One of the first things I did after my father died and the vast wealth he had spent his life accumulating came cascading down into my hands was to go and visit Valencia. This visit was long overdue and difficult for me. Many things are difficult for me, though I have led a privileged life.
I took a commercial flight to Miami and rented a car at the airport, a perfectly adequate car, a convertible. For me, that exercise—I am aware that millions of people perform it every day– meant facing a fusillade of doubts. Would the convertible be too ostentatious for the place I was headed? Was it better to return the tank full or pay more for the gasoline and return it empty? Tip the worker who brought the car up from its parking space (and if so, how much?) or simply thank him? The woman at the rental desk, whose name tag read Xelentra, was patient with me. And yet, for an hour after leaving her I wondered if I had been a source of amusement. I had dropped my wallet on the floor as I took it from my pocket. I fumbled with my credit card. Out of an old habit, a traveler’s habit, I kept the side of one shoe pressed against my luggage as if someone might steal whatever valuables I carry there. I took several long seconds to decide whether or not to accept the map she offered, and smiled and said, “Not a problem, not a problem, not a problem,” when she turned to serve someone else. For years I was not aware of my peculiarities, and that lack of awareness served as a kind of anesthetic. But now the anesthetic has worn off, and it is as if mirrors surround me during every waking moment, as if I live in a world that thrums with mockery. Foolishly perhaps, I thought this problem could be solved, I thought the pain of my self-consciousness would be eased by going to see Valencia.
From the airport, though I am unused to driving, I found the interstate, albeit after several wrong turns, and drove north on it for some miles, following the directions I had written down in New York. I took the correct exit and headed west on State Route 98, leaving behind the traffic of the coastal area and then the condominium complexes and palm-tree-and-swimming pool developments that have proliferated in the inland sections since the one other time I made that ride, as a boy. Soon there was nothing but open land to either side of the road, with canals cutting stripes across the black earth, and flat, boundless fields of what I knew to be sugar cane. A significant part of my family’s fortune had been made in sugar, as my mother would often remind me when I accompanied her on her Saturday morning shopping expeditions, and then asked, at lunch, for something sweet. In those days, Valencia had not yet come to live with us. My mother would take me to the shops far up on Broadway, between 130th and 150th Streets, usually, and she would buy things indiscriminately: five alarm clocks, twelve pairs of sneakers the same size and style, twenty bras, boxes of second-hand paperback books about prison camps, military strategy, or the rituals of African tribes; lotions and soaps and hair-straightening products she could not possibly have needed. We had a driver then, an Argentine ex-boxer named Gustavo, and with great solemnity Gustavo would place my mother’s purchases into the trunk of our blue Bentley, drive us another block north, and then wait at the curb while my mother descended, smiling and methodical, upon the next store on her route.
After a pleasant lunch together, we’d return to our three-story apartment on Central Park West, where the rooms smelled of mint and coconut, and where there were servants’ quarters, and two elevators, and dozens of places to take refuge from the domestic goings-on. My mother would have Gustavo carry her purchases upstairs and set them in rows on the carpet of the library. There they would remain for several days, until my parents had one of their twenty-word fights and my father ordered them to be taken away. From the time I was seven or eight until several months after the day I turned twelve—the day Valencia came to live with us—this ritual was played out, in slightly different form, every few weeks. For my parents, I think, it presented an opportunity to argue about my father’s serial infidelities without actually mentioning them. Also, though I did not understand either of these motivations until much later, I believe it served to partially satisfy, in an odd way, whatever charitable impulse they may have felt. This impulse was a kind of ethical humidity—a heavy, sticky, disturbing air that would seep through the window screens on some days, causing a persistent discomfort, and then be utterly absent for whole seasons at a time. I remember my father’s tone whenever he told one of our servants that my mother’s purchases should be given to the poor. There was something grand about it, grand and self-congratulatory, as if he were offering a sufferer one of his kidneys. Again and again he repeated the same words—”Take all this foolishness and give it to the poor”– long after everyone in the house already understood what should be done with the bras and paperbacks.
Another manifestation of my parents’ charitable instinct was their penchant for dress balls, banquets, celebrity tennis tournaments and such things, the proceeds of which went to various good causes. It was what they had, I think, instead of sexual compatibility. I remember my mother and father leaving the house together for one of these events, more or less arm in arm, when my mother was almost healthy, both of them in formal dress, their faces stiffened in identical forced smiles—for my benefit, perhaps, or in preparation for the social strains that awaited them. I was being left in the company of some servant I did not like, and I was still young enough to be unafraid of expressing my displeasure and to assume it would matter to them. “Listen,” my father reprimanded me at the threshold, “your mother and I are doing this to help the poor. It’s a sacrifice. Your part of the sacrifice is to be deprived of our company for a few hours.”
In addition to his concern for those less fortunate, my father had a passionate interest in pocket billiards, a hobby that would lead, indirectly, to his death. Pocket billiards—we never called it “pool”– was a spiritual exercise for him, a relief from the pressures of his working life, perhaps a sign of his humanity. Strangely, I have taken up the same hobby now, in early middle age, with great passion, though I have no business pressures to escape from, no marital arguments to endure, and, so far at least, no child periodically expressing its displeasure. We had a table at home, a custom-made Commander, which was the top-of-the-line Brunswick, with leather mesh pockets, mother-of-pearl trim, and forest green felt as smooth and perfect as the coat of a young seal. No one but my father was allowed to use this table. There was a single cue stick, which he unscrewed and folded into a felt-lined case he kept in the bottom drawer of the desk in his study. Occasionally, on Sunday afternoons, he would experience a spasm of fatherly feeling, or parental loneliness, and take me to a pool hall called Pecky’s Billiards, on Eighth Avenue, not far from Pennsylvania Station, and there he would pit himself against various types of men while I sat on a stool in the corner with ice melting in my Pepsi-Cola and watched. Those were happy times for me–Gustavo and my father smoking cigars and laughing as we cruised through the gray architectural caverns of Midtown, the thrill of following my father up the soiled stairway, the smoke-and-liquor smell of the billiard parlor and the stories and rough language I heard there. It was not uncommon for my father to have one or another of his female friends meet him at Pecky’s on those afternoons, and for the two of them to disappear into some other part of the building “for a rest”. These were always women with dark brown or black skin (I should mention here that I and my family are white). They were always younger than my father, usually slim, sultry, not shy about rubbing my hair with their hands or telling me how handsome I was, how quiet for a boy my age, how smart.
