Canin tests character against power, deception and seduction
'For Kings and Planets'
Web posted on: Monday, September 28, 1998 4:40:55 PMEDT
(CNN) -- "For Kings and Planets" is the story of a man who thinks of himself as moral, who tests his character against power, deception, and seduction. It is also the story of a friendship fractured by love.
Ethan Canin, the bestselling author of "The Palace Thief" and "Emperor of the Air", has been described by "The New York Times" as "one of the most satisfying writers on the contemporary scene."
Years later, Orno Tarcher would think of his days in New York as a seduction. A seduction and a near miss, a time when his memory of the world around him--the shining stone stairwells, the taxicabs, the sea of nighttime lights--was glinting and of heroic proportion. Like a dream. He had almost been taken away from himself. That was the feeling he had, looking back. Smells and sounds: the roll and thunder of the number 1 train; the wind like a flute through the deck rafters of the Empire State Building; the waft of dope in the halls. Different girls, their lives coming back to him: hallways and slants of light. Daphne and Anne-Marie and especially Sofia. He remembered meeting Marshall Emerson on his second day at college, at dawn on the curb of 116th Street and Broadway, the air touched with a memory of heat that lingered in the barest rain. It had reminded him of home.
New York: he'd driven with his parents, arriving in three days from Cook's Grange, Missouri, cabs honking and speeding by them as at last they pulled onto the West Side Highway late in the afternoon on the first day of September, 1974; the cornices of midtown skyscrapers ablaze in sunlight above his father's homburg as he inched along in the right lane. Hugging the wheel of the Chrysler like a man on a tractor. Orno was in the backseat, coming to Columbia University, the first in his family to go east for an education. He remembered his father, driving like a farmer. His mother in her flowered dress.
He himself was in corduroy pants and a tie, upright in his seat with hopes of deeds and glory. That evening, after his parents left him, he wandered downstairs and sat on the dormitory steps in the warm air, eager to offer aid to anyone moving in. But three days remained before the start of registration and nobody appeared for him to help. He went for a walk in the direction of the Hudson instead, coming out at last onto the high bluffs. They reminded him of the Mississippi until at sunset the lights began to come on across the water. Streams of red and yellow on the throughways. Buildings clumped like stars. He returned to the dormitory again, still not having spoken to anyone and suddenly remembering that he was not to walk out alone after dark; he went upstairs to his room, where he read Look Homeward, Angel until he became used to the sounds of traffic and slept. Fear entered him and replaced his hope of glory, fear that he had erred badly. He remembered thinking: I am no longer among my own.
The next morning he woke early, a habit from Missouri. He showered before dawn, left his hair wet, and walked down to the west gate of campus. On the park bench the guard dozed and a young boy sat unbundling newspapers. A misty rain was settling, no more than a touch of cool on his skin. In the distance he heard a garbage truck shrieking and clanging as it came to intersections, muffled when it moved behind the apartments. Then he was aware that someone was saying his name: another student, possibly his own age, in a smoking jacket. Friendly in a sly way. "Well," he said. "Did I get it?"
"My name?" said Orno. "Yes you did. How'd you know?" "The book of pictures they gave us. The face book." "You're a freshman, too?" "Yes, I'm embarrassed to say." He put out his hand. "Marshall Emerson." "Orno Tarcher." "As I said." "As you did." "You're up early, too," said Orno. Marshall smiled. "Hardly." He rubbed his hands. "We're in the same hall, you know. Four hundred of us hungry dogs. I think you're right downstairs from me. You're in 318. I'm in 418." "How'd you know all this?" "I told you. It was in the face book." "There are hundreds of pictures in that book." "Well, I was right, wasn't I?" "I guess so," said Orno, holding out his hand. "Let me see your picture." "I tossed the thing weeks ago. Sorry. But I'm from here," he said. "Manhattan." He pointed up around him. "And I didn't let them have my picture anyway. I sent them a drawing. But they didn't use it. Now you know my name, anyway." Orno smiled.
"You know what I love?" Marshall said. "I love the way at this hour you could be anywhere on earth. Before it wakes, the world is the same everywhere. In Istanbul now you would be hearing the first call to prayer. This rain reminds me of it." He put his hand to his mouth and made a chanting noise. "Allahu Akbar. Ashadu an la ilaha ill Allah. The muezzin." He smiled. "In the minarets." "I've never been," said Orno. "Have you spent much time there?" "In a way. A beautiful and mysterious city. I once saw a man there feed a house cat to his snake. Ashadu anna Muhammadur rasul Allah. It means, God Is Great. In practice it means, get out of bed." Orno laughed. His whole life he would remember this moment: the world opening. "I'm glad to see you wake up at this hour, too," he said. "Where I'm from, everybody does, but around here nobody seems to." Marshall stared at him. "Oh, you're really not kidding, are you?" Orno looked back, smiling unsteadily. "I'm not waking up," said Marshall. "I'm getting home." "They make these like this so we can't jump out of them," Marshall said, trying to force open Orno's window. It was later that day, early afternoon sunlight bouncing in from the gray stone walls. "You can't open them wider than your hand, you know." Orno walked over and pushed. "I'll be darned."
