Varina, p.29

Varina, page 29

 

Varina
 


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  —He’s doing fine, Sara said. Learning as he goes. And since I’ve written a few books, I try to help.

  —Yes, I keep intending to read one of yours. But as for Jeff, so far I’ve always been the one helping him write.

  —He enjoys help, doesn’t he? He was a man of action when he was younger, so now I try to encourage him in the day-by-day sitting still at a table draining memory dry to fill blank pages with strong words. The lore of the job. The necessity of taking small pleasures where they come—the acidic smell of the inkpot, the texture of paper passing under the nib, cool wet air in the afternoon when a thunderstorm passes. And we haven’t even gotten to the joy of revising yet, which unlike life allows you to go back and rethink and make yourself better than you really are. I’m trying to help him see his days at the desk as honorable work, forward motion, effort toward some effect other than wandering two continents blind and aimless. Even if the work comes to nothing, he will have these days to shape the past, make sense of how the runes fell against him.

  V laughed and said, You make it sound like chance, roll of the dice. But that’s not the case.

  She talked awhile, developing an argument that they—she and Jeff and the culture at large—had made bad choices one by one, spaced out over time so that they felt individual. But actually they accumulated. Choices of convenience and conviction, choices coincident with the people they lived among, following the general culture and the overriding matter of economics, money and its distribution, fair or not. Never acknowledging that the general culture is often stupid or evil and would vote out God in favor of the devil if he fed them back their hate and fear in a way that made them feel righteous. After years of loss and reflection, your old deluded decisions click together like the works of a watch packed tight within its case—many tiny, turning, interlocking wheels, each one bristling sharp-toothed with machine-cut gears. The force of every decision transferring gear to gear, wheel to wheel, each one motivating a larger energy going in no direction but steep downward to darkness at an increasing pitch. And then one morning the world resembles the wake of Noah’s flood, stretching unrecognizable to the horizon, and you wonder how you got there. One thing for sure, it wasn’t from a bad throw of dice or runes or an unfavorable turn of cards. Not luck or chance. Blame falls hard and can’t be dodged by the guilty.

  V AND SARA STOOD and gathered themselves.

  Sara said, We don’t have to be enemies.

  V leaned into Sara and kissed both her cheeks and said, Thank you so much for coming.

  She performed it like saying good night at the front door after one of her famous soirées in Washington long ago. Frogs croaked nearby, and in the distance, the mighty belch of a bull alligator.

  —Let’s walk back together, Sara said.

  —Shall we? V asked. Why not? With the moon rising so big and bright.

  They climbed the steps to the gallery arm in arm. Jeff rose to meet them, a thin pale presence, his face and hands exactly the color of moonlight and his linen suit perfect.

  —Wonderful that you’ve both returned, he said.

  He kissed V’s damp cheek and then kissed Sara’s.

  The Gulf lay flat, almost a mirror, only a breathy hiss of tide. Sea grass, sand, water, sky—everything a shade of slate.

  They all three sat up until after midnight talking, laughing, drinking more wine. Sara and V remembered schoolmates in Philadelphia and how explosive and frightening Madame X could be when angry. Jeff told a story about the northern wilderness when he was a young officer—a hairy, raging monster people called the Windigo.

  When they grew sleepy and began aiming toward bed, V said, I wonder what people talk about who’ve destroyed their lives with addictions other than books and politics and money and war?

  After the Deluge

  1879–1893

  SARA DORSEY DIED OF CANCER—SORT OF WILLING BEAUVOIR to Jeff and sort of selling it to him. Afterward V and Jeff lived in Sara’s beautiful haunted house on the Gulf for their longest stretch of years together. Add up the time in Washington before the war, four years in Richmond during the war, and their decade or so at Beauvoir after the deluge, and they were together little more than half of a forty-five-year marriage.