Smart though I may have been in certain ways, I was completely innocent about matters of physical intimacy. Later, I would make some degree of retrospective sense of the things I heard and saw in Pecky’s, but when my father ordered me, just after our first visit there, never to mention his women friends in the presence of my mother, that she was prejudiced and wouldn’t approve and would probably divorce and “ruin” him, I did not suspect him of doing anything wrong, or connect his women friends to the arguments he and my mother had—indirect, coded, but nevertheless vicious exchanges that singed the air of the parlor like machine-gun rounds. “She’s a racist, your mother,” he told me matter-of-factly on that day, as we walked back out into the tattered thrill of Eighth Avenue and then sat at opposite ends of the Bentley’s back seat. “Do you know what that means? It means that she despises anyone whose skin is a different color from our skin.” When I replied that she was usually kind to the dark-skinned people we saw on our shopping trips, he looked out the side window and didn’t answer, and so I looked out my side, too, at the parade of shops and eateries there, the awnings in their primary colors, the garish advertisements posted in plate glass windows, the men in their cheap, stained trousers, the women in jeans or short skirts, and the lesser known businesses peeking from the windows of the second and third floors. Centennial Travel. Burk’s Bail Bonds. Eve Tarot.
In spite of my mother’s feelings about darker-skinned people, or perhaps, I thought then, in order to change them, my father brought Valencia to live with us. She appeared on the day I turned twelve, as I have said, just after one of my father’s many business trips to the South. My first sight of her came as she carried a chocolate-frosted vanilla cake with thirteen candles on it to the dining room table. She was small and slim with slightly turned-up eyes that had a glint of yellow or gold in them and she had a quarter-inch triangular piece missing from the top of her left ear, and I thought, from that first glimpse, that she was as beautiful as any girl or woman I would ever encounter: those eyes; the wide, sorrowful mouth; the way she held her chin high; the way the new dress my parents had given her hung from her straight shoulders and cascaded down over her breasts. She looked to be only a little older than I—in fact, she was sixteen—though she carried the cake easily in her long, thin hands, confident and capable as any adult. As far as I could tell, my mother did not object to Valencia’s presence. But, by then, my mother was spending much of the day standing at the tall windows in the parlor, staring down at the Park and saying things like, “Look at the surfaces of the big round stones.” Or sitting in the library with a book in her lap, not turning the pages. Or riding, with Gustavo, to a series of medical appointments for various mysterious ailments from which she may or may not have actually suffered. I watched closely to see how she treated Valencia, but it was difficult to be sure if she was a racist or not because there was never much conversation across the ocean that separated my parents from our help. Not long after Valencia arrived, my mother called me over to one of the leather divans in what we referred to as the middle-floor reading room and had me sit with her there. Her eyes were milky and her perpetual smile was fluttering but she was sitting straight-spined and seemed strong. I don’t remember how she began the conversation, but I remember that at some point she said, “Metty, I want you to give great care to choosing the woman you will marry.”
“I’m going to marry Valencia,” I answered, to test her, or to repair her smile, or because something in the tone of the conversation frightened me.
“Who is Valencia, Dear?”
“The new help.”
My mother did smile more firmly then, and she leaned toward me and squeezed my knee.
A few months after that conversation, my mother, whose strength had begun to fail, was taken by ambulance to Columbia University Hospital, where she died one week later. I was not allowed to visit her there or to say any kind of good-bye, though I did send two cards through the mail. My father informed me of her passing via a note left with Valencia, who brought it timidly upstairs and handed it to me as I was crossing from the bathroom to my room, still in pajamas and robe. She handed me the note and then stood there, watching me as I read. “Your mother died last night,” the note said, “at 11 p.m.” Since my father had not made much of this event, and since he was a man, and since I was moving toward age thirteen by then, I folded the note, thanked Valencia, and went into my room to dress for school and to cry.
The house had been peculiar, I suppose, while my mother was alive, though we had a good cook, two maids, regular meals and birthday celebrations, and my mother could sometimes be heard singing Protestant hymns, in her high, clear voice when my father wasn’t home. After her death it became a ghost house. The maids and the cook were let go. In addition to caring for me, Valencia—who was from Florida and spoke in a rich accent I could not at first make much sense of—was now expected to shop, cook, and clean. She was often out at the market when I came home from school. My friend, Henry, who would visit once in a while in those days, called her “Coal”. As in, “Hey, Mett, d’ya think Coal could cook us up an omelet when she gets back?”
Over the next two years, Valencia was my only source of human warmth in that house, the only person who looked into my eyes when she spoke to me, who noticed if I was happy or sad. I say this without self-pity. In those years, my relationship with my father seemed normal to me. I admired him, in fact, and wanted to grow up to be very much like him. If I noticed, on television and on the streets and sometimes at school events, that other fathers and sons had a different style of relationship, that realization somehow did not penetrate the polished surface of mannerism and assumption that had been passed down to my father, and which he had perfected, and which I unconsciously mimicked. It is no doubt true that, beneath that surface, in my case at least and perhaps in his case as well, great tectonic plates of need and fury gnashed and crackled, but what thirteen-year-old can look into those depths? I have come to realize, recently, that I was a kind of polite, well-educated robot, years behind my age, stunted, blind, hanging on desperately to a code of behavior I thought might protect me on the wild fields of human interaction. One night I was up very late and wandering our ghost-house and I found my father coming out of Valencia’s room, closing the door upon her sobs. I thought she was upset about having left her family behind in Florida, and that my father, man of the world, had heard her sad noises and gone into her room to comfort her. “Good of you, Dad,” I said to him manfully. He did not answer. I was thirteen, I might as well have been five.
I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that, soon, against great odds, a friendship developed between Valencia and me, as if we were siblings, at first, or allies. And then perhaps something more. During my father’s frequent absences we would exchange a few sentences when we passed each other in the rooms of the house, and sometimes, twice in fact, we even had a snack together—sweetened iced tea and cornbread–at the kitchen table. Her ancestors, she told me, and she had a wonderfully slow, rich, thoughtful way of speaking, had been slaves. After emancipation, they had gradually, generation by generation, achieved a degree of relative prosperity there in the humid flatlands of south-central Florida. Her parents raised and sold vegetables on a borrowed plot of land; in addition to that, her father repaired the cars of friends, and her mother, who was unable to speak, did seamstress work. They’d been frugal, bought a small house at the edge of the cypress swamp outside the town where my father’s company had its offices. After a particularly bad growing season, however, caused by a hurricane tearing across that land, her father had been tempted away from gardening by the sugar refinery’s steady wages and two weeks of paid vacation, and had gone to work repairing the machines that pressed syrup from the stalks of cane. Four years later, when Valencia was twelve, he was killed there, pulled into a pair of rollers by one hand, one arm, and crushed to death. The company that owned the refinery, my father’s company, claimed he’d been drinking alcohol on the job that day—which might have been true, Valencia allowed, but she didn’t think so—and had made the family only a small compensatory payment. In time, Valencia and her mother sank toward poverty. I know that I will not do a credible job of giving a sense of her speech here, and perhaps I should not try, but in my memory, in my inner ear, when she was telling me the story the words came out as a kind of music that thrilled me, and that sounded like this: “En thein yowh fawtha seid hay’d tek me, gaive me wohk awp nawth, hep out lak thet.” As she pronounced these words, in her soft, musical voice, fat tears trembled at the inside corners of her eyes and so I looked away.