There was a flatness to the light off the granite, like heat. Marshall had come downstairs to visit, knocked once on his door and then opened it. That and the fact of New York out his window: he could see the cornice of a prewar building across the street, green copper thirty stories up, maybe a roof garden. It was thrilling. There was still almost nobody else in the dorm, though now through the window he could see them starting to arrive. Cabs at the curb. Boxes. All day his mood had risen and fallen wildly. At Clarkson College, where his father and uncles had gone, the windows were huge, wood-paned rectangles that spun on pivot hinges: dusty sunlight and prairie wind and yellow jackets in the high corners of the rooms. Just as quickly fear rose in him. He touched the glass again. "My folks are out to drop me off," he said. "We're going to lunch."
Marshall kept looking out the window. "I mean, if you want to come." "What are your folks like?" He had no answer for that. It was odd. "I mean," he said, "I doubt it will be fancy or anything." He thought of his father. "But still." "Out from where?" "We're from the Midwest." "Where in the Midwest?" "St. Louis." He was looking down at Broadway, knowing his father would pull past in the yellow Chrysler. "The face book says Cook's Grange." "I thought you threw out the face book." "I did. Where's Cook's Grange?" "Two hours from St. Louis." On the street the Chrysler drove by: Orno glimpsed his mother's hat, red flowers at the brim, the camera on her shoulder. "You probably have better things to do." "No," said Marshall. "I'd love to come along." They walked outside into the glancing light. Getting into the car Marshall said, "I've never been in a private car in Manhattan in my life." "Is that right?" asked his mother. "Where does your family reside?" "East Sixties." She smiled blankly. "The Upper East Side of Manhattan," said his father. "Across the park." Orno said, "Mother, Father, this is Marshall Emerson." His father lifted his hat, a country gesture. "Drake Tarcher," he said. It could have been the opening of a crop-insurance pitch. "How do you do?" Marshall answered, a phrase Orno himself had never used. He made a note of it. His mother smiled.
They went to lunch on Broadway at a place Marshall knew: plate-glass windows opening on to a scene of rush--streams of taxis, roofers next door hauling tar pots up a rickety ladder, women in heels, a policeman clomping midstreet on a rebelling mare. The menu made his mother laugh: sandwiches named The Brooklyn Bridge (Wanna Buy It?), The President Nixon (We Can Explain Everything), The Big Apple (But I Wouldn't Want To Live There). The waiter introduced himself, and his mother asked him where he was from, while somehow his father and Marshall continued a discussion of World War II that they must have started on the street. Orno's father had seen action in the Philippines and Marshall seemed to know about all the battles there: Corregidor, the China Sea. Orno had heard of them too, but he'd never paid attention. He felt envy, his father talking this way.
His mother said, "My, you certainly seem to know a great deal. What does your father do?" "Both my parents are professors." She raised her brows. "Both of them?" "Yes, ma'am." "What does your father teach?" "Vertebrate biology." "And what is that exactly?" "Fish mostly, in his case. He studies a genus of Teleostei, at Woods Hole. That's where we go in the summer. But in general the field is any animal with a backbone. For some reason it's a distinction biologists make." He smiled thinly. "Ironically enough." "And Mrs. Emerson?" "Anthropology." He nodded. "She uses her own name, by the way. She goes by Pelham, not Emerson." "Oh dear," said his mother.
His father taught at Columbia itself, it turned out, a fact Marshall seemed to admit with the same unease Orno had felt that morning saying he was from Cook's Grange. His face reddened, a quick flight of color. Then he was pale again, one long arm out on the table. Orno ate ravenously, hungry with envy. He finished his sandwich and ordered a salad. Maybe it was more than envy; maybe it was less. He wanted things, could feel himself on the verge: a new half of the world. He started tapping his feet. Everything was brimming--the windows, the conversation, the stream of walkers, the white stone architecture across the street, on fire in the sun. Marshall was telling them about his mother now. She studied a village in Turkey and a primitive tribe in the South Pacific, the first woman ever to venture alone into the island jungle.
"The South Pacific?" said his mother. "It must be lovely. Are there really such beautiful waterfalls?" Orno could feel the smallness of his own life.
"Not really," Marshall said. "Not where she goes. And in any case, it wasn't so lovely for her children."
Orno and Marshall were in a history class together--a great relief to Orno, because as school started and he walked the diagonal paths between the halls of classrooms he was swept with thoughts of smallness. The trees were at their late summer peak, the humid, stretched leaves, the magnificent span of boughs among the buildings; height everywhere, everything seeming older and more permanent than himself. The other students seemed to know one another, moving in packs through the brass-bottomed swinging doors, talking in whispers. To find Marshall in his history class was a comfort, deeply so.
It was an introductory course: History 120. Ancient Greece and Rome. An old professor in an old black suit, shiny at the belly and shoulders, a bald head of scolding hugeness, a cane unused against the podium like an umbrella. His name was Winthrop Menemee Scott, all three names spelled out anew on the blackboard the first and second and third days of class, a slanting unsteady hand on the dusty slate, the letters huge to Orno in the first row and obviously degenerate from disease.
