A Figure from the Common Lot
Book One: 1870-1871
Chapter One: Cette Illusion de la Mortalité
Book Two: 1876
Chapter Two: Possente Spirto
Peas in a Pod
Its current carved the land
Many more miles long
Than the eye can see
Landholders, granted degrees
On the bank, exchanged in principle
The ornamental alloy
Ebrach, Richard thought. His father’s breathing, for a time inaudible, or drowned by this onslaught of wretched weeping in combination with Ebrach’s poetical spiel―meaningless to Richard―had become broken, as though the elder Richard suffocated, and fought death. Had he been awake, he would not have done so. But he was unconscious, and his mind’s instinct prompted these explosive gasps that counterpointed Ebrach’s baritone. Richard’s father would awake in full, lost and obdurate, spoiling for trouble; and Ebrach would claim this disruption had broken the courage of Micah’s tentative, flighty spirit. My fault, maybe, Richard thought. He had chosen to bide here at his father’s feet. Had he not, in a way, taken responsibility?
Richard was not willing that his own voice be heard during this ceremony; therefore he was unwilling to speak to his father, even softly, begging him to be still. With his arms around his knees, he sat angled to the dining table, taking sidelong glances at the three who sat there. With a fascination that churned him up inside, Richard’s eyes were drawn to Gremot’s back, to the knobs of a spine that projected so prominently against the cloth of Lawrence’s shirt, as to be visible even by the light of Ebrach’s lamps. This frailty and passivity stirred an urge to violence in Richard. Gremot had done nothing to aid Ebrach. He’d sat and wept, and had not written down a word.
Richard stared at Ebrach’s hand, closed over his mother’s. His mother sagged in her chair, her head inclined towards Ebrach, her swollen face oddly transfigured by the moisture that bathed it. She seemed younger to Richard…not the mother he’d known in his childhood, but like a child herself. He saw Gremot lift his head, and push himself to a posture half-sitting, half-cowering. And all the while, as he wiped at his face with Lawrence’s shirttail, Gremot shook with fresh tears. The fragmented light showed them glisten in the hollows of his eyes.
Continued from “the hollows of his eyes”
Lawrence had told Richard that Gremot would go to the house of his kin and relate all this. He would paint the Everards fools. He would show W. A. Gremot where to wind the coils of his snare, and at last, even the brutal charity Gremot had extended to their father would be withdrawn. But in outrage and amazement, Richard tried to picture this young scion of the clan playing the role Lawrence had suggested. Would he faint, while dramatizing Ebrach’s séance…would he burst out weeping? Ebrach, of course, enjoyed things as he had arranged them. He might have sent Gremot himself up the hill in Ziegler’s wagon as readily as he’d sent his note of introduction.
“You dwell in darkness. You have long been away from our earthly realm; you approach, and yet tremble at the threshold. What is it that you wish to tell? Micah, conquer these misgivings! It is your mother who stands at the door. It is she who lights your path and makes a way for you. She waits for you, Micah. Come to her and give her comfort…” And as he spoke of giving comfort, Ebrach, without seeming to wake from his trance, reached for Gremot’s hand. Richard was seized with an intolerable pain. He heard his mother speak.
“There shalt thou by the river, she who bears no water, seek the whirlwind, and reap in bitterness…how can I myself alone bear your cumbrance…?”
Richard felt a touch, fingers brushing against his arm. His father was awake; and like a cur dog, Richard, with a lowered head, shifted his eyes upwards, to see his father’s intense gaze fixed on his mother.
“Daddy,” Richard whispered. “I can’t stay.” It didn’t matter; he had not been asked to do more than keep quiet. “I can’t stay,” he said again, and pushed himself to his feet. And here on the porch, lingering after he had rushed through the door, he could not bring himself to leave the sound of his mother’s voice.
“…sew in arsenic and reckon in gunpowder. Lady of sorrows, here is gold for your trouble.” His mother’s prophetic speech ended, and Richard, who’d feared an outburst from his father, heard for a time only stillness. He blinked in a sudden eclipse; then, an ordinary lantern flared, and the light grew steady. Ebrach had snuffed his oil lamps.
“Madam, do you keep spirits in the house at all?” Ebrach could ask this in perfect solemnity. Richard smiled, though smiling did not improve his mood.
“No, sir. We don’t have none a that.”
“I apologize, dear lady, if by the suggestion I have offended. I ask from simple concern for your well-being, because we have been blessed with a rare visit. A potent entity, Verbena, has chosen you for its vessel.” Something occurred, which caused his mother to laugh in a lilting manner unknown to Richard, and disturbing to him. Ebrach had hugged her, perhaps. “Yet, may I say that your countenance is radiant. If you tell me you are well, I shall believe it.”
“It was Micah.”
Ebrach kept silent, and Richard heard a small cry of distress. “Oh, Mr. Ebrach, you don’t mean it weren’t!”
“Verbena. Certainly, we were visited by Micah. He has pined, these many years, for tonight’s reunion. No…I had merely recollected, for a moment, the divine words, and gave thought to their inclination.”
“I don’t remember a thing.”
“In your heart, my dear, you do.”
Richard heard Gremot’s subdued voice. Then, louder: “No! It is not necessary.” Gremot came through the front door, followed closely by Ebrach.
With sluggish reflexes, Richard pushed himself to his feet. He had listened there, crouched outside the window, while moths flittered into his face and lodged in his hair. He dismissed the notion that he could have been eavesdropping. This was his home; Ebrach was the intruder. And had it been Gremot, Ebrach’s confederate, acting―in Ebrach’s language―as a vessel, Richard’s explanation would have come readily enough. He cast his eyes over the waifish Gremot, who drooped, with his head bowed, and was supported by Ebrach.
“Sir,” Richard said…and Ebrach, speaking as though he were a long-time friend of the family, and the age of Richard’s father, pre-empted him. “Mr. Jerome wishes to retire. I hope you will do me the courtesy of seeing him safely to his room. It is imperative that I record all I hold in memory of your mother’s words. And I must interview her while her mind is fresh.”
