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Authors: Ward Just

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BOOK: Echo House
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Remembering those days now, Alec was filled with remorse and confusion: his father near death, his mother so melancholy. He was unable to connect that time with this one and wondered if there was no connection. Did life pass in episodes, each episode complete in itself and without obvious direction? Did the events of a life drift like rafts on a featureless sea, pushed by random winds and pulled by a remorseless tide? His father and mother had floated far apart, but it appeared to him that he was nominated to keep them both in sight. It seemed to him that they had changed utterly and he had not changed at all. He was a little boy then and a young man now but had not changed inside, except that he was alert to winds and gales. He did not understand why his parents were at such odds; collapse had come so suddenly. Alec looked across the table to the portraits of Behl men on the wall above the ruins of the Thanksgiving turkey in its tray on the sideboard. His father had finished with the Leica and now was silent, staring at the ceiling. He was very far away, his finger moving to the beat of the clock's pendulum. Alec put his hand on his father's arm, conscious of the rough tweed and the soft muscle beneath.

"Why did she leave?"

"You have the number, Alec. You can ask her."

That was not the answer he had hoped for, but he was not discouraged. "I'd hoped that you might say."

"Poor Sylvia," his father said after a moment.

The boy started at this unexpected remark.

"Sylvia loves beauty the perfect form, the more unfamiliar the better. But I'm not beautiful anymore. And I was always predictable."

"That's not true," the boy said.

Axel pushed his chair back, pausing, gaining time. The boy looked so much like his mother that it was almost indecent. It took your breath away. In candlelight he could have been her twin; and then he would narrow his eyes or make a gesture with his hands that was unmistakably Behl. Axel knew the boy had a good heart. He was not divided against himself as Sylvia was, and his ego was under control. The boy had good values, meaning a sense of community and a democratic spirit. He had never heard him utter a snobbish remark. But Alec was without direction or a sense of purpose or destination. He had no idea how dangerous the world was, and how disappointing in its rewards. And it would become more dangerous still. You would need a suit of armor to maneuver in it, and the outcome would always be in doubt. Alec did not apply himself in school, yet he had an inquiring intelligence and a willingness to listen. Listening was not one of the things that Sylvia was good at. Axel sighed and began again.

"She had the life she wanted in London, a careless life, each day a solo flight. A solo adventure. At night she wrote her poetry, sitting in our bedroom window and looking into the garden. You remember it, Alec, the English garden, her creation, with a design that had meaning only for her. The first of many English gardens, I'm afraid. Strange thing is, Constance, your grandmother, was a connoisseur of English gardens. It must be a female, Anglophile thing, something in the genes. 'It goes with my temperament,' Sylvia said. I thought her garden looked like a technicolor pandemonium, and I'd had enough of that. I'd had enough of that to last a lifetime. Whether her poetry was any good I'm not in a position to say. She thought it was very good and she was the one who was writing it, so I suppose she ought to know. You have to take her word for it. She worked hard on her poetry during the night and on her English garden during the day. So I came back from France and didn't fit into this world she'd made and the people she'd made it with. And she didn't fit into mine, God knows." He looked at the boy, who was listening hard with his chin in his hand. "I should say
our
world, yours and mine, because we were a family after all. And it wasn't a question of not trying, on my part or on her part either. She tried, but she was working like a heretic striving mightily for faith. You have to talk yourself into it and believe that the search is worthwhile. This was an impossibility for her and for me, too. And she knew it and I knew it."

"Yes," the boy said doubtfully. "And she left then?"