Marshall didn't appear until the fourth day, looking stricken as he entered to find Orno where he was, one seat off the aisle, the closest student in the hall to the orating professor. Marshall looked up the rows of slanting burgundy seats, hesitated, then sat beside him. Winthrop Menemee Scott paused for a moment and then nodded. Marshall waved back, a small gesture, his hand not leaving his lap.
When class was over Marshall told Orno that Professor Scott knew his father, and after that he tried to get Orno to sit high in the auditorium with him, well back in the rows of ill-cushioned seats where the armrests had been scratched with initials and the upholstery smelled like medicine cut ineffectively with lemon. Flea powder, it was said to be. Orno obliged and for several days moved back in the room, high up over the sea of bodies that sometimes daunted him, 220 downturned heads of hair, 220 notebooks, the frightening obliviousness of other people's hopes.
Private-school students, most of them, he knew from looking at the face book: Groton, Deerfield, Hotchkiss. He wondered what that meant. Sitting high up, his attention wandered out into the fall sky over the quadrangle: splendid, a darker blue than Missouri, nearly cobalt--it lacked opacity, some evidence of earth in it, the blown dust of the summer sky back home. Forty yards away the marble friezes of the academic buildings sat in eerie relief that vibrated in his eyes: pigeons strutting jerkily on the sills, dandelion fluff spinning at outrageous heights. His attention wandered and snapped back, then turned to the rows of heads and the sound of pages being turned. He told Marshall he had a hard time hearing so far away and went back to sitting in front.
In a week they'd covered the Minoans and the Mycenaeans and moved into the Age of Solon. Each night there were a hundred pages to read before he could even turn to his other classes; it seemed Professor Menemee Scott must have been trying to scare them. Coming out of class into the suddenly cool afternoons he tasted metal in his throat: a dry hesitance that didn't ease until he was most of the way through the short, dining-hall dinner. He brought his book bag with him to the cafeteria and set it below the table, saving perhaps ten minutes, then left for the library with two plastic cups of coffee, one in a paper bag to drink later, lukewarm. In the library he stacked his books in front of him and set about the work. He was counting on the belief that he could study harder than the other students he saw through the round-topped windows overlooking the grass. They filtered out over the remainder of the dinner hour, smoked cigarettes sitting on the steps below the statue of Alma Mater, sauntered in twos and threes through the wrought-iron gates onto Broadway. A hundred yards away from them he sat with two feet on the floor for posture and his jacket off to ward away sleepiness in the air-conditioned stacks. He looked down: on a sheet of notebook paper he'd written, Don't be afraid.
He didn't know what he planned to major in, but there was some feeling at home that it would be history, like his uncle Clarence in Centerville, a lawyer and the only one in the family with books in the house; but every night he read through Menemee Scott's own book on the Greeks and felt the words skid: "The solipsistic Athenians, surrounded on two sides by the bellicose Spartans and the bellicosely commercial Carthaginians, internally confined, it could be said, by their own static harmonies, failed to grasp--" The library lights made a humming noise and now and then the air conditioner changed pitch and he would tumble from his reverie, the page unturned. What did he care about these thoughts? He looked up into the maze of colored ceiling tiles and out through the now dark windows. There were no private schools in Cook's Grange; there were none until St. Louis. On the other hand he was used to the struggle of discipline. He welcomed it, really; it was as familiar to him as waking in the black Missouri winter. But the field of history itself, coupled with Menemee Scott's trembling voice and the recounting of lives that seemed to him in essence to be squandered, touched him with panic. And the others, 220 of them, all eager. A distant past, obscured and generalized and reworked for him to commit to memory. It seemed not the kind of thing he could retain. He had often doubted his intelligence, but now for the first time he began to doubt his resolve. He looked around, gazed hungrily at the other students chatting in the stairwells. Then he set to work again. He was taking freshman composition as well, and courses in chemistry and physics that, to his great relief, yielded to his discipline. He had applied to Columbia without telling his parents.
Every night when he came back from the library he would stop by Marshall's room, in which it seemed Marshall didn't study at all. Two huge speakers stood against the back wall, playing Steely Dan or the Grateful Dead, and Marshall himself lay reclining on the wide tasseled pillows on the floor. He'd built the speakers himself, he told Orno; now he listened to them with wary, proprietary attention. Orno never saw him reading. Other students moved in and out, wandering in when the libraries closed, taking off their shoes outside and arraying themselves across the pillows. Bottles of schnapps and beer stood on the windowsills; joints lay in the brass ashtrays. Orno had never smoked before, but one night he did, feeling nothing as the joint was passed to him. Usually they skipped him over, the joint moving in a half-circle toward Marshall and then back again, nobody offering to him and Orno not asking. But now, suddenly, it was in his hand and he drew on it, feeling the bite in his throat. An obscure change seemed to come over the room and he grew quiet and watched the others. They exhaled bluish smoke and debated Marshall over small points of music history, narrow-eyed like cats. He waited for more to happen. The next night he tried it again, again waiting. It struck him that he had the wrong character for it, something immovable inside him, immune to the effects he saw everywhere else. The others talked languorously or tapped their fingers. He was embarrassed at his own stolidness and closed his eyes for effect. He felt the word Missouri written on his forehead. He tried to concentrate on the music, but he kept thinking instead of his father, waking early to fetch the newspaper.