Gremot stirred. He lifted his face into the weak illumination that fell across the porch through the open door; and Richard saw his mouth compress and resolve into a bitter smile. He lifted his arm, and jerked his elbow from Ebrach’s grasp. “Mr. Ebrach, I will find my own way.” Then, keeping a distance from Richard, Gremot in stealth moved crabwise to the end of a plank, paused here and tensed his muscles, like one about to break from cover. Ebrach, while observing this, said only, “Richard.”
“Mr. Ebrach,” Richard looked aside as the plank bumped. Gremot had fled. His progress was uncertain in the dark, and weary; but he might yet escape before Richard could catch him. Nonetheless, Richard finished his question. “Do you believe Micah came here tonight? What did it mean, all that my mother said?”
“As to meaning, I assure you, Richard, that those greatest disciples of the arcana; fathers of spiritualism most steeped in the divine lore, have written entire volumes in the attempt solely to interpret a single prophecy. Thus, as I stand here tonight, I can give no satisfactory answer to your second question. Your mother feels certain that Micah has spoken to her. And as you know, that has long been the desire of her heart. Now, sir, I ask again, that you will please see to Mr. Jerome. Bring me word if you find him in want of anything. Your kindness, Richard…”
Ebrach’s self-command through these remarks had been near perfect. He’d chafed somewhat, positioned a foot behind him, and allowed his weight to balance upon it; but he now took himself fully in hand. He looked into Richard’s eyes, and shaded compassion into his voice, as though he knew that Richard felt despised by the world, knew the things that, on his family’s behalf, Richard had done without.
“…is deeply appreciated.”
Gremot had a leg up on the lowest of the steps leading to the bedroom that belonged to Richard’s parents. Gremot had emerged, it seemed to Richard’s mind, like some creature from the forest of folklore, upending all the rooms of his house. He had come to a standstill here. Richard had only ambient starlight and the gibbous moon by which to see, but clear enough to him were the patterns of shade against shadow, the whiteness of Gremot’s human shape. He saw a floating pale orb rise from the top step; after a moment, he recognized this as his mother’s yellow cat. He saw Gremot bend to scratch its head; and still, he showed no sign of hearing Richard, as Richard strode up behind him.
He clamped a hand heavily on Gremot’s shoulder.
Gremot emitted not a sound, no cry of pain or surprise, but at the impact flung out his arms, and fell back against Richard. Taken, at this accidental intimacy, by a fit of rage, Richard shoved him away. Gremot hurtled forward this time, falling over the steps, landing on his elbows and knees. Richard watched as Gremot lifted himself by inches to a seated position, crossed his arms tight over his chest; then turned to huddle against the stair rail. All this, in utter silence.
“Jerome,” Richard said, “is that your real name, or are you one of them Gremots?”
“I am called Jerome,” Jerome told him.
“Well, I didn’t ask you that. You come here to swindle Mr. Gremot?”
“Sir, I am here for no reason. I am here because I have been lied to.”
Richard felt an impulse to use his boot on Mr. Jerome; who, he felt, rather than being lied to, told nothing but lies. And who would not look at Richard when he spoke. Yet, Richard suspected if he did real harm, Ebrach would have the sheriff out. His anger died, and his better nature began to reassert itself.
“You don’t want anything, do you?”
Jerome did look at him now, and with, it seemed to Richard, from the way he cocked his head, incredulity.
“Well, I told Mr. Ebrach I’d see you got here safe.”
“Then you must tell him so.”
Lawrence had crossed the road and gone down along Sanderson’s Run to the riverbank. He would have been guided by the smell of the water and its shine under the moon, by the leaden ooze of current reflecting the glint, where overhanging trees parted, of a thousand stars. Richard could do the same, but this book of nature was not a thing he read by heart, sub-intellectually. He could smell from where he stood that Lawrence, putting a light to his store of driftwood, had got a fire going. By the odor of smoke and, when this came into view, by the glow of the flames, Richard would find his way; he could dispense, then, with the reading of tokens.
Yet prophecy, even if the great man Ebrach claimed no power to state its message, portended a time of change.
He and Lawrence freed, perhaps, from the servitude of unpaid labor, from their nine years’ humiliation. Richard felt this restiveness acutely, now he was twenty-five. He knew his father had married late. He knew he could find no other comfort in the similarity of his father’s sufferings to his own…the Everard legacy was the cause of his unlived life. What was his father, but a drunk, a bankrupt, a failed tobacco farmer, a backwards Kentucky rebel among Indiana’s forward-looking Republicans? And if he and Lawrence turned their backs on their father, the Everards remained humiliated. For pride’s sake, they soldiered on.
But a harbinger of change, as his mama believed it, had arrived in the person of W. A. Gremot’s mysterious by-blow.
Verbena had not allowed this natural conclusion. But her imagination could encompass magical things. Ebrach had, Richard thought, unearthed his consumptive bastard―this whore’s whelp who called himself Jerome―from the bowels of an Indianapolis tenement. Richard’s mother could see, in the return of one lost son, the promise of another. Richard saw a scheme of blackmail. Not that he disapproved. He would be pleased to see it unfold.
Now Ebrach, he told himself, was a fancy customer, to be sure.
Lawrence had an idea about Ebrach and Jerome. Richard had his own idea. Lawrence formed opinions from sturdy alphabet blocks of reasoning; he formed them in a hurry, and he stuck by them. In age they were a year apart. From earliest childhood, Richard had had his brother’s companionship. And although they looked nothing alike, it had been said of them countless times: “Those boys are two peas in a pod.”
When Richard confronted a thing that troubled him, and wished to winnow out its specifics, he relied on Lawrence’s clarity of judgement. His brother nearly always got things wrong. Ebrach’s tender care of Jerome, Richard surmised, was the protecting of an investment.