  At Beauvoir they gardened, read, walked on the beach in good weather, corresponded with wide-cast acquaintances. With increasing frequency they received telegrams announcing deaths of friends and important figures from Washington or the war. She helped Jeff write and revise his articles for the North American Review and other journals. Winnie, off in school as usual, dropped by for a month or two now and then. Maggie married and went west with her husband, and Jeffy—last of the boys—died of yellow fever in Memphis. He was twenty-one and had been the least Davis of her children—never responsible enough to suit his father, prone to impulsiveness, easily bored. He shared some of V’s gift or curse of dreams that presaged the future. She and Jeff had gotten word he was sick, and yet neither of them went up to see him and to take care of him. She still can’t explain why. It was a long trip, and they were old. Though to be precise, she was not even fifty-five at the time. Maybe it was certainty that he would recover or overwhelming dread that he would not. Either way it was a weakness, a bad decision for which she would always carry guilt.

  FOR YEARS, mostly a quiet life on the beach after decades of clash, disaster, loss, failure. As Jeff neared his eightieth birthday, V often had to remind herself how much younger she was. Some days felt like a competition to determine who had become more attenuated. Like many old men who had been always ready to fight, to plunge into rage, Jeff eased down in his eighties. He became dependent on V and almost sweet.

  Long afternoons he sat on the porch looking at the water or on a bench in the garden when flowers bloomed. She asked him what he thought about for those silent stretches of time, and he said, The longer I’m here, the more I seem to remember. Every day, the past flowing in.

  SHE STILL CONSIDERED TIME with smart people to be the honing steel to her dull blade, but life on the Gulf passed mostly solitary. Now and then, friends from long ago livened a few days and then went away leaving a lonely, quiet void. All of them graying, time-draggled, still recognizable but looking as if they wore costumes and makeup for playing a role. Burton Harrison, ever faithful, came by a couple of times a year when business brought him down from New York to New Orleans. He and his wife, Connie, had succeeded among the Yankees. Burton was busy and wealthy with many clients in the railway business, and Connie had begun publishing novels and having her plays produced.

  A few times a year Mary Chesnut sent brilliant, scattershot letters, often on scraps of mismatched paper like war shortages still applied. She always said her book was almost done—except it needed to be overhauled one more time—and that so many of her old acquaintances—but not V—would hate her after it was published. And then, without warning, Mary Chesnut died after only two days of illness and distress in breathing alleviated by heavy morphine. The letter V received from one of Mary’s nieces said she was buried in a cold November rain. You don’t get to choose who you outlive, so V ripped the letter to shreds and shaped in her mind an alternate funeral for her friend, a bluebird spring day and Mary a hundred and ten years old instead of sixty-three, the last bright repository of all their dead memories.

  During her days of mourning for Mary, V kept remembering one of the dark times in the middle of the war, having regular breakfasts, receptions, and matinee musicales at the Gray House for a small group of friends like Mary and Buck Preston, who made her laugh. Society ladies not invited kept asking Mary Chesnut what they did at their gatherings. Mary grew weary of the questions—the constant pumping for gossip—and said they danced on tightropes. V said, Better not tell them that. And Mary said, They swallow everything whole. This time next year they’ll all claim to know the lengths of our petticoats and the patterns of spangles sprinkled on them.

  ON ONE OF HIS FAMOUS BOOK TOURS, Oscar Wilde came for dinner. He had been in New Or
leans being scandalous and lionized and wanted to come meet the great Rebel, Jefferson Davis. Afterward, an editorialist for the Boonville Pleader, a paper from up the river, wrote that the evening must have been like a butterfly making a formal visit to an eagle.

  V thought the simile ought to be an old weary badger ruminating in his den uninterested in the value of fluttering quickness and flashing color.

  Wilde arrived bearing flowers, several bottles of wine, and a signed photograph of himself. V greeted him in the foyer, holding out her hand, but he leaned and kissed her on one cheek and then the other. He called her My Dear throughout the evening.