But for some reason Marshall took to him. Orno didn't need a lot of sleep--it was how everyone lived where he was from--and it wasn't hard for him to stay late into the night in Marshall's room, picking up a conversation after most of the others had gone back to their own beds. Marshall didn't really confide anything in him, he realized later, but he had an ease about him that invited confession. Orno would come back when the library closed, drop his books in the hall outside Marshall's door and leave his shoes there, then come in and take his place amid the ruins of the evening. Sometimes other students were asleep against the wall. The pillows smelled of smoke; bottles had worked their way between the mattresses. Marshall told him he never slept before 4:00 a.m.--he was usually asleep when Orno came back from his morning chemistry class--and for as long as Orno was willing to lie there on the pillows he maintained an intermittent run of conversation, pausing for certain riffs in the music at which he would raise his hands and close his eyes. He had a vigilance at night that he lacked during the day.
In his room the group talked about the other freshmen in the dorm, conversations Orno enjoyed in part because they felt illicit. He'd always assumed that people were good, that they worked hard for any number of things that required self-interest but that certain boundaries prevailed: decency, respect for others, truth. He couldn't have said this before he came to Columbia, but several times in his first few weeks there he was made to, late at night in Marshall's room, with its shifting cadre of onlookers. The easterners had sway here; that much was clear. He knew that he didn't want to become one himself, but he also knew that he was envious, and his envy shamed him: their quick words; their outlook; their comments. One evening a girl actually laughed at a point he'd made in earnest, that each generation improved upon the mistakes of the last. She claimed it was a Midwestern outlook. He laughed along with everyone else but of course the comment stung him.
Marshall himself subscribed to a theory of character taken from a book called The Enneagram and from two thinkers named G. I. Gurdjieff and Oscar Ichazo, who seemed like cultists to Orno but whom Marshall liked to cite at astounding length in his conversation. The first time Orno heard him quote one of them he nodded, put his beer bottle to his lips and feigned comprehension, then spent the next afternoon in the reference room searching for most of an hour before he even stumbled on the correct spellings of the names. From the short articles he read, both men indeed seemed like mystics or perhaps cranks. Yet Marshall seemed to hold them in a reverence that hinted at a conspiracy against their social ideas and, by extension, against his own as well. Marshall had already lived a life of spectacular worldliness.
Late at night in his room he liked to tell Orno about his childhood, part of which he'd spent in Istanbul, living in the Hotel Luxor with an Irish governess while his mother carried out her research in the countryside. He remembered the life of the city with perfect clarity and would describe it to Orno reverently--the crumbling Theodosian walls, the shaded gardens of Süleymaniye, the meals of börek and beyaz peynir, the pink blossoms of the Judas trees along the Bosporus and the deep-riding ferries struggling crosscurrent between two continents. Orno loved to listen, though at times the stories worried him because he felt obligated to counter them with exoticism from his own past; but soon he understood he wouldn't have to. When it was his turn to talk, he recounted simple memories of Missouri winters, commonplace tales he exaggerated only slightly, snow high enough to build tunnels through, escaped steer frozen like statues onto the irrigation canals. Marshall laughed at all of it, a loose, uncomplicated laugh that seemed to transmit amazement and filled Orno with pleasure. Of his own childhood days in New York, Marshall told stories about dinners and drinking and carrying on in his parents' apartment with people like Margaret Mead and Harlan Ellison and Francis Crick, friends of his parents and evidently of his own as well.
The stories made Orno feel giddy, as though he himself were somehow part of them, or soon to be. The world of influence seemed astoundingly close and even more astoundingly pedestrian, tossed off by Marshall with a nonchalance that Orno soon found himself cultivating. One afternoon, as they walked on Columbus Avenue, they passed the actor Steve McQueen, whistling and looking up at the second-story windows, and it was Orno who was able to point him out to Marshall, calming himself enough to mention it nearly offhandedly, as they were about to turn the corner.
Marshall explained the tenets of The Enneagram. There were nine basic roots of character, and he went through the dormitory systematically, talking about each of the other students as a mixture of two or three of them: core of four, wings of three and five; core of nine, wings of eight and one. A certain girl especially, Phoebe Lyall--whose full name, Marshall said, was Phoebe Allison Morgan Lyall--fascinated him. At night he usually returned to her after he'd discussed a few others, granting her special consideration, a complexity that he did not acknowledge in the other students. Sometimes he called her a cross between the Performer, the Observer, and the Tragic Romantic; other times she was the Giver, the Performer, and the Perfectionist. In Orno's opinion she was shy and polite, simply enough, like a lot of girls he had known at home; but she had a narrow mouth and tapered cheekbones that made most people think she was aloof, especially after Marshall let it be known that her ancestor was J. P. Morgan. This seemed a bit cruel to Orno--Marshall's announcing to a group at dinner, which did not include Phoebe Lyall herself, who her great-grandfather had been--but he didn't say anything to stop it. He merely asked aloud if Marshall knew the genealogy of everyone in the dorm. Marshall laughed, along with the rest of the group, but Orno was aware of having transgressed. Later, he apologized; afterward he waited to see if Marshall and Phoebe Lyall would begin seeing each other.