But his father did not hear, or if he heard he gave no sign. He said, "And when the war ended we returned to Washington, back to Echo House, my work in the government. I had to give back, Alec. When you fight a war and win it, you own it. And it owns you. The price is never cheap and you have to protect the victory, as you would any investment. The winning cost too much blood, don't you see? You can't walk away from it and simply allow people to bleed to death and create the very conditions you fought in the first place. And if you don't think the government can break your heart, walk over to Mr. Lincoln's memorial sometime and look at his face." Axel opened his mouth to say something more, then didn't. It was easy to explain that government was noble work, the only work worth doing. If you had a talent for it you had to do it. If you could afford to do it, you had a duty to try. But it was not so easy explaining the way you went about it, the evasions and compromises. Sylvia called it the civics lecture that concealed the raunchy joke. Axel wanted to control things and people, and the government was the officially approved way of going about it; making the world safe for democracy meant making the world safe for him and his ilk.

Axel, she'd said, you don't tell yourself the truth. You've gone soft in the head; you won't examine your own life, the choices you made and what you felt while you were making them. Motives, darling. Something other than "bad cards" or "mistakes were made." Government's the opiate of the patrician masses, don't you think? You've had too many'séances in the Oval Office with a movie; later, cookies and bourbon and classified talk. Too many secrets, not enough mystery. There's no beauty in it, no beauty at all. You've teamed up with the hollow men, and if you're not careful, you'll become one yourself. But maybe that's what you want for yourself. Maybe that's your beau ideal.

That was one of their last arguments, and a week later Sylvia was on her way to London.

"Hard to explain about the government, Alec. It's a religion, I suppose, and you either believe in it or you don't. The people who don't believe in it think it's an opiate. Too bad for them."

The boy nodded as if he understood completely, but he didn't understand at all. He didn't know what the government had to do with his mother, who only wanted to write her poetry. She was devoted to poetry the way his father was devoted to the government, and he did not know why these two objectives were so in opposition. They seemed to be fire and ice. He looked at his father and thought that their rafts were very far apart now, and his mother's was out of sight. What would she have said, had she been present? He knew he could mediate between them if only they would give him a chance. He knew also that his father was withholding something important and was not at all certain that he wanted to know what it was. Yet he leaned closer, waiting. His father had turned gray and was rubbing his back again, staring bleakly at the glass of whiskey.

"You'll hear stories," Axel said sharply.

"What kind of stories?"

"Stories!" he said loudly, speaking to the room. "About me, what the war did." Axel scratched his cheek and sighed. There were limits to how much you told a boy who was barely out of short pants, even a boy with an even temper and an inquiring intelligence and good values and the rest. He had already said too much at great length and Alec hadn't understood half of it, and he'd never know which half. When he was telling the story, he had forgotten where he was and whom he was talking to and why. God, Sylvia was a bitch.

Alec nodded, blinking.

"That I was so badly hurt that your mother and I were unable to have a normal life together," he said at last, looking sternly at his son, who turned away in embarrassment and confusion. "Don't believe the stories." And they were false, at least in the commonly retailed version that had him kin to Jake Barnes. It was only that his body had been so badly torn, long lumps of scar tissue, bits of iron under the skin, the flesh raw and discolored. He was frightful to look at, his body repulsive; and things were no better with the lights off.

"I haven't heard any stories," the boy said.

And perhaps that was the truth; they were a closed community and looked after one another. There were the normal rivalries and disagreements because there were only so many nests at the top of the tree. But they were a closed circle. When there was menace from the outside, they closed ranks in a phalanx of denials or evasions; and if someone had made a public error of judgment, he was allowed a plea of nolo contendere, an acknowledgment that whatever the mistake, the situation was in hand and the error, if that was what it was, was inadvertent and would not be repeated. If there was an event that related to work in the war, that was off limits absolutely.
Omertà
about war-related events, injuries or indiscretions; that was the rule, the only exception being cowardice.

Everyone had a loyalty to the work of the nation, and the personal side of things was only that—personal and of no relevance or consequence unless it interfered with good judgment, as it sometimes did. The pressure of public service was tremendous, and it took good, close friends to identify the tiny cracks that became fissures that turned into great fault lines that could be clearly seen by enemies who were waiting to exploit any sign of weakness or disarray. You discussed the personal lives of friends only with other friends and never, ever with outsiders, the better to further the work of the nation. It was essential that confidence be maintained, that steady hands be on the wheel. Everyone needed elbow room, and too much scrutiny was worse than none at all.