A fortuitous undercut along the bank had been bestowed by a hand more generous than that of W. A. Gremot. What Richard called Lawrence’s veranda, his shoal at the river’s edge, was walled―at times the water ran low―by a bank-height of nearly three feet. The Squire permitted the Everards use of the ’stead; the ’stead was meagre and odiferous…and so, frequently, was nature. But here, in her even-handed company, his brother’s affairs were hidden from the windows of the manor house. A hedge apple sheltered Lawrence like a mother. Through many late summer evenings, the Everard boys had gathered its fruit for a pitching contest, aiming clean across the river…always falling shy.
Lawrence kept his batteau, the pole-boat the brothers used to ply the margins, tied to the hedge apple’s trunk. All the bounty along the Gremot property was fair game to them; fetched up bobbing in the shallows, they might find anything (though never yet the drowned man Lawrence hoped for). Generally, they found empty barrels, rope, floating chunks of lumber. These they used for outdoor furniture and repairs to the ’stead.
Lawrence’s settee, where he fished and contemplated, was the bleached trunk of a fallen tree. Richard had helped his brother pole it loose from its lodging place at the mouth of Tranquility Creek, and float it downstream to Sanderson’s Run. What Lawrence contemplated, as he watched at sunset the breaching bass, the chimney swifts dive after mosquitos, the constancy of the river at work, Richard could not have said. A blankness, it might be, filled Lawrence’s mind. He envied this.
“Watch you don’t step on that muskrat trap.” Lawrence spoke, as Richard sought a low place to put a leg over.
“You ain’t gon’ catch you one,” Richard told him. “Muskrat smarter’n you.”
“You know what’s stupid?”
Ruminative, and not insulted, Lawrence waited for Richard to join him on the log. He picked up a stick he’d laid at his feet, and stirred the fire. “I ain’t goin’ back up to the ’stead. No sense. Look how late it’s got to be.”
Richard shrugged, deeming these remarks a non sequitur, and knocked his brother on the arm. “What’s stupid?” But Lawrence shot him no comeback. He’d been serious.
“All them shiftin’ back and forth with the beds. What’s the reason?”
“Me.” He found it fair to say so. “It was me kicked up a fuss. Mama has took a shine to that Ebrach.”
“Shoulda made him walk back to his hotel. We loan him a barrow, he can push that other’un along.”
“What all did happen?” Lawrence asked.
He hated to tell…that crazy speech of Mama’s. But there’d be no keeping it quiet. “Lawrence, you wanna bet me somethin’?”
“Lawrence, you wait for Miz Keene to show up on the doorstep tomorrow.”
On the day Ebrach’s name was first raised, the ’stead had been their home for eight years. His mother had quit attending church meetings at the time of her accident. Because, Richard assumed, the ways in which she’d been crippled by her fall caused her too much pain to be going out. That was all. Belief had lain dormant, and the Temperance Fellows either had fanned its flames, or worn down Mama’s resistance.
Every few weeks, Richard saw Cleome Towson drive her friend Mrs. Keene up the hill to the manor house; then oftentimes down again, bringing their charity to his mother…after having watched, from behind the Gremots’ black screens, his father go off to Hopper’s. Today, the trap made straight for the ’stead, bouncing down the cutoff from the main road. Miss Towson was a persistent suffragist; temperance was her entrée to the resistant household, just as temperance tempered Keene’s spiritualism. The two ladies were political bedfellows, and everywhere in the summer and fall months, Towson turned up, a raven on the doorstep, dressed in black, smelling like a musty raincloud. Her voice was high and soft. If women cared about sober conduct, they ought to care about political influence, Miss Towson said; and if they cared about political influence, they ought to demand the vote. She made this point, and if not encouraged, pushed no further.
Richard took the head of the black horse, Dick Turpin. He dug out his pen knife. The bony nose nudged Richard’s face, and he saw in the dark brown eye trust and remembrance of this occasional friend. Richard ran his fingertips over Dick Turpin’s neck and under his tackle, searching for the eggs of bot flies. He could hear the women talking. The month was October, the day hot and dry. They’d been burning off the fields, filling the air with acrid smoke. The roots of the black walnut netted themselves over the ’stead’s dusty frontage, a pattern repeated in the cracking earth. Yellow switches of leaves, curled with webworm, littered the ground.
“We won’t come in, Verbena.” Mrs. Keene plunked onto the bench. “I don’t want you fussing. If I was to eat and drink at every house, I’d be broad as a barn…you sit here with me.” She patted the place next to her; and his mother, probably by at least two decades Mrs. Keene’s senior, obeyed with the docility of a poorhouse inmate commanded by the matron.
“Richard!” Mrs. Keene called out. He knew what she wanted. This rite of abstinent virtue embarrassed him intensely, and made him hate Mrs. Keene.
“Richard, when will your father return?”
He drew a breath. “My father didn’t tell me his business, ma’am.”
And she wasn’t interested. Even words chosen to shame her, so far as such a thing was possible, had no effect. Already, Mrs. Keene had re-positioned herself, facing Mama, taking her by the hand. In striking this flattering and confiding pose, she might truly have been Ebrach’s drummer.
“…I heard him speak when I was in Indianapolis with my daughter. At the Jefferson Hotel there. I’m letting you have Mr. Ebrach’s book…”
“My mother don’t read.”
Mrs. Keene gave a snort. She opened the book, and he heard his mother say, “Oh, ma’am, what’s that?”
“Why, that’s one of the picture plates. This is a conception, Verbena, of what Mr. Ebrach calls the ‘divinities’. The spirit―you see him here―has reached a boundless place, where the past, present, and future are all one. He has great enlightenment to share with those of us on earth.”
She had got in deep with the spiritualists, Richard guessed, with such ease did Mrs. Keene lapse into their manner of speech.
“You see, Richard.” She now took up with him. “Mr. Ebrach has clients who don’t read English, and he’s taken it into account. This book has lots of pictures. That’s exactly what I thought of.”
