He finds himself awakening at dawn, when the sea is brightening but the sun still struggles in its bedclothes, and sits down to lash his protagonist a few more times with his authorial whip. And somehow, a bittersweet longing starts to appear in the novel that was never there before. It changes, grows kinder. Less, as with a repentant worshipper, begins again to love his subject, and at last, one morning, after an hour sitting with his chin in his hand, watching birds cross the gray haze of the horizon, our benevolent god grants his character the brief benediction of joy.
We revel in men like Beecham, Moore—they are the easy repositories of all that is dark in our very social world. But the things that helped make Beecham what he was? Those, we tolerate. Those, we even enjoy…
He said, softly enough that she might not catch it, “I was a rotten father.” Ona nodded, noncommittal. “There are worse things.” “Like what?” He really wanted to know. “Being an adequate mother.” She took a swig from her coffee mug. “Rotten fathers are a dime a dozen, who even notices? Whatever kind you were—and I’m sure you weren’t as bad as you think—you probably did the best you could, and nobody expects much more out of a man.
Maybe life is just carrying news. Surviving to carry the news. Maybe we have just one message, and it is delivered to us when we are born and we are never sure what it says; it may have nothing to do with us personally but it must be carried by hand through a life, all the way, and at the end handed over, sealed.
Dad was telling every one of them to get out of our house. I’d never seen my father so angry. Years later, I would find myself dog-earing a page in a book about the ocean. On the page a painting of gray, wild waves. I have since torn that page out of the book and set the painting to frame by the side of my bed. I suppose it is a painting of my father from that night he raged like waves in a storm.
Presumably, the bells of the Church of the Ascension had been reclaimed by the Bolsheviks for the manufacture of artillery, thus returning them to the realm from whence they came. Though for all the Count knew, the cannons that had been salvaged from Napoleon’s retreat to make the Ascension’s bells had been forged by the French from the bells at La Rochelle; which in turn had been forged from British blunderbusses seized in the Thirty Years’ War. From bells to cannons and back again, from now until the end of time. Such is the fate of iron ore.
He cut the engine. The clack of sprinklers filled the car. The wide empty lawns were veiled in shifting iridescence. One of the rivulets in the flow of his imaginings that morning had been the sight of my grandmother rising to her feet on the topmost step of the main building, in the belted navy blue dress she had been wearing the last time he’d seen her. She had lifted a tentative hand, then dropped it and come tearing down the steps toward him. He would burst from the Buick, leaving the engine running and the door open, and go to her. She would leap into his arms and scissor her legs around his waist. The contact of their mouths would be the fixed point around which the world, the day, and the state hospital would rotate.
As Sonny passed the projects that filled the distance between his apartment and Willie’s, he tried to remember the last time he’d really spoken to his mother. It was 1964, during the riots, and she had asked him to meet her in front of her church so that she could lend him some money. “I don’t want to see you dead or worse,” she’d said, passing Sonny what little change hadn’t made it into the offering plate. As he took the money, Sonny had wondered, What could be worse than dead? But all around him, the evidence was clear. Only weeks before, the NYPD had shot down a fifteen-year-old black boy, a student, for next to nothing. The shooting had started the riots, pitting young black men and some black women against the police force. The news made it sound like the fault lay with the blacks of Harlem. The violent, the crazy, the monstrous black people who had the gall to demand that their children not be gunned down in the streets. Sonny clutched his mother’s money tight as he walked back that day, hoping he wouldn’t run into any white people looking to prove a point, because he knew in his body, even if he hadn’t yet put it together in his mind, that in America the worst thing you could be was a black man. Worse than dead, you were a dead man walking.
He finds the lying comes easy enough, of course. Words are just noises in a certain order, and he can use them any way he wishes. Pigs grunt, ducks quack, and men tell lies: that is how it generally goes.
Was she supposed to pray now? She sat at the table in the thin lamplight. It was too dark on the platform to make out where the tunnel began. How long would it take them to root out Caesar? How fast could he run? She was aware of the bargains people made in desperate situations. To reduce the fever in a sick baby, to halt the brutalities of an overseer, to deliver one from a host of slave hells. From what she saw, the bargains never bore fruit. Sometimes the fever subsided, but the plantation was always still there. Cora did not pray.