  He towered above Jeff by half a foot or so, which may account for a little of Jeff’s attitude that evening. Every angle of Wilde expressed itself awkwardly. Long feet, long shanks, long nose, and long hair, dark and swooping. As he talked he waved his hands and fluttered tapered fingers with dingy nails. They seemed only partly under his control. His shoes needed polishing, and the stockings he affected below his half-trousers were laddered with runs. His long face was highly asymmetrical, one side serene and earnest, the other smirking and snide, a simple matter of the angle of his mouth, the slant of his eyes, the apertures of his nostrils. He wanted so much to be famous. Such an attractive and repellent quality.

  At some point in the evening V said, Dear boy, please draw a slow deep breath. Now count three and release it. Now another. Rest easy in the fact that since I was seventeen, I’ve known few unknowns.

  DINNER WAS SIMPLE STUFF out of the garden and off the daily boat. It started with half-shell oysters, a sprinkle of minced country ham and cornmeal on top, browned for a few minutes in a very hot woodstove—three precise drops of Tabasco on top. And then a clear soup of little pink shrimp and yellow corn and the beautiful green-and-white geometry of sliced okra, beads of butter around the circumference of the small, white bowls. Then fish of some kind with a sauce, and vegetables, green and yellow and red. Probably just fresh fruit afterward. V lost interest in food if the talk around the table burned bright, and that evening it did. At least the talk across the table, since Jeff sat at the head and hardly spoke.

  It reminded her of the past—decades deep when she was barely twenty—holding her own several nights a week against the smartest and wittiest and most powerful people in the country. Now, in exile with just this lanky boy at the table, tired from his endless lecture tour but doing his best to entertain—even though it meant dredging up every witty remark he had made since his college years—she felt like an old fire-horse hearing the jangling bell and surging forward against the traces.

  Even before dessert and coffee, Jeff arose from his chair and gave a slight head-nod and retired without a word.

  Wilde looked at V.

  She smiled and said, You’ll find that as you grow old, you stop bothering to hide the self you’ve been all along.

  —I aspire to that every day.

  —Let’s schedule a conversation on the topic thirty years from now. I’d like to hear your thoughts.

  JEFF ABED, they moved to the porch rockers to enjoy the light of a three-quarter moon on the water, the Gulf a metallic silver-green sheen extending to the limits of sight in the thick air, and to continue the evening with Champagne and opiates.

  Wilde said, I sometimes begin the day with Champagne. I’m somewhat less experienced with opium.

  —It’s a fascinating substance, V said. Doctors have been shoving it at me since I was thirteen for everything from monthly melancholy to childbirth. Also fatigue and excitement, sore throat, heartbreak, and boredom. They see it as the cure-all for excitable women. But I’ve learned the real key to opium is never allowing yourself to cross the line from amateur to professional. A bit tonight because it is pleasurable and because we’re having a lovely evening is amateur. Taking it tomorrow because I’m sad you’ve gone borders on professional. And if you move to the professional category you give up the simple amateur pleasures, which I never want to do.

  —I’ll make a note of it.

  —And remember, cheap laudanum is mostly grain spirits. Avoid it.

  —That sounds like a professional judgment.

  —No. It’s discriminating. Taking whatever waste matter comes to hand because you can’t do without it is professional.

  WILDE SAID, I hoped he could offer advice on ways Ireland might free itself. He has been the greatest revolutionary of the past century.

  —He was never a rebel. He was a businessman and a politician who believed the Constitution protected the capital of his class and culture above everything else. And he may have been right on the legal front, given that the federal government held him in prison for years under the charge of treason and then lacked confidence to try him. What a disaster if they had lost the case on Constitutional grounds. They would have won a disastrous war for nothing. All the dead and all the living with empty sleeves and eye sockets, all the widows. Half a generation wiped away. Still, a part of Jeff deflated when the government dropped the treason charge and set him free. He very much looked forward to a trial, the chance to argue his case. And if he lost, he welcomed climbing the stairway to the scaffold that would make him a martyr. All that was much more important than how his wife and children would survive, how we would go through life shadowed by his execution.