Ebrach’s book became his mother’s touchstone. She carried it in her hands; with her fingers, she stroked its pebbled cover. She admired the deep red of its leather, and the silvered design at the right hand corner, that resembled, to Richard’s eye, an Indian Pipe. Why it should be that, he couldn’t have said. Ebrach might himself have chosen this symbol of death in life, or the spectral plant might be, within the hocus-pocus of spiritualism, invested with such meaning. His mother, for a week, had been satisfied with the pictures alone.
“Richard.” She had at last carried the open book to his father. “What does it say?”
And his father with shaking hands had taken the book from her; lost in a study, he’d turned the pages of it back and forth. The elder Richard’s hands were at all times unsteady…it was the whisky that made them so. He was an old man, and his eyes were slow to focus. But Richard knew, also, that his father battened inside himself a despair, one so strong that it checked his ire at these spiritualist outrages; that with great humility, from Verbena he would always hide this emotion. She had started the business with Micah again. Or rather, those women had started it. After holding the book at arm’s length for some minutes, his father said, “The caption is a quotation, Verbena. See here.” He turned the book sideways, ran a finger along the bottom of the plate, and showed her a passage, centered and rendered in italics. “Here is poetry. The engraving is an illustration of these lines:
Who falter on this narrow span, made treacherous by blood and tears.
Unreconciled in wordless horror; their ranks unceasing none return”
Richard looked over his father’s shoulder. Some nameless artist’s muse had inspired a sad and gruesome vision: crowded on a bridge that arced above a chasm was a host of skeletal, wasted figures. They cast their arms heavenward, with a desperate plea they thrust out famined ribs―and their cheeks were sunken, their eyes, shrouded hollows.
The words his father read, on that night, were the first of Ebrach’s philosophy Richard had encountered. His mother, digesting this, was silent for a time. Then, she said, “Richard, read me that poem.”
“They have gone before,” his father began. And for many nights afterwards, The Summoning of Ancients took the place of the family bible.
“Your mother is able to understand things, and she will understand this. I don’t say it doesn’t need careful explaining. But Richard, this foolishness won’t do. Verbena knows that.”
He had kept his face turned away from his father’s, made himself busy tending the grey horse. The elder Richard’s distracted words faded with his steps. Richard had named his father’s horse Nebukar, after one of his mother’s biblical characters. She had never seen these names written in verse. From memory, she sounded them out. And the realm of the heavens, being vast, could contain these new kings and prophets of whom she learned in church; God’s bounty and mercy such, that should He choose, He might visit the same miracle on more than one supplicant.
His father’s thoughts on horses were apathetic, as was his general view of tobacco farming. Richard glided a hand down Nebukar’s right front leg. He clucked, and the horse lifted the foot, allowing Richard to cradle the hoof for cleaning. Gentle and thorough, he manipulated his pick, loosening small clots of mud, and this meditative work allowed his mind to work. He thought of his brother Micah. Richard had been told the story of his tartarly grandmother. She existed to him only as a miniature in an oval frame, the heavy-browed face of her youth his own. His mama kept her dead mother-in-law among her store of fables. She was forever beholden to Peggy, she had told Richard. “She brung me up from the poorhouse, and that’s when I saw your daddy.”
His father had related his differing view. “My mother worked her disgracefully.” He’d decided that, at some point during their ride to the river and back, he must shed this weight, recount this family history. He had passed the Everard legacy into Richard’s keeping. “It was her way of not seeing the state of things clearly. She knew it herself.”
Peggy had pronounced a curse on his parents; but Micah had been the proof against it. And in the interim, between Micah and Richard, there had been stillbirths and miscarriages. Verbena, willing to be the mother of only one child, had for seven years privileged Micah with a near supernatural devotion. That she favored her eldest over his brothers, Richard’s mother had no art to disguise.
Not, that to Richard, and to Lawrence, who’d come into the world on Richard’s heels, Micah had been lordly in manner. Yet he had been so self-assured, even in childhood, that to his small brothers he had not seemed a child. Richard and Lawrence, peas in a pod, contentedly hand in hand in all things, had felt only pride and wistfulness when Micah left the family to be a soldier. The jealousy had come to Richard’s heart afterwards. His mother’s need to have Micah alive; her refusal to believe him dead―these were the products of ignorance, as his father understood. She could not separate every unknown thing from every possible thing. Their house had been near ruin; Mama’s gravitation to the occult had shivered its foundation, and brought it down. Even from that night, he had not felt as close to Lawrence as he had in innocent times.
Mrs. Purfoy, Richard had thought, climbing the hill. He would laugh, telling Lawrence about her. She was tiny as Mama was, not a tooth in her head, her scalp nearly bald under her cap, a little cleft chin jutting over her collar. She had distrusted his father openly, dickered over terms…although these, she was positioned to set to her satisfaction. The elder Richard had at all points yielded to her.
And she was quick. Richard, opening a door to a standing closet in the bedroom, had heard a voice—from so close behind, it made him jump.
“Them shelves is fixed in place.”
Richard now seemed to hear a song of his mother’s weaving behind this distraction he forced upon himself. He dreaded setting foot in the parlor. But this prickling along his backbone could be only superstition.
The door swept backwards as his thumb touched the handle. His feet were trampled, and his father, having collided against him, hung for a moment, propping the door open with his body, hand dropping away to his side. His other came to rest on Richard’s arm, but he said nothing.
He had broken. This was the first idea that came to Richard’s mind. He’d come home and got at the whisky, after all. The explanation didn’t fully answer. His father’s waistcoat was torn loose from its buttons; his face was dotted with blood.
He’s had a fit, Richard thought. He bent his knees, twisted his neck to see up into his father’s face. “Daddy, what’s goin’ on?”
His father pushed him aside. He came to rest against the porch pillar. “You see,” he said, his voice quiet and distant. His words were like a dialogue with some invisible auditor. “I would have had better sense to take the musket to the barn. It was sentiment, I suppose. I thought of my mother. I saw the way she would smile…the room was hers. But I’ve told you that. I am too cowardly now to cross that threshold. Richard.” His father spoke to him directly, frightening him less; but still, he leaned on the pillar, and stared into the blue dusk.