At fourteen, still pre-pubescent and painfully undersized, I was sent away to boarding school. I saw Valencia only on vacations, though I thought about her often, and wondered what would happen if I wrote her a note, or called and asked to speak to her (perhaps because of her accent, my father forbade her from answering the phone). She was eighteen then and could have left us. I do not know why she stayed. Money was surely a factor, but I have always suspected, I have always hoped—though it is a hope tinged with guilt–that her remaining in our house had something to do with me. I felt, you see, despite the difference in our skin color, speech, and social status, that we were twins of a sort, both of us of slight build, both having lost, at a young age, a parent who was close to us. Her mother was mute, and my mother had been effectively muted, first by her domestic situation, then by illness, and finally by death. Also, there was a way in which my father paralyzed a person, perhaps that is why I felt a kinship with Valencia, and why she stayed. Paralyzed a person when he was alive, and paralyzed people after his death, too. For one trivial example, many of the boys I knew at school had rebelled against their upbringing—grown their hair long, smoked tobacco or marijuana, glued the campaign stickers of radical political candidates to their dormitory room doors. But I could not do any of that. Even at such a distance from my father, I was a good boy, pathologically good, studious, polite, obedient, frozen in my legacy, trapped by my name. Perhaps I had been seduced by allusions to the important work I would have when I was just a bit older, a lifestyle, a status, a noble duty, that every other soul on earth envied. Every soul on earth. If they believed what they said, then it must have been true that my father and mother suffered from a type of ocular distortion that sharpened money and status, and blurred emotion. It was essential that you went to certain schools and lived in certain places, and irrelevant whether or not you were happy there.
In any case, at Christmas that year Valencia and I went shopping together more than once—I could break out of my frozen state to that extent. She was obviously uncomfortable, sitting with me in the back of the blue Bentley, and walking with me into the shops of the Upper East Side and the grand department stores of Midtown. But I made her spend a long time with me, doing those things, and slowly she seemed to relax, though she said almost nothing when Gustavo was present to overhear. (There was, in fact, some kind of unspoken tension between them, I understand that now.) With her own money, she bought a pretty flowered dress for her mother to wear to church, and a pair of inexpensive earrings to go with it. I liked examining the merchandise in the stores, but made only a few purchases. For Gustavo, I bought leather driving gloves that he would use for the rest of the time he was with us; for my father, a handsomely made coffee table book on the history of pocket billiards, which I knew he would never read. And then, on another of these shopping expeditions, because I saw Valencia glance at it as we went past, because, even at that age I knew I had a source of money I could not possibly exhaust, and because I had not the smallest idea about how a young man like me went about courting a young woman like her, or any young woman for that matter, I purchased a fine Chinese vase from the window of a shop on 76th Street, announcing, in the car, that it was intended for my mother’s sister, Chloe, though Aunt Chloe lived in Charleston, married to a famous lawyer, and had not come to the funeral and didn’t like my father, and acted, on those rare occasions when our lives crossed, as if she didn’t like me. That Christmas Day, as my father ordered, Valencia prepared a goose with sweet potatoes and cranberry jelly, Indian pudding for dessert, but my father did not actually appear for the meal. (He did leave a large check for me, and a hundred-dollar bill, I later learned, for Valencia.) On that day, very much against her will, I insisted that she sit at the gleaming mahogany table with its Paul Revere candlesticks and view of Central Park and eat Christmas dinner with me. I had her sit at my mother’s place, in fact. I could do that. I knew how to give orders, if not how to carve a goose or open a bottle of wine, or, at school, dance with any of the girls from other private schools who were invited to our mixers. At those events—and I should say that I was not alone in this– I would stand in a paralysis of self-consciousness, watching my more sociable friends dance and talk, then I would go out into the cold New England darkness and walk the campus, and the woods near the campus, sometimes carving notches in a particular tree with a small hunting knife I had purchased. “Hell cuts,” I called them. I would return to the dance only at the very end, pretending I had been there all along and had had a wonderful time. It is probably true that I fooled no one, but at that age, in that school at least, one’s friends made allowances.
There was only a small bit of conversation at our Christmas meal, rather awkward conversation, as I remember it. After the meal was finished, Valencia carried the dishes to the dishwashing machine in the kitchen and began to wash the pots by hand. I went up to my bedroom and got the Chinese vase, which I had failed at wrapping twice, and carried it down in the service elevator, which opened into the kitchen and which, of course, I had never used. This may be difficult to imagine, but I could not at first understand how the elevator door opened from the inside! It wasn’t obvious, wasn’t like the elevator my parents and I used within the apartment, or to rise up from the street, so I was stuck in there for some time, holding the vase in one arm and pushing various buttons and looking at various levers. At last, though it embarrassed me, I decided to set the vase down and pound on the door with the bottoms of both fists, and when that accomplished nothing, to call for help: “Valencia! Valencia!”
She opened the door wearing a wet apron and drying her fine-boned hands. There was a startled expression on her face, as if I were a spirit from the realm of the dead, come to summon her. She recovered immediately, though, and laughed, and I laughed with her, a laugh of complete liberation for me. Happy as I had ever been, I retrieved the vase from the far corner of the elevator, stepped into the kitchen, and held it out to her—blue, white, and gold enamel on Chinese porcelain, three hundred and fifty years old—and said, “For Christmas. For you. It’s a gift. I didn’t buy it for my aunt.”
“Naw Suh,” she said, when she understood what I was doing. She was twisting her fingers around and around each other as if knitting with invisible yarn.
“No, really. You must.”
“You can’t refuse a gift,” I said, and the smile on my mouth felt made of ashes and bone and mud, my cheeks thick with crazed paint.
Her gold-flecked eyes jumped from my eyes to the vase to my eyes to the vase, and her head was making tiny back and forth movements so that her tight braids swung against the tops of her shoulders.
“I tried to wrap it,” I said, through the terrible smile. Valencia was looking into my eyes with an expression that was like nothing I had ever encountered on a human being. It was cousin to the expression one sees in the eyes of a lioness at the circus grounds when her trainer comes into the cage with meat and a whip. Affection, terror, hatred, hunger, the distant memory of some complete and royal freedom. I could not say anything else. A silence swelled between us. She turned and, with silken, muscular strides, hurried into her little room and closed the door tight.
I went up to my bedroom as if nothing had happened, the robot, the frozen boy. I set the vase on top of one of the walnut bookcases that had been passed down to me from my mother’s father, and I pushed it carefully back against the wall, and then I sat on the edge of my bed with my hands in my lap and looked at the wooden panels on my door. When I was able to move again, I went over to my closet, took out my drawing set, and sat at the desk making intricate copies of a check from my checkbook—something I enjoyed doing in those days—inventing fonts and new designs, filling in the background with complicated swirls and curlicues, printing my name on the pay to the order of line, and then writing something like $6,557,983.21 in the amount box in tiny script.