"She said you hit her," the boy said softly.

"Never," his father said quickly. "She said that? When did she say that?"

The boy nodded miserably. "Before she left."

"What did she say exactly?"

The boy shrugged and turned away.

"She'll say anything," Axel said.

"That was what she
said,
" the boy insisted.

"Did you believe her?"

"No, sir," the boy said.

"Did she say this to anyone else?"

"I guess it was just me," Alec said, his voice almost inaudible. Then, "I'm sure she wouldn't have told."

Axel nodded. He believed that his wife meant to destroy him, in her terms a kind of poetic justice, a strophe for Axel. But he knew equally that she would not succeed. Sylvia was not a subtle woman and would not know how to go about a campaign of character assassination, a plot that required Florentine patience and skill. Not that she wouldn't try; if she had told Alec, she had told others, Billie Peralta certainly, probably the wretched and mischievous Mrs. Pfister as well. Sylvia understood the difference between public and private, what belonged to you and what belonged to the world, except that her definitions were elastic and she tended to reverse the two. But she wouldn't succeed; too bad for her. When you embarked on such a campaign you had to know how to go about it or you would fail as surely as if you had walked in front of an express train; and you would deserve what you got, because you had been careless. She had no allies, no one she could count on. She had no loyalties. Sylvia never saw beyond herself, and so she invented stories and retailed them to anyone who would listen, even her own son. In that way she was promiscuous. The truth was, Sylvia had never seen the hard way of life. She had not learned the hard lessons.

The room's heat had grown oppressive, and the boy's stomach was moving in circles. He wanted to open the window but dared not leave his seat lest he be misinterpreted. He set about pinching the candle wax, collecting it in little piles, leaving his thumb prints. He wished he was at the movies downtown, John Wayne and his company of leathernecks—and if it was a rhapsody, so much the better. There were things in the world that you had to see for yourself, and his father could not understand that; anyhow, he didn't. Whatever the film, it would be an improvement on the picture he had in his mind now, the garden room at Echo House late at night, his mother in tears, her words tumbling over themselves, incoherent through the tears, except her accusation, again and again:
He did this to me.
She was disheveled. Heavy makeup concealed the bruises above her eye and the scratches on her cheeks. She talked and he listened, horrified and scared. He had no idea what to say to her, and truthfully he had no wish to listen. She talked on and on, and when she finished, she apologized but said she had no one to confide in. The next day she was gone.

Alec sneaked a look at his father, who had been silent these many minutes. Axel was perspiring and his eyes were closed. His lips moved fractionally, as if he were telling a story to himself. He was gripping the table's edge, his hands gray and frail but beautifully manicured. To know another was impossible. It was hard enough knowing yourself. His father would forever be a mystery, the facts of his life in dispute, as much as any character from antiquity. His father's hand slipped, his head bobbing—

Axel felt his chair move and he looked up, blinking. Alec was rising, saying something in a kindly voice, standing behind him now, his hands on the slatted back of the chair. Axel had fallen asleep.

2. Mrs. Pfister

T
HE COMMUNITY
saw Sylvia as a creature of Axel. When they met, she was barely twenty years old, while Axel, though not much older, seemed already to have found a settled middle age. Billie Peralta was reminded of the perverse Escher design where a white dove evolves from a black sparrow, or the reverse, depending on beholder's eye. No telling which came first, according to Billie, who freely admitted her bias. She and Axel had walked out together the year before her marriage to Ed and she knew that his reputation was as carefully crafted as a press re-lease, the sober reflection of his blameless daylight hours—the nondescript office at the State Department that seemed to be a kind of clubhouse for younger foreign service officers, the men-only lunches at the Grill Room, tennis on Saturday afternoons, services at the National Cathedral on Sunday mornings. Of course he had been coached by an expert, the ambitious Constance, who monitored his every move, with and without his knowledge.

BOOK: Echo House
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