“You will not see me again.”
“I can read and write,” he’d told Mrs. Purfoy.
Richard’s father had paid her ten dollars cash, extra, for two weeks lodging. She had been unwilling, when she’d accepted the money, to sign a piece of paper. His father would in ordinary circumstances have found her practices underhand and untenable, but they hadn’t come to Paducah for a leisurely visit―they were in straits, bound to these arrangements. The genteel boarding houses wanted single lodgers, or childless couples. The tenements were lower than they had sunk, thus far.
Mrs. Purfoy dealt with tenants through an agent, and it had been by an exchange of letters mailed to a postal box, without knowing Mrs. Purfoy’s own address, and before they had seen the rooms, that Richard’s father had secured these.
“Madam.” His father had a way of handling crooked dealers. He began by stating plainly the facts of the case. “I have sent a deposit payment to your representative Mr. Dyer, in the sum of twenty-five dollars. Do I now understand that the twenty-five dollars represents a fee for service, and that you require the rent money in advance; and that Mr. Dyer will concur with this when I speak to him?”
“Mr. Everard, them’s a lotta words.” Mrs. Purfoy thrust up her chin, stretching the ropes of her neck, pulling her mouth down at the corners…and she’d taken her time before answering. “Well, sir, would Mr. Dyer concur? I tell you. He ain’t down to his office on a Saturday, but you wait ’til Monday, an’ ask him. I won’t hold the rooms.”
She kept her apartment locked against her tenants. She would not open to Richard’s knock. The foyer of her house was lit by a fanlight high above the entry door; the gas was in working order, but she would not use it. Daylight flooded the staircase in the shape of an elongated, broken arch, merging with the light from the landing’s window. Up to the third story, and the attic story above, where there was no window to light the staircase, Richard and Lawrence had carried their mother.
Mrs. Purfoy’s rooms were on the first floor, on the left, going through the foyer; or the right, coming down the stairs. And each morning, for three days since they’d arrived, Richard had pounded at his landlady’s door.
“You cut that out.”
And speechless, regarded the man who’d told him this.
“She don’t deal with none a the tenants. She put her head out the window an’ ask me to come round an’ tell you. An’ I’m tellin’ you. You been knockin’ at that door ever’day now. Mrs. Purfoy wants you to cut it out.”
Continued from “cut it out”
He knew this man was Thomas. All Richard knew of horses he had learned from Thomas. Thomas, he thought, could not, in a matter of months, have forgotten him. Richard opened his mouth, caught himself having nothing to say…and though it seemed Thomas would not recognize him, still he frowned over Richard, while his eyes, rather than narrow, widened. His expression was one of pity and disbelief.
“You go on.” Thomas nodded towards the staircase. “I won’t leave you here to start up again.”
He recalled hearing his father give a name other than Purfoy as the employer of Naomi. But Richard did not know the city of Paducah. His father had chosen this house for reasons of economy; others, equally poor and pressed for time, might have fetched up on same street. So long as Thomas did not ask where Richard’s father had gone to, this insult…that the place he sought in Mrs. Purfoy’s employ must be lower than Thomas’s, mattered less to Richard, for the moment, than the urgency of securing it.
But, not knowing how otherwise to broach the question, he asked: “Is your name Thomas?”
“It is, sir.” Thomas looked at him directly, saying nothing more; and Richard recalled this having been his way. Thomas wished to make his meaning clear. His meaning dictated whether he spoke at length, or whether his thoughts could be summed up in a word or two.
Richard pointed towards the eyehole in the middle of Mrs. Purfoy’s door. “I want you to give her a message. Would you do that?”
Before Thomas could frame an answer, Richard was given a start, his degraded state of nerves setting his heart to pounding. At his back, the door scraped suddenly open, unsticking to torque on its hinges, with the yap of a mean little dog. Thomas shifted on his feet, and looked down at Mrs. Purfoy.
“He wants to give me a message,” she said.
“That’s all right, though, ma’am. I knowed the Everards one time. I told you that. Ask Mr. Richard what it is he been coming here to say to you.”
Richard waited, angling his body away from her, but willing to meet Mrs. Purfoy’s eye. She did not accept Thomas’s advice. She stared at Richard, and her stare was interrogative.
“Ma’am, is there a job you have needs doing? I can do any sort of work.”
She was silent, and she spent her silent minutes looking at Thomas, in speculation. Richard looked at his own boots, feeling he could not extract a foot from this mire, but that each effort must produce a new, unforeseen woe.
“You got that sickly mother,” Mrs. Purfoy said.
This subject was closed. He told her, “Ma’am, I can read and write.”
He had read most of his father’s books. His daily companion being his brother Lawrence (and Lawrence like to rag him to death over any high-talking show), he couldn’t make himself sound like a book. But he was not illiterate; he could not, for ignorance, be sold some bill of goods.
“You ain’t very big,” she said. “What about that brother a yourn?”
Richard thought about Lawrence.
“…might work alongside me, ma’am.”
“I need some’un to collect rents down at m’other property.” She gave Richard a second, frankly dubious, look. “Well, you better take that brother with you.”
He’d gone alone.
“What kinda job is it?’ Lawrence had asked him.
“Well, I don’t know. She said, ‘Knock on my door tomorrow, and I’ll give you the book’. Thomas says that’s where she got it all wrote down. I don’t know more’n that, Lawrence.”
Richard believed, however, in Mrs. Purfoy’s lack of faith. She’d seen these tenants, and he had not. If she advised against his approaching them without Lawrence along, the reason was that she knew already what Richard must learn to his regret. But his brother, who’d been early down at the wharfside, was now engaged. He sat cross-legged on the floor, arranging and reconfiguring a handful of scavenged nails, a thrown horseshoe, a spindled table leg, a piece of cork.