Once, near the middle of the term, on a still night when the cool had first turned to cold and the leaves on the ground had become brittle, crackling underfoot, he came to Marshall's room after spending six hours at the library reviewing the order of monarchy of the Greek and then the Roman emperors. It was late October; the dormitory heaters had come on, clanking through the night and heating the top-floor rooms to such uncomfortable temperatures that the students left their doors and windows wide open. When Orno came in, Marshall was pushed back against the wall, legs splayed. It was only after Orno had taken his place among a set of pillows across the room that he noticed Phoebe next to the window. She was lying quietly with her eyes closed, listening to the odd music that was on the stereo, a moody piece on which Orno, too, concentrated. It was hard to classify--avant-garde jazz, perhaps, although it could have been classical even, a mixture of strings and lower-register bells that in the cool autumnal air seemed to exactly personify sadness. It wasn't the kind of thing Marshall usually listened to. They all had midterms the next morning.
Phoebe nodded at him. "Where have you been?" Marshall asked. "Studying the Greeks and Romans. Hi, Phoebe." "Ah, the Greeks and Romans," said Marshall. "Menemee Scott is teaching us all the wrong things, you know, company man that he is. Let's see," he said, rubbing his chin, "let me see what I remember. 'From the division of the Roman Empire into east and west in ad 395 until the fifteenth-century conquest of Greece by the Ottoman Turks, Greece shared the fortunes and vicissitudes of the Byzantine empire.'" Orno took the book from his bag and opened it. "Darn, Marshall, that's word for word." Phoebe stood and came over next to Orno. "Try this," she said, flipping through the pages. "Page ninety-two." "Oh, come on, I can't do that." "Try it." "What's it start with?" Phoebe held the book up. "'These colonies had a great influence on the history of the Greek mainland--'" "'--where the city-states were developing in quarrelsome freedom,'" said Marshall. "Was he right?" said Orno. She was staring at Marshall. "Well, did he get it right?" "Exactly," she said. "My Lord, that's rather amazing." "No wonder you don't wake up for class."
Marshall lifted a bottle of schnapps from the mattress and took a drink. "It's a gift," he said, "that's all. Something I've been given. But a lot of the Emersons can do it. It's not that big a deal in my family. Not all the Emersons can do it, I guess. My mother and my sister can't. But my father and I can, and my father's father could, too. He was a civil rights attorney. He used to argue before the Supreme Court and cite the exact holdings on any case in American or British history. In that profession it's a useful gift, but in other ways it's a hindrance."
"Some hindrance," said Orno. "One of my uncles can do it, too. My father's brother, who was one of JFK's close advisers, but he has Asperger's Syndrome, which is a kind of autism. His field was the space program. He saw Kennedy every month to bring him up to date, but he had to wash his hands every time he touched somebody. It's weird." "You don't do that, do you?" said Phoebe. Marshall looked at her. "So far, nothing like that." He smiled. "So how's it a hindrance?" said Orno. "I remember too much of my life." "What's wrong with that?" said Phoebe. "I don't think I'd be able to explain." "That's how you knew my name the first day," said Orno. "Isn't it?" "I guess that's right." "You don't have to open a book for the test tomorrow, either. Do you?" "Not really," he said, "except if you mean that yes, I had to read it at one point." He took another drink. "But I've already finished it." Phoebe eyed him. "When did you read it, Marshall?" "What do you mean?" "I mean, how long ago did you read Professor Scott's book?" "Why do you ask?" "I believe I know the answer," she said. "I think I read it in grade school, actually. I think it was on my parents' shelf." "That's what I thought." "I think I'll go home," said Orno. "I think I'll go right back to Missouri. I'll just go to my room now and pack." "I'll pack, too," said Phoebe. "I'll catch the eleven o'clock to Hartford." "That's why I didn't tell you," said Marshall. "The thing is, if you could do it yourself you wouldn't be so impressed. We're amazed at a dog's sense of smell, but the dog isn't." "Yeah, but all the dogs can do it," said Orno. "You're not going to have to study at all the whole time you're in college, are you?" "He's right, isn't he?" said Phoebe. They both looked at him.
A week later, when the midterms were graded, Orno went with Marshall to pick them up. Orno had a B-, an eighty-one, which stung him, and Marshall had a perfect score, an A+ circled on the front of his blue exam book. Professor Menemee Scott was in the office when they came by and he gestured to Marshall through the half-open door. "Just like the old man, I see, eh, Mr. Emerson?"
