The Mirrors (part ten)
The mansion sat hard by the walk, older than the widening of its street for the rails. But it must never have had much frontage, nothing like the walled yards and sprawling shade trees of neighborhoods farther north. And if Dumain had wanted land, he owned it already…those unlucky plots below, where two of his family’s ventures had burned.
Here was a sign, surprising her not at all, in naming this the Metropolitan Cultural Institute. A window came up above their heads.
“Mr. Carmine, is that you? Stay where you are!”
“I ought to warn you,” William said.
But the woman had flown downstairs, so it seemed. The front door was swinging before Charmante knew of what she ought to be warned.
“Why! William Wright. Do I remember?”
“Mr. Carmine, you look a little under the weather. Would you like to come in?”
At the tap of her finger, he said, “Veronica.”
“That’s right. How is Rothesay?”
He looked himself over, patted his clothing, drew a wallet and stared at it, his face blanched in the sunlight and bewildered. “Is Rothesay back…when?” He asked this of himself.
“Come inside and sit,” she repeated. “Hello!”
“Veronica Dumain. Are you not…” Ignoring Carmine’s answering of himself in a mumble, “When did he leave, though?”, she hooked his arm and ushered. When over her shoulder she saw that William and Charmante stood in place, Miss Dumain finished:
“…the housekeeper, over at Charleton’s? No, you two, come on up to my office. Miriam.”
“Warn me what?”
“That. It’s her. Hired me.”
She was at her desk, shuffling index cards, the hand now ushering Charmante and William to the sofa where Carmine sat. “I’ve done it again…don’t tell! Marian.”
“Oh… Marian from Miss Roback’s.”
“I need to give Carolee a call. I think she’ll come get us in her car. Well! This is it, huh? My place is upstairs. Let me make two calls.”
Charmante gave William the barest sidelong look; he returned a slight nod…slight but angled, as meant fellowship. Carmine, cradling a pillow, sat fingering the drape that blocked his view outdoors…he peered at this fabric as though he’d woken in a strange land and couldn’t name it.
“Don’t, if it will take very long,” Veronica was saying. “Oh, good! Then do…” She pitched over her desktop onto elbows. “Nat! Would you like to go up to my apartment and listen to music?”
“I don’t like this house.”
The gap of the door inched larger. Charmante, for manners, got to her feet. William got to his.
“Susie, I’ll take care of all that. I told Mr. Carmine you’d show him to the guest room and play him some gramophone records… Susie won’t leave you alone, Nat. And you know…he can only be in one place.”
Veronica was dialing again, while Charmante, in this little room crowded to capacity, took the coffee tray, and William changed places with Carmine, getting him to his feet, shifting his sleeve into Susie’s grip.
Veronica cupped the receiver: “I thought we’d all drive out of the city some ways, and just have our talk.”
Their road sagged low, following the river’s course where the oldest of passageways had run, the towpath. Marian drove Carolee’s car, Veronica and her guests on the back seat.
“The Robacks were never so bad…that is, you think of them on their island, where, going back…”
Popping sounds of tires breaking twigs.
“We bred our own people, as we used to say… Outsiders, visitors, would have to be invited by a protocol. There could be no happenstance, no dropping by, no trespass… Everything as they’d ordered it, my grandparents, everything theirs, the food they ate, the musicians…”
A moment of conscience again, giving Carolee pause. Who would the musicians be, after all, or the dancers, entertaining?
“Those hunts, Charmante. Capture the flag. The tourneys…I mean at tennis… And being from a place in the world where normally you had no truck with anyone but your own… They were bankers. My father knew other bankers. He knew his mayor and his senator, he knew his schemers. Those would be the planters, the shippers, the railroad men. The Dumain relatives, building their clinics. Well, you know, bank loans in that group…they’d just shake hands on it during these… What would you call them? Junkets.”
Charmante did not know bank loans, hardly could have a preferred name for island holidays. But Carolee lit on phrases; what anyone, in their conversation, did.
“It was all very insular, you mean.”
“It was a nuthatch. No, that doesn’t seem right. A weird effect of the same people coming back one time a year, slowing aging… Dying offstage. When I got to be eighteen or so, I thought…”
Marian stopped the car before a slough of sucking mud. “Ma’am, I don’t know if I ought to.”
“We all should get out, take the weight off.” William popped his door.
Veronica said: “Let’s not chance it. We’ll get a boat across for sure, but the car is all we’ve got. Marian, back it up to that little rise we just came down.”
The river spread wide beyond the dip, greyish-blue in its placidity, a looking glass lapping at knees of bald cypress, claiming its crescent of the road itself. Fools joy-riding up this way often drowned, as you couldn’t know when you shot over the rise where the water sat any given day.
“When you were eighteen.”
Carolee smiled thinly. “I thought I would get out, if I had to row across that river myself.”
“You don’t think there’s any trouble, ma’am, leaving the car.”
“William, I’m looking to hire someone to keep an eye on it. But Marian, I don’t know any reason you need to go across. Maybe…”
“Veronica, there’s only some of your plans I would go along with. And anything you thought of just this minute, no. That’s Leonce in her.”
She spoke to William, who’d known Leonce, the nodding intimacy (leave it alone) doing something to Charmante. And…
“Yes, ma’am. Leonce is my own father. Was.”
“One reason we’re going to Saint Hubert. So we can hash all that out.” Carolee draped a scarf over her hat, knotted it under her chin. Next from her bag she pulled a bottle of scented lotion. “Do the mosquitos bother you, Charmante?”
A dumbstruck moment passed. Carolee waggled the bottle.
“Oh! Yes they do…thank you!”
Here was a social question never encountered, how much of a stranger’s expensive lotion to use before her eyes. Veronica meanwhile had plunged ahead, imprinting heel-marks along the road. She was singing out, “Heyo!”…
(2020, Stephanie Foster)