“You ain’t got no sense,” Lawrence told him. “Go down one time and learn how long it takes gettin’ there and back, and what all needs doin’. Mama can’t be left here by herself all day.”
Richard’s brother had put his finger on the reasonable objection. He added, “If you don’t like takin’ this job, go get yourself another’un. We ain’t run out of money yet.”
He’d watched his father push away from the pillar, lighting, in his descent, on only the middle step; and in his father’s carriage, Richard saw defeat, weight that dragged him sideways and bent him, to stare downcast at the darkening earth. Richard lifted his own eyes to the uncultivated field, dropped them to the creek at the foot of the hill. He saw the ruby sun’s reflection die among the cattails. And in the near twilight, Richard found his father again, and watched him walk into the barn.
He wanted no more to do with his father. He wanted never to leave the porch. A sound…a dogged, persistent, scrabbling that shaped itself into the heel of a shoe; after this, an exhalation of pain, chilled Richard as though a graveyard waited for him inside. The room was unlit, florid in the dying sun. His mother’s face ran with blood, and in this red light, it was the running of the blood that made him see it. She had smacked the wall, going down the stairs, and here left blooms and coronets of red―here and here again, down another two steps, and there, where she’d come to rest. She looked at Richard, out of one eye, and her mouth bubbled a froth of blood and saliva.
“Richard, carry me up the stairs, an’ let me rest a little. Then we be all right for goin’ tomorrow. It’s what he says we got to do.” Richard, unsteady from his first sight of her, stared at her ankle that was twisted round the wrong way, and pitched himself to the fireplace, vomiting.
He wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Mama, let me carry you to the settee.”
“No, darlin’. That ain’t ourn. You got to take me up the stairs. An’ put the comforter on. I get up first thing, and clean all that mess.”
He did not know who the purchaser was. His father had said, “A carpetbagger.” Perhaps no one would be so heartless as to dun them for ruined upholstery and stains on the wall. But the Everards were meant to be packed and gone in the morning. His father had arranged for the hauler, as he had arranged for their rooms. Richard knelt beside his mother, and darted his hands behind her neck, under her knees, trying to lift her without doing further harm. No, he would not get her up the stairs…she was feather-light, but he could not get her up the stairs…because he could not balance, carrying her in his arms. They would fall together.
An explanation formed, like the blood spatters on the wall, flowering whole in his imagination. This freebooter, this Yankee opportunist, this man who was putting them out of their home―might he not have come here, while Mama was alone and helpless? Might he not have stood over her and gloated? Why should Richard need to suppose his father had done this?
“Mama, I need Lawrence. Where is he?”
He did not know why this mention of his brother caused a tear to well from her unswollen eye. “Don’t go away lookin’ for him. Stay here.”
“Well, I will, Mama. But what’s he doin’?” Nightfall made no difference to Lawrence, Richard knew. If his brother were out idling by the creek, he might idle half the night away. The thought occurred to him, with a faint hope, and a freight of cynicism―maybe his father had gone for the doctor.
“Don’t think ill on your brother, Richard. I only had a little accident. He don’t know nothin’ about it, or he’d come up to help.”
“An accident, Mama.”
But if she said so, it eased Richard’s mind, while also it broke his heart. His father had said, “You will not see me again.” The responsibility was Richard’s. He would have to find Lawrence. And he would fetch the doctor himself.
When they’d left Mrs. Purfoy’s house, Richard had asked his father a question. His father’s anger had been profound. He hadn’t spoken since they’d stepped onto the walk; locked, as Richard knew, in one of his rages. Richard let himself fall behind, and from this distance followed, an eye on his father’s gait to judge his mood, as he crossed one street up from the house soon to be theirs, the next after that; then found himself stymied where this intersected with Broadway. Richard watched his father grapple onto the shirt back of a stranger who danced from foot to foot, blocking the way, spectating on some pastime of dice being played in the gutter—saw him bunch the cloth in his fist and force stillness on the man, while he shoved his way past. Richard swerved, put his reddening face to the nearest wall, and found himself staring at a poster. Every arched niche under a cornice draped with yellow and green bunting was filled with one of these, identical, advertising: THE PENITENT SOLDIER (“…artful pathos, exalted drama…”―The Washington Times). Presented by the Breeling-Chesnut Troupe of Players.
Richard stopped, taken by a feeling of wonder. Mrs. Portia Breeling, (“Eliza”), smiled by the half-dozen down upon Richard, coquettish likeness after coquettish likeness. She had an angelic pair of eyes, round red cheeks, a graceful hand at her throat, a wasp waist…and yet a great robustitude of figure overall. But before he could discern the price of a ticket, he heard his father’s voice.
“Richard, I apologize. Tell me again.”
“I didn’t say anythin’, Daddy.”
Richard and his father had stabled their horses and come up river on the Sue-Belle. She, being a cargo-hauling flatboat, might stop and tarry at any wharf to take on another load, and she had likely pushed on. They might never see the Sue-Belle twice. In an odd frame of mind, but not unhappy, his father had told him (before the transaction with Mrs. Purfoy, when he’d still had his ten dollars in his pocket)―“Some of the steam packets, Richard, will leave as late as midnight. But it’s no use giving your money over, until the boat is certain to go.”
“You asked,” he said now, “what will we do, when we come to live here? Didn’t you ask me that, Richard?”
“I will come down this way again. Most jobs in the tobacco trade are in this part of town, close to the river. I have little skill to do any of them…but it won’t matter. Take the first job for which any man will pay you a wage, and rise from there to a better place. That, Richard, is all any of us can do.”
There was something in his brother’s advice. Lawrence, Richard considered, could be relied on. If he said a thing today, he would say the same thing, in the same circumstance, next year, or the year after. Richard loved, and had believed in, his father. His father had done a terrible wrong, and his wrong had devolved onto his son, who now bore all the burden of the elder Richard’s failure to be a man. And yet―though he was afraid to do what he’d promised Mrs. Purfoy―if he abandoned this obligation, he would only find himself poorer, and farther down the road, his time grown shorter. The next job might be worse. Richard knew it would be worse, because every dark place he’d been forced to enter thus far had revealed at its heart a blacker pit of misery. His father’s advice, therefore, had been sound, even if his father’s character had not. Richard would do this job, and earn this wage, and try to rise to a better place.