"Yes, sir," said Marshall, and on the walk home he dropped the test into a trash can. Marshall loved buildings. Whenever he could, he convinced Orno to walk with him, the two of them quiet as they meandered, sometimes all the way to midtown, an entire loop around the New York Central building or the Chrysler Building, looking up; sometimes they went just a few blocks from school, east to St. John the Divine with its bays unfinished after a hundred years, or west to Grant's Tomb, where Marshall told him the history of the satrap Mausolus and the crypt in Halicarnassus. The short Doric columns cast angled shadows where he liked to stand gazing at the cupola, cut in half by sunlight; or south on West End Avenue, then east to the Pythian Temple on Seventieth Street, with its strange seated row of pharaohs. Sometimes he liked to walk a few blocks slowly, other times they strode together for hours, covering huge distances, all the way down to Wall Street once on a Saturday, then all the way back. Orno had two hours without classes on Wednesday afternoons and three on Thursday mornings, the only day Marshall woke early. They would walk together down to Riverside Drive, where Marshall told him the history of the Dutch colonizers and the city then that was no longer: New Orange by name and not New York, a stately camp on a river.
For Thanksgiving, they went to Marshall's family's house on the East Side, the morning brilliant as they walked all the way down from Columbia, crossing Central Park at West Seventy-ninth Street, where the trees had turned but not yet dropped their leaves. In his hand Orno carried a bouquet of lilies for Mrs. Pelham and a bottle of scotch for Professor Emerson. He was filled with a sense of friendship. Near noon they came out onto the East Side, where Fifth Avenue flowed with taxicabs honking their horns and the sidewalk bustled with walkers in their winter coats; it was like stepping from a forest into the bright shining center of the world. The stone buildings gleamed. The mantels and granite window wells cast upward a great sheet of light.
Marshall wore a black shirt beneath his black wool overcoat, but Orno wore a jacket and tie, as all his family did for holidays; no doubt Mrs. Pelham would appreciate the acknowledgment. Their house turned out to be a brownstone on Sixty-third and Lexington, the near corner in a row of brownstones of the same size but differing exquisitely in the details of their architecture, in their roof lines and friezes and stone staircases that ran up to mid-landings and wrought-iron newels and railings. They entered through the service door, set a couple of feet below the street; inside was a narrow basement hallway and quarters for servants now filled with a washing machine and an ironing board and an old upholstered armchair; from it rose an elderly black woman whom Marshall embraced and then held in his arms as Orno waited behind them.
Then without any more conversation Marshall released her and set out down the hall again. She was Olivia, the housekeeper who had raised him, he said over his shoulder; she still stayed in the downstairs apartment, though she had long ago stopped working in the house. Orno followed, trying to act at ease. In Cook's Grange he'd occasionally heard of using a cleaning woman after a party, but other than this people cleaned their own houses and they certainly raised their own children. Marshall was too big for the narrow hallway. He seemed to have led a complicated life.
The walls of the staircase to the main house were hung with frames that he stopped to admire as they climbed, partly because his own father for safety reasons had always forbidden brooms or shovels or clutter of any sort along their stairs in Missouri; here, on either side, hung dozens of small drawings, exotic carved figures of black wood, Lucite boxes containing tiny sea animals mounted on cork. He wanted to study them, but Marshall stood waiting at the top. Upstairs they had to step among piles of books to make their way to the kitchen, and even there he found shelves stacked heavily with plants and art books and at the far end of the room underneath the window a carved, primitive table that looked like the whole trunk of an ebony tree. A young woman was standing in the light of the window; she crossed the room to embrace Marshall, stepping into and then out of the shaft of sunlight. Marshall said, "Simone, my baby sister."
At dinner everyone was intent on talking to him. Marshall seemed to have told his family nothing of his life at Columbia, and Orno kept looking over at him to see whether it was all right to tell Professor Emerson, who looked like Marshall in the same strong line of his brow, about what classes Marshall was taking, or Mrs. Pelham--Orno remembered to call her this--about the other students who passed the time with them at night in Marshall's room. Simone was at the far end of the table and she laughed now and then at what was said, but she was not quick to speak herself. When Marshall spoke, though, he seemed to speak to her.
"So you're taking Winthrop Menemee Scott's course, are you?" said Professor Emerson to Marshall after Orno had mentioned it. Marshall nodded. Professor Emerson put down his fork. "Now take it easy, Walter," said Mrs. Pelham. "That man is a grifter and a fraud," said Professor Emerson. He clasped his hands together on the table. "Walter, leave it alone." "The man's name is Irving Greenstein," he said. He turned to Orno. "Did you know that? His name isn't any Winthrop Menemee Scott. He's a -- he's a Jew from Queens, he's the son of a hat salesman." "Daddy," said Simone, "why do you keep doing that?" "I like the class," said Marshall, spooning cranberries onto his plate. "I like to sit up front with Orno." Orno looked at him. "Stop it, you two," said Simone. "Please? Marshall can take whatever class he wants." Professor Emerson picked up his fork and took a bite of the turkey. Nobody spoke, and then suddenly the cloud that had been over the table passed. He reached for the potatoes. Finally, Orno said, "I was wondering if you'd show me something, Professor Emerson. Marshall says you can all do what he does, the memory trick." "Not all of us," said Simone. "Almost all of you, I guess." "So Marshall showed you? He doesn't usually show people," said Mrs. Pelham. "He must like you." "Don't know if I was the one he was showing it to," said Orno. Marshall glanced at him. "They forced it out of me," he said. "Can you do it, too, Professor Emerson?" "Oh, it's nothing." He coughed. "Nothing, young man." "Oh, show him, Walter," said Mrs. Pelham. Professor Emerson seemed to be composing himself. "Fair enough," he said. "Go get out--get out a book from the shelf." "Which shelf?" "Any one," said Simone. "That's the point."