Away at school that year, I began to grow, and at last came to understand—in the way one comes to understand such things, as if sewing together a basket of overheard scraps of long-ago, coded conversations—what a man and a woman can do with their bodies when they are together. It would be years before I would do it myself, and then only clumsily, but that chapter of the book of life was opened to me. I felt myself beginning to move toward genuine adulthood. I danced with a girl at one of our mixers. I let my name be placed into nomination for student council representative from our dormitory, and narrowly lost. And then, when I came home for the spring break, before going off on a school-sponsored trip to Quebec City, I took Valencia out walking in Central Park. Or, more correctly, I waited until my father was not at home, asked her to accompany me on an errand, and then just walked into the Park and along the paths there, a feverish excitement running back and forth along the skin of my arms and at the corners of my lips. I went as deep into the Park as I dared, and then climbed up onto a bald granite outcropping, and motioned her up after me. When she was sitting there beside me, my eyes kept going to the small missing piece of her ear, a triangular absence, and my mind raced around and around trying to find something that could be said to her in such an intimate setting.
“Tell me more about your mother,” I tried at last. “What is she like?” And it was as if this sentence held the combination to the bank vault where Valencia kept her real feelings.
“A good woman,” she said, “a fine woman.” (Though it sounded like “fahn wohmn.”) “She can’t talk but she’s a smart woman. She lives in our broken old house and keeps good care of it now. She grows cucumbers and tomatoes and lettuce and okra and sells it (“sails” was the way she said this word) in town. She’s a good woman, a fine woman. I’m the only thing she has on earth now.”
“Why did she let you go away with my father then? “
When I posed that question, Valencia turned her face from me as if it had been slapped. It was the wrong question, a foolish question. She pushed her hands against the cool stone as if getting ready to climb back down and away from me and so I said, “Someday I’ll go and visit your mother there, and take you with me,” in the voice I had manufactured at school. “You’ll see. I’ll do that someday.”
We were sitting on the cool stone, close to each other but not touching. After I said that, she shocked me by reaching out and taking my left hand, very briefly, without looking at me, in a gesture of friendship or regret or rejection or apology I could not tell, and then she seemed to shrink back into her hidden place, her Florida of the mind, the warm, rich, faraway meadow where her real feelings grew. After a moment, she let go of my hand, slid down off the stone and began walking back in the direction of the apartment. I caught up with her and walked beside her and could not think of something else to say, or what I should do, or how I had offended her, so I just went along like that, past the Italian chestnut vendor with his mustache and dark skin (my mother had often spoken to this man), past a string of schoolchildren being led on some expedition by a nanny or teacher, past the doorman, up the elevator. Without another word or gesture, Valencia walked toward the kitchen and her duties, and I greeted my father, who had arrived home and was in his reading chair, and then went up to my room and sat on the edge of the bed.
After that day I thought about Valencia constantly. Thinking about her became one of my obsessions. We had one other brief, private conversation in which I offered to send her mother some money, to help make her life easier, but Valencia’s reaction to that was similarly mysterious: she refused, strongly refused, but I could not be sure whether she was offended or pleased by my offer, whether it gave her hope or pushed her deeper into hopelessness. My father was on a kind of vacation then, at home. It was one of his long stretches between business trips, and he would spend many solitary hours at his billiard table, or studying the pages of various business publications with great intensity, and then abruptly fold up his cue stick or get out of his chair and leave the apartment without saying where he was going. At other times, I noticed that he was watching me with a new expression on his face, a half-veiled curiosity. I almost thought he was coming to admire my newfound maturity, though it would turn out I was incorrect in that assumption.
During this time, Valencia went quietly about her duties, cooking and serving dinner and then cleaning up and disappearing into her room. I watched her obsessively. I thought of trying to sneak down to see her but did not have the courage. I was afraid I might come across my father in that room, or that I would lose the small amount of territory, the small measure of trust and affection, I’d managed to gain. Just as I was leaving for the Canada trip, we were able to say good-bye at the door, Valencia and I. My father was in the next room; I could hear the clack of billiard balls, and the quick scratching sounds as he chalked the tip of his cue. Valencia came up to within a few feet of me, and said, very quietly, and I believe, sincerely, that she would miss me when I went away to school. I said that I would miss her, as well. We did not use each other’s names aloud and we did not make any physical contact.
From school, I called home once a week at the appointed hour, and always hoped she would disobey my father’s orders and answer the phone, but that did not happen. Most often, no one answered the phone. Once in a while it would be my father, and he would talk about various things, about a repair being made to the fireplace mantle or the new wall safe he’d had someone install; about the Florida weather and the harvest and the way the sugar business worked—subsidies, hybrids, the Cuba embargo, the effects of a distant war on commodities futures; or about his brother, whom I had never met and who was apparently trying to cheat him. Not once, not a single time, did he ask about my life. When I ventured to tell him about a classmate, an interesting course, an injury I’d suffered playing basketball with friends, a fascinating teacher, he listened with obvious impatience—changing the subject as soon as he could. Following these conversations I would climb back upstairs to my dormitory room from the pay phone in the basement and feel myself sliding down a long cascade of thoughts into a sadness that would last for several hours. Sometimes, in those moods, I would walk across campus to the music building, close myself in one of the piano rooms, and pound on the keys for ten or twenty minutes, abusing the beautiful instrument but in a way that would do no permanent damage.
I sent a series of short letters to Valencia, one of them with a picture a friend of mine had taken of me with a rifle on my shoulder. She did not answer any of them.
When I came home for the summer that year, partially unfrozen, full of what I thought of as my new self, my father greeted me without getting up from his armchair, and then said, as if he’d been rehearsing the lines and waiting to deliver them, “She’s no longer with us.” I knew, of course, that he was speaking of Valencia.
He ignored me—something that had been a trick of his, a strategy, one of the many strategies he’d employed, all my life, and probably all the years he’d been married to my mother. There was a whole catalogue of these strategies: the thirty-second eruptions of anger, during which his square, unattractive face would become a mask of writhing, blood-colored flesh and you would understand, in a flash, that he was capable of absolutely anything; the remarks, little poisoned knives, tossed off so easily, “I’ll be back soon, Dear,” Mother used to say, when she was going out, and his reflexive answer would be, “I’ll be holding my breath in anticipation,” the words washed in such a thick syrup of sarcasm that even the servants could not keep a spasm of disdain from their faces. I should say that there were other times when he’d summon—for me and for my mother—not kindness, exactly, but a type of temporary solidarity, a figurative pat on the shoulder that could be detected in eye contact over dinner, a small softening in the tone of his voice, or even a family stroll down to his favorite restaurant—an Armenian place that specialized in caviar and delicious flat breads. These small, brief shifts in mood could result in something as grand as our one trip together to Florida, or something as simple as a day without criticism. We were associated with him, those moments seemed to say; therefore we shared, to a certain extent, in the glow of his accomplishments. (What a glorious happiness I felt at those moments!) At other times—Christmas and birthdays–there might be lavish gifts, checks usually, that were presented with a teary sentimentality that ran cross-grain to almost everything else he did. There was this prerogative of not having to answer. And if one or more of those tactics failed to make us understand who he was, and who we were in comparison, then he would abruptly turn his back on us and leave the house, sometimes in only a sport coat and sweater on a winter night, always with an air of finality. He would be gone for an hour or several days, depending on the magnitude of our offense, and all during his absence my mother would pace the rooms and walk up and down the stairs wringing her hands, or she would call Aunt Chloe in Charleston and talk about a famous flower show, a novel one of them had recently read, or a friend they had known at school when they were young.
