellow tomatoes with oil and vinegar. And for dessert, fruit. We’re casual here. Fanny does the cooking and puts it on the table family-style and we serve ourselves.
Afterward they sat together on the gallery and watched the light fade over the water, shades of blue and yellow and gray. A breeze sometimes rattled the palmetto fronds. Sara and Jeff had tiny glasses of Chartreuse, which she said they habitually took as a digestif, a ritual of the evening—an abstemious, medicinal, astringent toast to strength for the coming day’s work.
V had glasses of white wine with dinner and a few more on the gallery instead of the Chartreuse. She began talking about Karlsruhe, her trip across France to visit Winnie in school and consult with a doctor, a specialist in her sorts of distress. She described how well the dry air had agreed with her. Or she with it.
Jeff said, The soft, damp air here is delicious.
At that point V rose and without a word walked carefully down the long stairs to the lawn and then dashed, or sort of bustled, around the side of the house and then stopped to decide which direction to flee. Jeff walked to the end of the gallery and looked down at her, but with his eyes so dim he would have seen little but a darker shape against the grass. He said, Oh my.
Sara said, Please stay here. Do not follow.
—Yes? he said.
V rushed toward the dark woodline of big live oaks and palmettos and pines.
Sara followed down the steps and across the lawn as V struggled through the trees toward the alligator swamp. A trail of footprints and broken twigs.
V stopped a hundred yards in, at the muddy edge of black water. She sat on a log, her skirt wet at the hem and winding around her legs, shoes and stockings muddy past the ankles. She cried out of anger and fear and shame and exhaustion. Weariness of wandering.
She looked up at Sara and said, You?
—This isn’t the kind of thing he does well, Sara said.
V raised her hands in surrender. Said, How the mighty have fallen, yes?
And then she began laughing.
Sara laughed too and said, Carpe diem? Remember our Latin tutor?
—No. That’s not what it means, V said. Never your best subject.
—Wait. I do remember something. Where be the roses gone, which sweetened so our eyes?
—Yes, V said. Back then a line like that meant nothing, but it’s what we’re searching for now. The snows of yesteryear.
Sara sat down beside her on the log.
—I don’t know what you imagine or pretend to think, she said. And to a degree, I don’t care, except when you try to use it to gain an upper hand. I’m not hiding anything.
Sara told how Jeff arrived in Biloxi—sick and worn down and out of money. She had help to give, and she gave it—a refuge free of encumbrances, whether money or anything else. A refuge to write his story.
—You’ve always been welcome here, Sara said. God knows this is no elderly love nest, and if you stop and think for even a minute you’ll know it as well. Unlike you, I’ve never had a taste for old men. He lives in the cottage, and I live in the house. I send over a tray with breakfast and lunch so that he can work on his book undisturbed. He takes dinner with me. I ask how the great work has gone today, and he always gives the same answer—Incremental advancements. Which I tell him is the most any writer ought to expect.
—I love objectivity, V said. It’s so entertaining to hear others try it.
—Correct me if I am wrong, but we didn’t much like each other in school, did we?
—Not in the least.
—I had been there two years when you arrived, tall and slim with huge dark judgmental eyes. Strangely so, since we veterans thought we did all the judging. Your skin so smooth and without blemish across those high cheekbones.
—But also a shade darker than everybody else, which you all used to your advantage, V said.
—Of course we did, and I’m sorry. But think about it, throw out all the stupid little belles and even stupider banking and railroad princesses, and who would have been left except the two of us? We’re too old to keep acting like girls.
Sara went on to tell how Jeff arrived at Beauvoir beaten down, near broken, slim as a crane. Looking to see what had become of that little piece of land on the Gulf he bought twenty years before for V and the children but got too busy and rich and powerful and responsible to worry about. Twelve acres of beach and scrub, the last thing he held clear title to in the world. Past the tideline and the sand burrs and sea grass, nothing but woods so thick he had to thrash his way to the back property line at the swamp. He sat at her table that night pretty beaten, claiming he’d hardly spent a month sleeping in the same bed for most of a decade except for two years of Yankee prison where they kept him awake with light in his cell all night, guards shouting at him periodically, loud chanting of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” at three in the morning. He said he’d traveled all over England and Scotland and Ireland and most of Europe job hunting with no success.
—He told me you were still over there, sick, Sara said. Or maybe just sick of the South and of him and wanting to live anywhere but here. He is poison up north. You know that. Couldn’t get a job blacking boots without wearing a disguise.
Sara said, In Virginia, at the college where Lee presided, they made a shrine of his horse’s grave, so imagine what they’re doing now that Lee himself has passed.
—Constructing a three-quarter-scale replica of the Great Pyramid of Giza?
—Even Stonewall’s amputated arm has its own gravestone. And yet Jeff shows up here looking like a scarecrow if you snatched all the straw out and draped the weathered suit over a cross of old gray tomato stakes. He looks out at the world like an archer peeping above a parapet to see what new enemy lays siege now.
V sat and stared into the dark woods, the gray moss swagging from the trees, the flat black water.
She said, I understand there are snakes down here nine feet long, indigo colored with the undersides of their necks yellow.
—You don’t often see them that long, Sara said. Six feet or seven mostly. They’re beautiful in the sun, and they run from you and hide in the bushes and eat rattlesnakes for breakfast.
—I worry a great deal about his book, V said. He was good at writing speeches. Bursts of opinion and belief and knowledge shaped to entertain a crowd for an hour. A book is different. Longer, but not just longer. In a speech, you say something foolish, you can deny it later. Fog in the wind. You can claim faulty remembrance on the part of audience and press, then recast your thoughts in a better direction. If you happen to say something brilliant, all you have to do is keep saying it, and it sticks. But a book binds you to it forever, every damn word, from the moment of publication. All those permanent black marks on paper. You think you own it, but over time it owns you.