Orno rose from the table and retrieved a volume from a set on the wall of the dining room, a novel called Josephine's Way, an old hardback with gilded edges. "Ah," said Professor Emerson. "Old Josephine. Now, you might as well learn something from this, Orno. This is called eidetic"--he coughed--"eidetic memory, which is what your pal Marshall and I are fortunate enough to possess. As is my brother and as was my father. And some say that Ralph Waldo Emerson had it, too, though he's only a distant relation." "Ralph Waldo Emerson was your relative?" said Orno. "Apparently," said Professor Emerson. "We descend from the brother of his father, William Emerson, a family of clergymen." He coughed again. "Now, eidetic memory is to be distinguished, to be distinguished from what's thought of--" "Come on, Daddy," said Simone. "Just show him." "All right, then. Where shall we start? At the beginning, say?"
Orno opened to the first page. Marshall stood and went into the kitchen, where Orno heard him rummaging in the cabinets as Professor Emerson began reciting the opening of the novel, every word correct, adding theatrical twists to the sentences and flourishing his hands in the air whenever the prose was overdone. He ended by asking Orno if there was still a stray mark on the page, a black fleck of printer's ink near the signature binding above the title heading.
"Indeed there is," said Orno. "It looks like a goose," called Marshall from the kitchen. "If you stare at it. Heading away from you with its wings out." Professor Emerson closed his eyes for a moment. "Indeed it does," he said.
For the rest of dinner Orno was shy to speak, though the Emerson-Pelhams still prodded him with questions about Marshall's life at school, and though he still answered them as carefully as he could, glancing at Marshall for direction, steering his stories away from what really went on in his room, the dope and late nights and pillows spread along the floor. Marshall had come back from the kitchen with a tall glass and he sipped it as Orno told his parents a mild version of their lives together at college. Suddenly Simone said, "All you're doing is asking him about Marshall. I'm sure he'd rather talk about other things, such as his own life, for one. Please excuse us, Orno."
"That's okay," said Orno. "Marshall's fun to talk about, aren't you?" "Of course he is," said Mrs. Pelham, "but Simone's right. We can be like that sometimes, although it's only because Marshall won't tell us anything himself. He wouldn't tell us himself if he won the Nobel Prize." "Well," said Marshall, "I haven't." "But you'll tell us if you do?" said his mother. "I promise." "Well then, Orno," said Professor Emerson, "I understand you're from Missouri." "Yes, sir." "Marshall says your family knows the Vanderbilts." "Marshall says what?" "I said he knew someone named Helen Vanderbilt," said Marshall. "Oh, Helen Vanderbilt," said Orno. "She used to live in New York City. I guess I must have told you about that. She's a friend of my uncle's. She was the one who encouraged me to apply to Columbia." "I see," said Professor Emerson. "Well then, what is St. Louis like? I was there during the--during the war for a time. Damn," he said, touching his throat. "I believe I'm developing a stutter." "Don't be silly," said Mrs. Pelham. "Anyway," he said. "I remember St. Louis. A broad city, expansive, no high-rises to dilute the sunlight. Dusty air, though. I remember the dusty air. It used to cling to everything, cover everything." He cleared his throat. "Does my voice sound funny to anyone?" "It sounds fine, Daddy," said Simone. "I've actually never been to St. Louis," said Orno. "Orno's not much of a traveler," Marshall said into his glass. "Well then," said Professor Emerson. He coughed. "Come on, everyone," said Simone, "that's not all we can come up with to say, is it? Orno looked down. "What classes are you taking, Orno?" said Mrs. Pelham.
He told them, and then when she asked what he planned to major in he discussed that too, telling them first that his father thought medicine was a noble and reliable profession, but not going further, about his uncle Clarence or the law, because he could tell that Professor Emerson wasn't interested; he was pinching the skin on his own neck. Mrs. Pelham asked him about Cook's Grange and he was even more brief about that. Only Simone seemed to be listening, really, nodding her head as he spoke; when she looked at him now, he saw that her eyes were like Marshall's, a deep lower rim and the trace of a distant, Asiatic fold.
As soon as the meal was done, Marshall told his parents they were due back at the dormitory for a party, and to Orno's surprise the whole family disappeared into different parts of the house while the dishes were still out on the table. Mrs. Pelham said she had some letters to write and climbed the stairs; Marshall told Orno he needed to collect some things before they could go back to school, then left him in the dining room and disappeared toward the rear of the house; Simone smiled at him, then went into the kitchen with a few of the dishes in her hands. Orno was left alone in the dining room with Professor Emerson, unable to think of what to say. In Cook's Grange his sister cooked and it was his own job to clean up: he rose and began gathering plates.