“The girl is no longer with us,” my father said. “We will have to find new help.”
In a tone I had never used with him, I demanded to know where Valencia had gone. At school, I had made the rifle team and earned good marks in physics and geology, and, as I mentioned, I had just started to feel a certain confidence emerging from the thin, dry soil of my esteem for myself. This moment with my father represented, in fact, the high point of my confidence, though I would not realize that for many years.
He looked at me then, briefly, over the top of his newspaper. The flesh to the left side of his mouth twitched once. “Stop it, now,” he said.
“When you tell me where she has gone, I’ll stop.”
He turned his eyes back to the newspaper. “She despised you,” he said evenly. “You must know that. We would laugh at you, at your foolish boyish hair, your thin arms, your way of smiling, your bottomless reservoir of inability.”
“When I was with her in her room at night she said that she would imagine you with a girlfriend, up there at school. Clumsy, impotent, your zipper stuck, your hands groping. You were a dependable source of amusement for us.”
“Where is she?”
“I’d advise you never again to mention her name. For the sake of your own dignity.”
“Did you send her away, or did she go away on her own?” I asked. He didn’t answer, so I went on: “She left you, didn’t she. That’s why you’re so upset. Finally, at last, she left you.”
He tried to ignore me, ducking beneath the business pages. I stepped toward him and ripped the newspaper downward with one hand and he was out of his chair in an instant, huge in his fury, pummeling my face with both soft fists, then kicking me as I lay on the carpet, aiming the hard tips of his shoes at my knees and kicking wildly in short bursts and grunting like a rutting animal, then spitting on me and leaving me lying in my blood and mucous with my cut and bruised face and ruined knees. He slammed the door and left the apartment. I lay there for hours, well into the night, moaning and writhing in agony at first, drooling and bleeding on the carpet, and then, when the sharpest of the pain began to subside, feeling as if a sort of shell were growing around me and hardening. Inside that shell—where I have lived now for many years– I began to understand that I could kill my own father. I began to imagine it in great detail, the knife, the gun, the lead pipe. I took a bitter satisfaction from those visions.
He did not return home until after I went back to school, almost a week later. I did not go to a doctor. I cleaned my own blood from the carpet as best I could. I took hot baths. I ate from the kitchen cabinets and refrigerator, at first, and then, when those reserves were exhausted and I could walk a bit farther without too much pain, I went out to restaurants. At school I told my friends I’d been hurt water-skiing in the Caribbean, and I tried many times to call Valencia, and I wrote her cards and letters at her Florida address and had no response.
My father and I did not speak for eight months. He came to my graduation, gave me a Cuban cigar which I did not smoke, made a show of shaking hands with all my friends, and we rode home in the back of the Bentley—five hours—without exchanging a word (though, at a rest stop, Gustavo joked with me about leaving all my girlfriends behind, and showed me how to block a punch thrown to the face).
That summer my father was mostly away, and I passed my days walking the streets of Manhattan on creaky, achy knees, and sometimes taking long subway rides into neighborhoods where I was the only white person. Why I did things like that, I do not know. One of these neighborhoods—Brooklyn, warehouse buildings, views of the Statue of Liberty, vulgar graffiti, stores with their proprietors standing in the doorways–reminded me somewhat of parts of Broadway where I’d gone shopping with my mother. Vibrant, the streets littered, the light poles and telephone kiosks plastered with sheets of paper announcing items for sale, or the concerts of musical groups or people seeking a place to live, it was a neighborhood where, even as an outsider, you felt part of the warm swirl of human life. Once or twice on these adventures I was confronted and asked for money, or solicited for other reasons. Once, because I heard a familiar hymn being sung there, I stepped into a storefront church, and the reverend at the pulpit greeted me as if I were a friend, welcomed “our visitor”, and I stood and knelt for an hour with the men and women in those pews, and talked with them afterwards about faith and goodness and love and my mother, though I never returned. On other days I stayed home and read, or wrote out elaborate fantasies in a journal I had started to keep. I went to movies in the afternoon, when the theaters were mostly empty. I walked in the Park, my knees aching in certain kinds of weather, the smells of the earth rising up around me, my father’s face and voice haunting me as I went. He had snapped me in half, I understood that. I felt very clearly that I had been broken, but that feeling is actually very complex, and goes by different names within oneself, and spends most of its time in the deep shadows. I have found that, once you step free of the utterly illogical adulation of the one who has tormented you, what you are left with is a constant, subtle self-hatred, a default of self-criticism. I know the way the bruised mind works now, intellectually, at least. I have been made aware of it. The beast of that knowledge is upon me.
In college, this feeling of brokenness nosed its way up into the light occasionally, and I began to experience the kinds of struggles I experience now. For instance, it became almost impossible for me to carry on an ordinary conversation without being silenced by self-consciousness; or to orient myself within a new group of people or in a new place; or to do much of anything, really, if it fell outside the boundaries of my robotic routine. Eventually, in spite of these handicaps, and after a difficult start, I was able to do fairly well in my classes. (I decided on a major in Russian literature.) And eventually my father and I grew able, again, to speak to each other, though our conversations were conducted in the grammar of avoidance. No Valencia, no Mother, no politics, no money of course, except in an indirect way when he would tell me about the corporation, or mention a particular development somewhere in the world that might bear on his financial situation. At twenty-one, (at twenty-five, and again at thirty), I received a substantial sum, arranged by my grandparents. And I did with these monies what I was advised to do, what my family had always done, sinking them into solid funds of various types, diversifying, striking a healthy balance between a living allowance for myself and continued growth. If the stock market stumbled, the bonds would bear me up. If there were a hiccup in the domestic economy, then we had something in Asia, in currencies, in oil, in timber, in technology stocks. I was, in short, well protected against every eventuality, every possibility of having to ever work or suffer the indignities of poverty. It was almost literally impossible for me to ever exhaust the money I controlled, and I knew that, and it was a small comfort.
After college, as an adult, out of the junkyard of my voluminous incapacities and with the help of the earnings from my investments, I crafted for myself a sort of life, though I am embarrassed now to describe it. One aspect of that life was that, in order to avoid seeing my father, I traveled compulsively, always alone, on alumni cruises and other organized tours mostly, because they required no effort on my part beyond getting myself to the airport or terminal on time. Instead of being ten years behind my actual age, I was, by then, forty years ahead of it. Like my parents, I became fluent in the language of superficiality, standing, in evening dress, on the deck of an ocean liner, at a lock in the Panama Canal, with a cognac in one hand, and remarking, to a white-haired couple beside me, on the abundance of stars, the excellent service and food, the marvels of modern engineering, the discovery of what were reputed to be sacred texts in the Arabian desert. I was twenty-four, twenty-seven, twenty-nine, touring the Tretiakovsky Gallery and wearing the manner of a seventy-year-old.
