The Mirrors (part fifteen)
*Today’s episode contains a racial epithet in the dialogue of one of the characters.
“No…” His mouth lost that power at times to form words, no mental turning from place of threat to safe. His grandfather with the back of a hand had corrected this embarrassment…
“I suppose I was thinking aloud…not suggesting… Anything, sir, my father…I believe he is…not to be trusted around narcotics. Or intoxicants.”
Bonheur, cautious: “I notice, if he comes down here or if he turns up in the yard, it can be a little bothersome to the patients. There is only myself and Mrs. Turner to look after things. I don’t know that your father inclines to much natural respect…that is, about the places he puts his head into, or the ways he speaks to people.”
To be sorry for this was less a complexity, and Charleton apologized. He dared, “I don’t want him here. I don’t know how to be rid of him.”
“Bars,” Bonheur said, “might be an idea.”
They had agreed on that, their last conversation.
Mrs. Turner saw the pregnant women, spoke to them privately, so they could tell her things they’d have kept to themselves, even from Bonheur. Those things, Charleton understood, were sometimes the names of the men who’d forced this, the woman’s wish to end it. Mrs. Turner, if she performed abortions, acted contrary to the clinic’s mandate; it was a secret he felt he would never broach. At the same time, he felt secrets tainted the air around him.
He had come home to work under his grandfather’s preceptorship, at the charity hospital, the clinic building not yet renovated to a useable state. Charleton’s habit was early rising, leaving without breakfast, first to reach his grandfather’s office. He would have two hours at his studies before nine and rounds.
He wanted little of his grandfather’s society, disliked that in the grand house were servants, that handed-off overcoats and hats needing bringing back; cups of coffee, sandwiches, requesting. And that it was reasonable and fair to tell where you were going when you went…
So many checks and balances were burdensome to a recent college boy. Charleton was shy; only in his medical capacity (with conversation awkward in any case), did he take confidence. Old Dumain was, in the way of tyrants, encyclopedic of knowledge. Charleton in defense pored over patient files…when he felt he’d memorized them in gist, he went to the journals, teaching himself what he could about the diagnoses. He knew no one in this city where he’d grown up; he walked in thought of professional concerns only.
He began to notice Leonce.
Leonce was not then a young man who had a name, not whatsoever conceived as a close relation. He was colored, light-skinned, light-haired, handsome. He dogged Charleton’s steps, touched his cap sardonically.
“Hey, there, brother.”
He made these words a habit, and Charleton answered only, “Hello.” He said one morning: “How do you do?”
“Oh, dandy. Not too bad. Got a little daughter, needs looking after.”
So… The object was begging. But having nothing against charity, he rooted in his trouser pocket.
“Charleton Dumain, what’re you thinking of? I wonder if you know me.”
“Ought I to?” The arm went lank, the bill between two fingers at his side.
Leonce grinned. “Gracious, now. Listen to that. Ought I to.” He put a hand on Charleton’s shoulder, and they walked side by side.
He found himself pulled off the walk before his foot could land on the lowest step, before he could climb to his grandfather’s door. His father still pretended a distance between himself and Old Dumain, as though Charleton could be a repository for secrets. They went into the garden, to the well, Joseph lighting for a moment on the bench.
“Why’s it so rank?”
He swayed to his feet, threw his head in one direction and another, his motions an alcoholic’s bargain with balance, wild then arrested. “Get that brick. Drop it in.”
Seated, Charleton waited for him to make sense. But finding the act wasteful, he obeyed. Joseph came after him, flung to his elbows across the coping, and listened. “See there? Where the hell it goes?”
The well in Grandfather’s garden, true, billowed something putrid from its depths. And the brick had taken its time splashing…
And what if Joseph, in his curiosity, tipped in? Charleton, knowing what he felt, decided whatever his father’s business, he would take up his own. “I can’t let you have Godfrey visit. Not at the clinic. Have him in your room if you like.”
“I don’t recollect calling you down to say hello.”
“Well, you didn’t. I saw from the window.”
“Don’t like your cousin? Don’t think he’s good enough?”
“Sir, I was up in the attic.” Sir was all Charleton could call his father, gone all his life.
“Up in the attic, soon enough back down the stairs…”
A harangue now, that built while the two stared on, into the hole. A heavy flood would push what was discarded there, up to bob along the street; to eddy, tapping at basement windows. To lay itself out drying on the grass…and what would it be? Tiny bones? Needles and bottles?
The abyss told Charleton’s mind these things. He forced hearing, and his father was saying: “Bonheur has no respect for you. You don’t know the coloreds. Bonheur’d never have any time of day for Leonce. Calls himself Dumain.”
He broke and turned to laugh looking at his son.
“I don’t think Grandfather denies it. He gives Leonce money.” He had felt bold enough to say this, and calm.
“Well, Leonce got too much nigger blood to hide. You, he had some use for.”
Carolee had done secretarial studies at a junior college in the city, able to live in the dorm there, feeling not normal and social among the girls…never a fit with the normal, because she knew the island, her mother left behind there, and Godfrey. She was twenty years old. She had applied for acceptance at the Woman’s Medical College in Philadelphia. Of this not a word to her grandfather, instinct telling her she would not like his help, and she would not like his refusal of it. It was all a hemming in, a written fate, a frightening end coming, and while she ought to have given up career and gone to protect her mother, she saw in it herself, that she could reject duty…
That love, on the island of St. Hubert, had never really been.
As for boyfriends…she had tried very hard. She had let him be a husband to her, though knowing…
“I did think I would have to kill Godfrey. For us to marry in peace. Yes, I mean that in every absolute it implies. I could have pushed him in the water, the way…no. I should take that back, he was ten years old. But you know, I’m so sure he killed my aunt. I think it cracked him, I think his soul left his body at that moment. I picture his foul little mind a blank, the idea everything, the watching to see what would happen… And after his long spell, Godfrey was left with what he grew up to be. Charmante, you don’t have Dumain blood. You don’t know what it is to be…experimental.”
Godfrey might be dead. He had vanished, Charleton later telling them he was in the city…seen at the clinic buying laudanum from Joseph. But Godfrey could not have been arrested, mixed up in the riot for whatever reason.
Never have sat in a jail cell. He’d have begged, and wept, and offered bribes. Her poor mother would have been approached.
They said nothing at all to each other. Crossed fingers and doubted their luck. Buried Joseph Dumain in the family graveyard, there on the island.
For the open casket Carolee had to blame Elizabeth. He was her brother…she had the right, his only capable…willing…next of kin, to state to the undertaker her preference, Grandfather holed up in a pretense of shock. Joseph’s body had been found in the wreckage of the clinic, burned. Face down, the face salvageable.
Why the morbid impulse? A thing about her mother she had never known. The body in its casket sat on a table in the family chapel, the table draped with a rug. A rug that smelled, as everything so near the river smelled, of reclamation. Charleton quivered and hugged himself, and Carolee, enduring the sermon beside him, felt he was stricken mad by the bodies Grandfather had volunteered him to carry from the rubble and ash. To lay out for the families to name.
(2020, Stephanie Foster)