“What is it you’re doin’?”
Mrs. Purfoy, answering his knock, had butted Richard in the stomach with her book, then snapped at him when he’d tucked it under his arm. “You told me you read and write. You sit down there and copy out them names. You got mud on your boots?”
“No, ma’am. I haven’t set foot outdoors today.”
“Then you come inside. But don’t step on the rug.”
And she’d kept herself right in the crack as she pulled at the door handle, then hovered at his heels, while he stepped down into her sitting parlor. She’d blocked him round―as though he might get past her and snatch at the silver candlesticks―herding him to the secretary placed in an alcove, to sit on a stool facing the wall. Finding only pen and ink for a writing instrument, Richard had etched out a list for himself of tenants in arrears. He could see Mrs. Purfoy docking him the cost of one leaf of paper, one penny’s worth of ink. He heard her rustling and breathing over his shoulder, her voice muttering things, which he took as prompts. “That Hopper,” she said, with a noise of saliva moving through the gums; and, at another moment: “Brogan. Now, that’un’s gone. Seven dollar, sixty cent. You done?” This last, he thought, had been a real remark.
Off she’d scrambled to a corner porch framed by a bay of three windows. Hopping onto a brocaded footstool, she grasped the top of the window’s lower panel, tilted it back on its hinges, and let out a shout. “Thomas! You got to show Everard to the property!”
“Thomas.” Richard craned his neck, keeping Thomas in sight, while trying to mark out a configuration of three chimneys, or two gables and a church spire…or a tall tree, if need be. Richard’s father had taught him this means of finding his way in the woods. “Do you know the name of that house there? The one with the fret-work?”
“Thomas, did that sign say Guthrie Avenue?”
“I didn’t see no sign. This tem’ant house,” Thomas added, after a silence, “don’t have no sign out…you can’t tell it by that, and it don’t have no number on the door. An’ I can’t stop here with you. Mrs. Purfoy wants me to come right back.”
The room in which Richard now stood was sorrowfully dim. A matching house across the alleyway, its rear windows shuttered, afforded only leavings of light that descended through the vertical shaft between. No space in this room was wasted, or―looked at another way―it was all waste, filth, and decrepitude. Even a foot or two below the high ceiling, rope had been nailed without regard for the damaged walls, and employed for the hanging of damp, sour-smelling underclothes. The room seemed to draw its heat from a ferment of mouse, fried fish, and these garments, which were no less stained for having been rinsed.
There was a bedstead, occupied by a sleeper, who did not stir. Richard had been invited by his guide to shake this wretch to consciousness and demand of him Mrs. Purfoy’s rent. She had ushered Richard here, insistent he witness this, jabbing a finger at a box-like construction that divided the room, to leave a corner partitioned; a nook in use, it seemed, for the storage of plaster fallen from the ceiling. Within the box someone had tacked up a shelf. The shelf held a cup and plate…and a sock. Pegged on two nails were a sack and a pistol.
“Now see that! You see that?” she said. Richard remembered Mrs. Purfoy’s eccentricity over the shelves. Fixed in place, she’d told him. And why should they not be? Some paying tenant of the Everards’ own might make a bed in their closet?
“I,” his guide went on, “pay my rent. I pay same as Hopper. Nobody can’t help bein’ sick. My husband went round to Purfoy already. She got no business puttin’ me on the book. You have a look at what he got goin’ on here! Take that pistol!”
Richard wasn’t certain she could have said this. But she smacked his arm and repeated, “You go on, take that pistol!”
“Well, ma’am, I can’t do that. It ain’t mine.”
He’d had his weight balanced on his left hand, resting on what amounted to the roof of this indoor shanty. Richard backed out, careful of his head, and could not find his guide. She might not be, in any case, the Mrs. Upham he had down for room six.
Forsaken on Adams Street, Richard had entered the house to find a door on the inside of the staircase, one that ought to have led to the basement, soundly locked. He’d knocked his way down the darkening hallway, and only this woman, who might have been his own age, or twenty years older―her person was both elfin and slatternly―had opened her door to him.
She’d stared at him.
“Uh huh. What you want?”
Now he heard her scurrying back across the landing.
“That gun ain’t his, Major Fish. He says.”
“Well, stealin’ is wrong. It’s a wise man lets hisself get plugged dead, rather’n take what ain’t his by rights. Miz Upham, I will take that gun.”
Major Fish wore a waistcoat, flaring unbuttoned, and no shirt. His feet were bare. At this season, these were reasonable precautions, supposing the major’s livid complexion testimony, also, of a life spent shut away in one of Mrs. Purfoy’s airless rooms. Fish backed away from the shelter, as Richard had done; but worked, as he did so, the butt of the pistol into the band of his trousers, and secured it under his left brace.
“Sir,” the major said, swiping a hand in the direction of Richard’s and letting it fall. “Fish, Almon. You seem like a young’un to be doin’ this work. You figure you know how to go about shuckin’ them oysters?”
“Richard Everard, sir.” Richard wondered if Fish had been Union…or if he were no major at all. “I’ve collected nothin’ so far.”
Almon Fish, trying for a second time, caught Richard’s hand, gave it a heave, once up and down; then thrust it aside with a vigor born of contempt. He bent suddenly over the sleeping man, and grabbed a fold of blanket. “Son, take ahold of th’other end, and we’ll pitch Tinker on the floor.”
Richard obeyed. The temperament of Major Fish could be gauged only through his actions…his actions thus far had been rough and hasty, and he was now armed. The sleeping man, at the collision of his shoulder and temple with the floorboards, stirred, then relapsed into a doze.
“Is this Tinker?” Richard looked at his paper. “S’pose to be Hopper.”