When I turned thirty I purchased an apartment of my own—ironically, perhaps, in the same building where I’d grown up. As always, I also had access to the house on Indian Creek in Miami Beach, which my mother’s parents had owned and where I sometimes stayed for a month in winter, when I knew my father wouldn’t be there. I could do those things, manage the staff, or find someone who could manage them, get myself from place to place fairly well, pass the days and nights. I had my love of pocket billiards (a Commander of my own in the billiard room of my new apartment; one or two cigarette-smoking friends in a place a few blocks from Pecky’s), my fantasies, my journals, a few social engagements.
I sat on the board of my high school, attended charity dinners, sometimes with a woman from the New York suburbs, whom I shall call Min. A few times in the first months of our friendship, Min and I spent the night together, but this proved unsatisfactory for both of us, and so, without ever actually discussing it, we decided to restrict our relationship to more public pleasures, visits to museums, sometimes a short ride out of the city to a restaurant we’d read or heard about. Against some invisible obstacle that seemed to weigh a million tons, I struggled to make real contact with Min, and with friends from school who had settled in New York. But I fell short in these efforts. The physics of friendship proved impenetrable for me. I studied but could not learn it, the way some people cannot learn a foreign language. I could not move, or break, or see the million-ton obstacle. And so, in essence, I did nothing, made nothing, knew no one intimately, but for those years I floated along acceptably well just above the surface of things, winging through my unawareness, pretending to myself that I’d had a different past, that my father was really, at heart, a decent man, and that our way of life was admirable and enviable and right.
And then, in a grander echo of my mother’s obsession, I began, age thirty-two, to make purchases—paintings, sculpture, rare books, antique silver, furniture, things someone else had made– and I paid people large sums to arrange these objects in a particular way in my home. I began to read about the lives of eighteenth and nineteenth-century oil painters, the history of Chinese porcelain, the careers of famous furniture makers in Baltimore and Berlin. That was the beginning of the beginning of a profound change for me. Trapped as I was in myself, I could nevertheless buy things and learn about them; I could alter the rooms I lived in, if not my own psychological interior. On the eighteenth anniversary of my mother’s death I began to see an analyst, and, after the first few visits, one of the subjects I began to speak of openly was my persistent feelings for Valencia. “Foolish, of course,” I told him, though I did not believe they were foolish at all. “It’s been so many years. Our lives are so utterly different. Yet I keep returning to her in my mind.”
At first, my analyst merely listened and nodded and made chirrups of sympathetic encouragement, but I felt that he was helping to guide me toward something, wrapping me in thick quilts of understanding, in preparation for the moment when I fell out of my dream world and landed on the rugged surface of real earth.
I did not, of course, tell my father about my therapy. Robust and vibrant, he greeted me effusively in the lobby of our building if we happened to pass each other, and invited me out to dinner every three or four months when a certain mood overtook him. As time went on, his penchant for talking about himself only seemed to deepen. More and more clearly I began to see that, as my analyst suggested, I did not exist for him, not really (and had therefore come to not exist for myself.) By the last few dinners it was an hour and a half of strung-together, extremely detailed accounts of his vacations, his latest coups, the witticisms of famous associates, salacious allusions to assignations with the wives of his pool-playing pals, details of his aerobic workouts, the deceitful practices of others in the business world. His words were a curtain of anti-aircraft fire. I could not get through it to say any real thing.
On a Sunday morning, a week or so after one of these dinners, my father’s body was discovered in an alley behind Pecky’s Billiards. He had been beaten to death. I was obliged to go to the city morgue and identify him. By the following day, his death was material, however minor, for the tabloid newspapers, and all sorts of things were said about why he had been there, and why he had been killed. I bought the newspapers, and cut out the articles, and have kept them in a sort of scrapbook, which I rarely look at but have not thrown away.
In a disturbing epilogue to this chapter of my life, I was interviewed by the New York City police, and, of course, had little to tell them. Two detectives came to my home, rough men whom I did not completely trust, and they sat opposite me on the leather chairs of the study. I was not calm, though I tried to sit in a confident posture, and speak in a clear voice. After some preliminary conversation, they asked if I had any particular reason to be angry at my father, and I told them that, naturally, like any son and father, we’d had some arguments over the years, some differences of opinion, but that I had always admired him, that we had dinner together frequently, that we lived in the same building and pursued an identical hobby. One of these men was rather corpulent, with a day’s growth of beard, nicotine stains on his fingers, and he was wearing a plaid flannel shirt beneath his corduroy sport coat. “Well, he had a lot of enemies, as you know, I guess.”
“I wasn’t aware of that.”
“He never mentioned anything?”
“Business troubles, occasionally. Nothing out of the ordinary.”
The other detective, thinner and better dressed, coughed once into his hand and said, “Mr. Thetland, we know you aren’t the type to do something like this. But I have to tell you that we have an informant, pretty reliable, you know, who told us yesterday that he’d heard something, from somebody who knew something, you know. He seems to think he heard that the person who murdered your father has the first name of Metcalf. That seems to be the word on the street.” He paused and fixed me with his blue, sad eyes. “Your name is Metcalf, if I have it right.”
“Not that common a name,” his partner said.
“I wouldn’t know. And I certainly wouldn’t have killed my own father, no matter what some informant tells you.”
“No, no,” the thinner man said. “But it’s been done. We’ve heard of it happening.”
“Are you going to charge me? Should I contact my lawyer?”
“No, no,” the thinner one repeated. “Of course not. But we have that information, and we thought, you know, it was right to share it with you.”
“Well, it’s poor information. Inaccurate. Implausible.”
“It might be,” the other one said. I had the feeling they were acting out a scene they’d played together many times. At last, they stood up to leave, glancing around the apartment as if bloody implements might be half-hidden beneath the furniture.
I said, “Please keep me apprised of the investigation.”
“Absolutely,” the heavier one said. “You can count on it.”
Shortly after this interrogation, and after a few days went by without any further contact from the police, I could feel, amidst the heaving moods I lived through then, that a change was coming over me. In my next visit to the analyst I wept for the entire hour, just sat there with my hands clasped tightly in my lap and my head bowed, and sobbed and soaked my shirt with tears. Embarrassing, of course, and yet, my analyst—Walter, is his name—thought it was helpful. And perhaps he was right, because it was when I went home from that appointment that I decided I would visit Valencia. I was thirty-five. It had been nineteen years since I’d seen or spoken with her. Even though I had been to Miami Beach regularly, a few hours from where I assumed she still lived, I’d never made much effort to reach her, aside from several unanswered postcards in the early years. I should say, though—and I have never admitted this even to Walter–that every year on my birthday, November 1, usually late at night, as a kind of pointless, hopeful ritual, I would dial Information and speak her name into the telephone and then wait while the operator searched. After a few seconds, the operator would say that there was no listing under that last name, Figgs, in that town, first initial V. I would ask her to check other towns in the area, and she would do so and then say she was sorry, there were no listings at all under that last name.