  —You said capital?

  —Yes. The most cold-blooded view is that the war was a violent argument over the forms it could take. One form was people. My husband argued that the slave economy was more humane than the child labor mills of Yankee capitalism. His argument was that with slavery, labor and capital were one and the same. The owner had a strong stake in the welfare of his workers because they were a great portion of his capital. Whereas the mill owner up north can work his people to death and it costs him nothing. Another boatload from Ireland or Italy will solve his problem.

  —But the differences between gold and a person?

  —His theory recognized none at all. And his ideas on war were equally abstract. He said, War is an affair of lines—a problem of geometry.

  —Except pencil marks drawn on paper with a straightedge and a protractor don’t bleed.

  —Exactly, V said.

  THE DRIVER RETURNED and waited at a discreet distance. Eventually Wilde rose to go. He said, I’m not sure where I’m going next. Is it far to Colorado?

  He was a young man still in his twenties—an age when most of us feel we know more than anyone else, an age of pronouncements. And he was better at it than anyone. Wilde stood awkwardly, his frame angled every which way. His soft cheeks caught the moon and mirrored its roundness, and his hair drooped in the humidity. He looked sad to be leaving.

  V said, Try to find time to rest on your travels. The key to wandering around constantly speaking to the public is simple. Take naps.

  He said, Dear, if you prescribe it, I will doze at the slightest opportunity.

  —And take time to eat breakfast every day. Preferably including pork. A firm foundation for the day ahead. And on toward dinnertime, Champagne and opiates provide much assistance.

  Wilde laughed and kissed her again and said, If we lived in the same city, imagine the trouble we might cause for others and for ourselves.

  —Don’t tempt me. I might pack up and move back to Marylebone.

  The carriage driver fussed with the reins and Wilde wandered off into the night.

  The next morning V asked Jeff why he had been so rude to their guest, and Jeff said, Because I did not like him.

  Years later, reading the sad conclusion of Wilde’s life—trial and imprisonment with hard labor, and death shortly after he served his term—V was sure had Jeff lived to see those events played out luridly in the papers he would have been genuinely shocked that such vectors of desire existed in the world and that he had been exposed to them even for the brief duration of a dinner. V was not so shocked. She fell into depression at each new report where that brilliant, exhausted young man she had instantly liked was shoved deeper into the d
ark.

  ONE MORNING, halfway into writing a letter to Mary Chesnut, V remembered with fresh shock and loss that the postal service could no longer connect them. The first bit of the letter read,

  It is a frightful thing to drop out of one’s place in the world and never find it again. I try very hard to keep my memory green and thus by sympathy live anew, or if not anew, aright, which is more to the point, much more.

  AFTER JEFF DIED, V wrote his memoir. Or at least completed it based on his fractional manuscript with the help of his pile of notes and old speeches and congressional records and memory. Every day she wanted to pack and leave Biloxi. She didn’t inherit Beauvoir—Winnie did. But Winnie had no more interest in living in that little gem on the beach than V. What would either of them do there in a dead town, no matter how pretty the house and view?

  V worked in the cottage Jeff had used as his study. All his books and papers were already there, and walking across the lawn to write every afternoon between lunch and supper created a separation, a time and place for work. She moved the writing table near one of the tall side windows looking toward the water, and the least Gulf breeze riffled through her pages. In June, when the afternoon thunderstorms became regular, she looked forward to them. The palmetto fronds rattling in the wind, the air suddenly fresh and cool, the entire Gulf disappearing behind a wall of rain streaking down at the rate of an inch in a half hour. And then the clouds breaking, light rising into a soft evening, clouds touched with yellow and rose and the water settling to a bronze mirror in the low angle of sun. And yet, awake in the middle of the night, she wrote in a letter,

  The testimonies of my youth are hidden in death. I feel like an executed person swinging in chains on a lonely road.

 
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