Fish ignored him. Fashioning a hammock, he hoisted Tinker’s head and upper chest in the blanket’s folds. Fish then swung him with violence. This lasted a moment or two. He broke into a spell of coughing and let Tinker fall. Tinker roused feebly for a second time, and mumbled, “Major Fish, what’s troubling you?”
“What rent does he owe?” Fish asked Richard.
It occurred to Richard that Mrs. Purfoy might intend this: that his first day on the job be a baptism of fire. Fish wrenched from his throat a plug of phlegm, spat on the floor, pushed his waistcoat aside, and laid a hand on the pistol butt.
Richard felt he understood how Thomas had come to his way of thinking. “I’ll tell you everything I know, Major Fish. She gave me a book and had me copy out the names of all her tenants owed back rent. I got a Mr. Tinker, here,” he tapped his paper, “lives down the basement. Owes Mrs. Purfoy fourteen dollars.”
“And what the ol’ brimstone willin’ to take?”
There had been no discussion with Mrs. Purfoy of sums-in-earnest. But Richard recalled his father’s calculations in the last days of the farm. Fodder for the horses they must have, but they would hire no more labor. They kept chickens still, but no cow or hog, so milk and bacon must be bought; white flour also, as they could not grow wheat…and from their own seed must plant for themselves a few acres of vegetable crops…if the melons came in plenty, Johnson would trade in kind.
They would burn no lamps. They must pay at least thirty percent to keep credit at the general store, stonewall the taxman; keep in with the blacksmith―
Fish’s eye bulged at this delay. Well, Richard told himself…brimstone she was beyond doubt, but a sop would soothe Mrs. Purfoy better than nothing. “Sir, I’ve thought on it.” He waved a hand, and a figure came to him. “I believe she’ll take half.”
Drawing the pistol, Fish leaned into Tinker’s face. “You ain’t paid rent in four weeks. You got money hid somewhers.”
“I got nothing, Major. If you like to shoot me, better do it.”
“It ain’t right.” Mrs. Upham spoke. And not in defense of Tinker’s life. She made her appeal to Richard, continuing as she had begun. She put a hand on his arm, urging his attention again towards the box, the unlawful apartment on which Tinker―or Hopper―collected an income at Mrs. Purfoy’s expense. “I pay my rent. I don’t have none of this shenanigan goin’ on. Mister, I’d be better off if I didn’t pay.”
Major Fish renewed his assault on Tinker. “I throw you out that window.”
“Throw me out the window, Fish. I got nothing.”
Fish stood up and tucked the pistol away. “Mr. Everard, that’s how you got to deal with ’em. Don’t say it always gets you nowhers.”
“Major Fish.” Richard’s mind prodded him, as though the abyss contained a glimmer of light after all. A small insight flared, and he began to see his way clear to doing this job. He offered a hand to the major, as though about to take his leave. The major might be a crack shot, and Richard’s conjecture might be gravely wrong. But when Fish flung out his own hand, coming at first pass within an inch of Richard’s, Richard slammed his fist upwards against Fish’s right forearm. He had to seize the pistol left-handed, and he didn’t know enough about side-arms to be sure it wouldn’t go off.
“Shit fire! God damn you! If you was wantin’ that gun, why wouldn’t you say so?”
“I apologize, Major Fish. I thought you had it in mind to sell the gun. Think I’ll do that myself.”
“Stand up and back off a ways,” Lawrence said. “I got a clear shot.”
“No, you don’t.”
Tinker’s blanket had fallen into the major’s possession, and they used it now to keep the mud off their trousers. They made themselves unobtrusive, a trio of vagabonds day-camping here at the boundary of the boat yard. A crenelated cliff-face of broken paddle wheelers, a feature peculiar to this landscape, obscured the distant view, and from somewhere amid the wreckage came the sound of a solitary worker’s hammer―tink, tink, clank. Richard, Lawrence, and Fish came here only after the work slowed, towards late-afternoon.
They sat on a mild rise. Below them, a wall of vitriated brick held off the river. In this wall, iron rings were embedded at intervals, and one, weaker than the pull of the current at floodtide, wrenched from its socket by a wayward barge once moored there, had left behind a cavity. The ring’s bolt, bent crooked, still jutted from the crumbling brick. This was about fifty feet from where they’d laid Tinker’s blanket.
Richard stood, and Lawrence, scooting sideways, propped the pistol’s muzzle on his sleeve, his forearm on his knee. Richard began to smile; Fish also saw it coming.
“Ha. He ain’t gettin’ it.”
The pigeon, which had hunkered uneasily, bobbing its head all the while from side to side, fled its hole with a fretful ruckus of wingbeats and whistling. Lawrence continued sighting the pistol; he pivoted on the blanket, walking his heels round, aiming this time for his favored target―the overturned hull of a scuttled keel-boat. The shot was difficult; not the distance only, but difficult for Richard to stomach. Lawrence, with his depredations, would have them run off the property. But his brother, who loved shooting things, trapping things, and dragging things out of cover, had loved the pistol from the day Richard brought it home, and had surprised Richard with the knowledge of firearms he’d picked up, without ever having touched a Colt revolver.
Rather than retrace his steps, on his inaugural day in Mrs. Purfoy’s employ, Richard, after leaving the tenement (and in every instance frustrated) had walked on, thinking his dilemma through. He allowed Mrs. Purfoy to prosecute him, and tried, on the model of his father, to come back at her with a fair defense. Of course, she had beaten his father.
Yet this much was in Richard’s favor—she could hardly hire labor at a cheaper price. Long before he’d gone down to knock at her door, he’d weighed these worries: that two weeks was no time at all, that Mama wasn’t near well enough to be moved, that Mrs. Purfoy must be persuaded to let them stay on in their rooms, that money needed for plain living could not go to pay rent, not even for honor’s sake; but that he could do something for her in exchange…
He’d been hired for sufferance, he guessed. Not for mercy; for bare tolerance.
“Give me another day, ma’am.”
And why should she give him another day?
(more to come)