Over the course of many years now, I have surrounded myself with a complicated web of superstition and ritual. This has helped me to function in what seems to many people a more or less normal fashion. For example, I carry various objects around with me in the pockets of my sport jackets and I hold them in my fingers on particular occasions. To be more precise, of late I have started to carry a Sacagawea dollar, and whenever I speak to someone face to face—a maid, a cook, an elevator operator, a fund manager, a fellow trustee– I put my left hand in that pocket and touch the coin with the tips of my second and third fingers. I have visited my mother’s grave on certain anniversaries, and had conversations with her as if she were alive. I have gone down into the Village, to a very modest soup and salad place I like, and sat with the food in front of me, at a window table, waiting until a certain number of women passed on the sidewalk before allowing myself to begin the meal. Playing pocket billiards, I have not allowed myself to go to bed before sinking twelve balls in a row without a miss. And so on.
Another of these superstitions, if that is the right word for them, involved the idea that when Valencia installed a phone in her house, or had it listed, that would be a signal that she wanted to talk to me.
When I called information a few days after the memorial service to my father—which was held a week after his death and at which many people shook my hand and expressed their admiration for him—there was still no listing for V. Figgs, at the address, or in the town, where I had long ago written her. However, this time, instead of telling myself it was a sign that she did not want to hear from me, I did what I knew I could have done years before: I hired someone to find out if she had an unlisted telephone. Which, it turned out, she did. With the number printed neatly on the back of one of my business cards, kept in the breast pocket of whatever shirt I was wearing, I went several days without calling her. She had not, after all, answered any of my notes. She had made no effort, that I knew of, to get in touch with me. She would be in her late thirties, and had surely married. She was too beautiful not to have married.
But then one night not long after my visit from the police, I awoke between three and four a.m., when I usually awake, and it came to me that Valencia might not have known how to read. I had never seen her reading so much as a recipe, and she spoke poorly, though I knew, even from our few conversations, that her poor speech masked a highly developed intelligence, especially about the places, dark and light, from which men and women bring their true nature forward and present it to the world, or do not bring it forward and hide it from the world, or bring it forward in some disguise they believe will fool the world. Wise, certainly, indisputably, but perhaps she was illiterate. Or perhaps her silence was due to the fact that, in my notes to her I had always mentioned my father, which I see now was a mistake. A mistake, but probably unavoidable. My father loomed so large in my life that not mentioning him would have been, for me, like not beginning the note with a salutation, or failing to end it with an expression of affection or respect.
After that three a.m. epiphany, if that is what it should be called, I set my pride to one side and began to try to contact Valencia in earnest. I telephoned many times. She was never home or never answered. Then I took the risk of calling very early, just after dawn, and heard her voice.
“Valencia,” I said, gripping the phone tightly in my right hand. “This is Metty.”
She said nothing.
“Metcalf. Your friend. . . In New York. Thetland.”
“Suh?” she said.
“My father died.”
There was an awkward silence, and then, instead of expressing surprise or offering condolences, she said that she had been praying for him all these years, and praying for me.
“No one has ever prayed for me,” I said. “I have never even prayed for me.” But, though I meant it as an amusement, she did not laugh. I was able to keep myself from asking if she had ever received the notes I sent, or why her number was unlisted, and I was able to say that I wanted to fly down and see her, words that took great courage for me to pronounce.
There was a terrible, unfigurable pause. In a panic of sorts, I was on the verge of adding, “My father has left you something, some money”—which, of course, was not true—but I bit down on the words.
In another moment she said, “Ah lehv et Blahl.”
Which I knew meant this: I live at Belle Isle. Belle Isle was the place where my father’s company had its offices. Those words thrilled me. “Belle Isle,” I said. “Yes, I know. I know where Belle Isle is. My father took me there once when I was a boy. I know where it is, how to get there. I’ll find you. Is your mother still alive?”
“Then I’ll come down and see her, as I promised I would.”
There was another patch of silence. I sensed that she had something more to say and I guessed it would be that she thought it better if I didn’t come. I thought she would then make mention of a husband or a boyfriend, or tell me that her mother was too ill to receive visitors. Or that she would say: nineteen years is a long time to wait to keep a promise. Or that she would keep calling me “Sir”. But there was another part of me, a part I imagined as existing very deep in me, untouched by the poisons of the life I had been trained to, untouched by my encyclopedic ineptitudes, unscratched, unpolluted, unstained—and in this part of me I had, in my own way, kept faith with the idea that Valencia and I had an understanding, darkness to darkness, soul to soul, that was as authentic as any understanding in the universe. In the roiling seas of my thoughts I clung to the belief that she knew I was not like my father, that I had not abandoned her, perhaps even that I had stood up to him for her. It had been one small moment of courage, but I convinced myself that it had to count for something in this world.
She was silent for a long time. I waited for her to speak, and then, at last, she asked me if I knew what had happened.
I misunderstood. I said, “Yes, my father was killed, actually. Here in New York. He was beaten to death. The police are investigating.”
Another terrible silence. I was squeezing the phone. I thought she had severed the connection. But at last she said, “Ah haiv a chile. A suhn. Nahnteen.” She paused again, and I waited for her to tell me about her husband, her lover, the child’s father, and the silence on the phone line was like an enormous canyon with a heart beating in it, the pulse of a life, or a hope. I was standing at the floor-to-ceiling windows of the apartment, six stories below the place my mother used to stand. Over the Park a cold February dawn had broken. I thought I had shed my old sexual naiveté, and the shame associated with it, but with those two syllables, “Nineteen”, the feeling of it came crashing back against me. I understood what she was trying to tell me, and I understood that I would never be able to walk out from under the shadow my father had cast. I realized, however belatedly, how happy I had been at the news of his death, and the manner of it. Listening to Valencia, realizing what it was she was saying, I tried to step aside from the huge pool of rage that bubbled within me. I tried to control my voice. I’d had so many years of convincing myself I did not feel what I actually felt. So many years of it. I was a master of it.
After a time it came into my mind to ask her a question. “What is your son’s name?” I said.
And she said, “Maitcoff. Saim es you. Maitcoff Feeggs.” She hesitated a moment, then went on. “He ain the jahl heah naw, till they tek him back theah. He yoah haf-brutha, ah giss you would sai so.”
“What is he in jail for?” I asked, but simply to be saying something, because, while I may be naive, I am not stupid, and because, by then, I had sailed around the back side of the earth, and turned to face the day, and there would be no more secrets my self kept from me.
She said, as a statement of fact. “You didn’ know.”
“Will he. . .is he. . . where is he now? There?”
“And he will go on trial? Or has he already?”
“Yes, Suh. He wheel.”
“Stop calling me that,” I said, in a flat, almost a hateful voice, a voice that shocked me and that I wanted to be able to pull back through the telephone wire.
“I’m coming then,” I said. “I was going to come in any case. . .before this. Would it be. . .could I visit? You, I mean? Could I come and visit you? Could I help?”