Professor Emerson sat watching him for a moment; then, without speaking, he too rose and left. In the kitchen Simone had filled the sink with soap and was scrubbing pots. "You shouldn't do that," she said without turning around. "You're a guest." "Not at all." "It's the servants' day off." Orno went back out to the dining room. "I was just kidding," she said when he returned, not looking back at him but nodding toward the wall. "They're just pretending they're used to servants." "You never know." She rolled up the sleeves of her blouse and tucked her hair under her collar, which made her look older. "Marshall was raised in a barn," she said. "Where I'm from that's a compliment." She turned around. "Oops. Sorry. Is it really?" "No." He went to the bookshelf and examined its rows of expensive travel books, one on Istanbul. He pulled it out and touched the lacquered photograph on the cover: he recognized the Haghia Sophia. "I don't think any of us have even been near a barn," she said. "That's why you're so exotic." "That's why I'm so what?" "Exotic." He laughed. "I'm exotic?" "Yes. A tiny bit." He opened the book to a picture of the Egyptian market called Misir Carsisi, which Marshall had once described for him: the spices from all corners of the globe, the teeming domed chambers. He fingered the smooth page. "Did you go with them?" he asked. "Where?" He pointed. "Here." She looked at him. "To Istanbul," he said.
She turned back to the sink. "No," she answered. "I stayed right here, doing the dishes." He put the book back, then made several trips out to the table, returning to scrape the bones into the trash and then arrange the china behind her into stacks of cups, saucers, and plates. He'd erred, he realized, by bringing it up: she seemed suddenly chilled. But he wondered why she hadn't gone along; perhaps she'd been too young. Each time he came in with his hands full he wanted to say something funny, or something that truly was exotic; but even the kitchen, with its odd-colored crockery and hanging paraphernalia, robbed him of ease; she was working intently at the sink and he was aware of overstepping. "That's it," he said finally. "Table's done."
"You were sweet to help out." "Learned it in the barn." "I didn't insult you did I? I didn't mean to." "Not in the least. You flattered me. I thought I might have insulted you." She turned around and leaned against the sink. "Marshall talks about you a lot," she said. "Well, Marshall's great." She raised her eyebrows. "I think so too," she said. "But don't be too impressed with him, either." "How do you mean that?" "Oh, you seem sweet, that's all. Not everybody around here is." "What do you mean?" "I apologize for what my father said about Professor Menemee Scott." "You don't have to. It didn't bother me. Your father's amazing." "My father works at being amazing." "I think he succeeds, don't you?" Just then, before Orno had heard any footsteps, Marshall burst through the swinging door into the kitchen. "I suppose my sister's giving you the lowdown," he said. He was wearing a velvet smoking jacket Orno didn't recognize. "At least Orno helps out," she answered. "Maybe he could teach you some of that. Maybe you should consider a little independent study." "Orno's studying too much already," said Marshall. He leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek. "You would be the one studying, Marshall," said Simone. "I'll consider it."
Orno wanted to talk more to her but Marshall pulled him toward the door. Then they were in the hallway and all he could do was call out his thank-you to Mrs. Pelham before Marshall grabbed both their coats and led him out into the cold evening. He flagged a cab and when they arrived back at Columbia paid the driver from a roll of bills unfurled from the pocket of the jacket.
There were parties that night, but Orno stayed in. It was his first Thanksgiving away from home, and instead of going out he wrote Mrs. Pelham a thank-you note and then a letter to his sister at Clarkson, telling her story after story of his time in New York. He closed by writing, and they think I'm exotic. Happy Thanksgiving to you. He was breathless as he sat at the Masonite desk by his window, overwhelmed with the sense of a tremendous, brilliant world through the glass that none of the Tarchers had ever seen. The whole thing was stupendous to him--the Emerson family, about whom he was already composing in his head a heated, braggardly letter to his parents; the polished stone buildings of Manhattan; the never-ending thrum of buses and taxis outside, all the way through till the morning; the freshmen in black trousers and black shirts; Marshall's stereo speakers, so light they could have been hollow inside. And they were hollow actually, or nearly so, Orno discovered later that night, when Marshall used his roach clip to pry the cover off one of them and hide his new roll of bills there. They had just smoked half a joint and Orno was waiting for some movement inside of him. He didn't ask where the money was from. Marshall was affectionate when he was high, and he chatted and laughed as he worked the bills into a notch in the narrow cabinet. With the grill removed the speaker was nothing but a black plastic sheet with a round concavity in the middle; Orno stared at it with detached fascination, a rubberish, indented diaphragm whose simple vibration produced the stupendous screaming guitar solos and the low pounding beat of the bass drum that he felt in his bed every night downstairs, a rubber hammer tapping the floor as he drifted off to sleep, the high-hat crashing on the off-beat like shattering glass.
Copyrightİ 1998 by Ethan Canin. All rights reserved.
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