“Yes,” she said, one syllable, one stone tossed into the canyon of silence between us. The word echoed and echoed, and I could feel the pulse slamming in my throat and fingers, slamming and slamming as if I had sprinted up to my apartment from the street. After a time I managed to get from her the directions to her house, and to tell her that we would go together to see her son before he was sent north, and that I would do whatever I could do to help him. She seemed convinced that he was innocent.
When I hung up I spent many hours lying on the couch of my living room, trying to burrow through a tunnel into my father’s life and understand the way he had lived—the way his mind had worked–and to imagine the way he had died, and to imagine Metcalf Figgs and what he had done, and to perform a kind of X-ray of my own being to see if the damage might be repaired, there, beneath the shadow, or if that was impossible. I felt no sympathy for my father. I did not know what I felt for Valencia’s son. This may seem foolish, but I thought that, if I could make myself go to Florida and see her and see this son in the flesh, then I might still be able to crawl out toward the edges of the shadow that lay over me, not just for a minute but for all time, and sort my feelings out there, in the light. And perhaps help someone, somehow, instead of spending all my energies taking trips, buying objects, maintaining the appearance of normalcy.
All during the flight to Miami, and then in the terminal, in the rental car office, on the road—I struggled to understand why Valencia had given her son my name, and when I had left behind the stucco-and-palm condominium developments and crossroad gas stations where men in cowboy hats spat on the warm tar, and when I had gone out from there into the other Florida, near Okeechobee, the secret Florida, I began to come to an understanding. My father had left her—left them—nothing in his will, I knew that. And I knew, or was almost sure I knew, that he had sent them nothing when he was alive, either. In her years with us, Valencia had seen and heard enough to understand that it would not be difficult to find a lawyer who could compel my father to offer some monetary assistance to her, and for nineteen years she had not done that. For one thing, my father was a kind of king in the place where she had raised her son, and kings exert a mysterious power over their subjects, a power that goes beyond their laws and armies. No one can testify to that better than I. For another, it would have been completely outside the boundaries of the person she was—this idea of seeking reparation in money or the law.
For a short time I thought she might have given her son that name as a way of raising a welt of guilt in my father. But I knew she would not suppose my father to be capable of guilt, or expect that he would ever hear about their child if she did not tell him.
Which left, in my mind, only one other reason: Over those nineteen years, Valencia had thought of me as I had thought of her. We were, for each other, a bit of starry, hopeful light in sky full of pain. Once, talking with her, having understood what it was that my father did in her room in the night, I had almost said, “He does the same to me.” It came to me to say that, though I bit down on my tongue for fear she would understand it literally. But in a way it was true. My father had broken the new shoot of spirit in me, the way he had no doubt broken it in her, with a beating instead of a multitude of rapes, with his silences and verbal assaults, with his evil royal power. Man or woman, it was the kind of breakage you did not want to think about. Because when you thought about it, when you let yourself really think about it, really understand what had been done, then the pain of hatred for yourself came up in you like lava. For nineteen years Valencia had chosen not to face that wave, and so had I. But then, unable to carry her secrets any longer, perhaps, or suffering from an unbearable loneliness, or an unfathomable rage, she had spoken about it to her son, who had never met my father, who was not paralyzed by him. She had told him what had happened in the opulent apartment on Central Park, night after night. In my mind’s eye, I tried to see her doing that.
Darkness had not yet fallen—I had forgotten that the days are longer in Florida in February than they are in New York. The countryside I drove through was unpeopled and flat, a black sheet on a bed. Where the cane had been harvested there lay furrows of fecund black earth strewn with scraps of stalk, and on the road I saw the company trucks headed back toward the refinery, with what looked like cages in back, and what looked like tons of green and black broomsticks in those cages. Because my father had given me a sort of tutorial, so many years before as we made this drive together, I knew that there were thousands of acres of sugar, as well as some citrus, to either side of that highway, and that the sugar companies had developed a hybrid that would grow in this soil, and that this soil was being depleted to the point where, in certain places, the company was grinding up the underlying rock and growing their crop in that; and that the United States government paid the companies large subsidies, in part because it was impossible to get sugar from our historical source, from Cuba.
In the distance the refinery sparkled and glowed, all lights and smoke and steel, like some great spaceship, eerie in the new darkness, come to this place on the planet to suck all sweetness from the land. And I knew, because Valencia had told me, that beyond the vast cane fields there was the cypress swamp, home to cottonmouths and alligators, panthers even. Osprey. Egret. Wood stork as tall as my waist. Clouds of mosquitoes in the warmer months. On the far western horizon I could just see plumes of purplish smoke where the chopped-down cane plants had been burned that day, after the usable parts had been carted off.
Valencia had said that her home was a bungalow on bricks on Roosevelt Road, though she’d warned me that the street sign had been blown away in a storm and never replaced. As I drew within a few miles of it I pictured her standing at a stove there—she’d asked if pork chops, greens, and cornbread would be alright. Sweet tea. A pah, as she called it. Strawberry. I had a bottle of wine I’d brought for her, a good bottle from my own storage, as absurd as everything else I carried. I passed the prison–razor wire, towers, and hulking walls, set back a little ways from the street that led into Belle Isle. Tomorrow, I told myself, I would go there, and speak to Metcalf Figgs, a young man whose father had pretended his son did not exist. We will hire the best lawyer, I’d tell him grandly. We will make the jury understand. And even if you have to serve a sentence, when you get out you will never have to work again. You’ll have a home, a car, you can go to college and study anything you’d like. You can travel, with your mother or alone. I imagined him with skin that was neither dark nor light, with his mother’s eyes, with my father’s slightly stooped posture. I imagined, at first, that he might have some affection for the person after whom he’d been named.
Not far from the prison gates I saw a sign that said, “Belle Isle. Her Soil is Her Treasure.”
From there I should have gone directly to Valencia’s house, and, in fact, I started to do that. But I made a wrong turn, and when I realized I’d made a wrong turn I did not change direction but kept driving south, toward the big reservation where the Seminole Indians lived, and as I sped through the darkness, the top down, the wet hot air against my face, I was listening to some interior voice reminding me, in hideous, mocking tones, of every failure and humiliation I had ever experienced. Every wrong turn. Every flubbed conversation and spilled drink. Every lie and half-lie. Every crippled or truncated friendship. By then the fields were dark, but there were stars coming out above them in an abundance you do not see in New York. For no reason I understood, though I knew Valencia would be waiting for me, in her bungalow, with the food going cold, with her son in the prison awaiting extradition, with all her memories of New York brought to life again, I kept driving in the direction I was going.
At last, I pulled the car onto the shoulder of the road. Gravel snapped beneath the tires and then gave way to the soft rich earth. I took the bottle of wine by its neck and got out and holding it began to walk straight into the fields, along a soft furrow with young cane shoots just planted in it to replace what had been recently cut. I crushed some of those plants as I went, and bent some, walking blindly along in the smell of the damp black soil, of the cane, of smoke from that day’s fires, listening to the whoops and cries of the birds, and feeling the hard cold surface of the glass against my fingers.