Read Pasadena Online

Authors: David Ebershoff

Pasadena (4 page)

BOOK: Pasadena
6.09Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

“Did you want something, Mr. Blackwood?”

“I was hoping to speak to Mr. Bruder.”

“I realize that,” said Sieglinde. “Did you want something from the kitchen? Some tea?”

Her feet were also bare, but this didn’t stop her from heading out into the storm. The violent night intruded through the open door as she left him alone with Pal.

“Is he around?”

“He’ll be back. He’s down on the beach.”

“On the beach? What’s he doing there?”

“Fishing. Checking her lobster pots.”

Blackwood wondered if this could be true and thought that Pal might be teasing him; or maybe Pal didn’t have it all in the mind. There was something about him, after all; his head large on his shoulders, the skull massive in the brow. Certain words—like “Condor,” for instance—seemed to catch on his tongue, not like a stammer but almost as if he didn’t comprehend them. “Sieglinde,” as well.
Sieg-l-l-l-linde
.

“Does he usually fish on a night like this?”

“Most of the time.”

“Is that wise?”

“You’ll have to ask him.” Pal’s finger touched the spine of a book on the shelf, a German edition of Gibbon. It made Blackwood wonder who at Condor’s Nest was reading Gibbon, and the other books of history, Carlyle and Tacitus and two volumes of Plutarch.

Sieglinde returned with a kettle, and she leaned over Blackwood to
fill his cup, the rain dripping from her face onto the top of his head. Then she returned to the bench and her knives and said, “He’s come back.”

“How is he?”

“Cold.”

“Do you mean Mr. Bruder?” asked Blackwood.

“I told him you were here.”

“What did he say?”

By the time Bruder entered the cottage, Blackwood had begun to dry out and sleep had nearly overtaken him, but the storm rushing through the door triggered Blackwood’s heart.

“There’s a leopard out there waiting for you,” said Bruder. Obediently, Pal stood and buttoned his overalls. “A girl-shark. She won’t take much time. Watch out, she might be full.” Pal took two knives from Sieglinde and a club hanging on a leather string by the bookshelf.

“Go with him,” Bruder said to the girl, shaking off the water, and for the first time Blackwood saw the canine in him, in the strange yellow rimming his eyes. Blackwood figured he’d be able to get a good deal out of a man so crude. Pal and Sieglinde left silently, the wind greeting them at the stoop.

“The children don’t like it when she’s loaded.”

“Excuse me?”

“When the shark’s pregnant. A baby shark can flip out of the gut, as alive as you and me.”

The cottage, a dainty room with a second room behind the fireplace barely big enough for a bed, was nearly too small to hold Bruder, it seemed.

“What do you want, Mr. Blackwood?”

“Nothing more than a friendly visit.”

“Shouldn’t you be home on a night like this?”

“I was on my way home but thought I’d stop by. See if you’d given it any thought.”

“I gave it thought the last time you were here. This is my land.” And then: “My home.”

“Yes, but these are interesting times. Things are shifting these days, places changing. The second half of the twentieth century is approaching, and they say it won’t look anything like the first.”

“Is that what they say?”

“I believe so. The word is the war will end.”

“Of course it’ll end. They always do.”

“But soon, Mr. Bruder. In the next year, year and a half. All I’m saying is you might want to think about being ready.”

“Ready?”

“For life after the war.”

“I’ve been ready for life after the war since the last one.” There was a foreignness to him that Blackwood couldn’t place: his formal syntax contrasting with his plodding movements; his large body so quiet and contained. More than anything, Bruder seemed to be a frontiersman, and looking at him Blackwood felt as if he were staring at the history of California itself.

“I see you noticing the books, Mr. Blackwood. Do you like Gibbon?”

“I’m not much of a history man myself. I go more for numbers and that sort of thing. You know, adding things up.”

“I can tell you’re not from California.”

“What would make you say that?”

“You strike me as a man from back east,” said Bruder.

“I’ve been living in Pasadena for more than a dozen years. Some would say that makes me more Californian than most.”

Bruder pulled off his wet sweater, the collar catching his hair and revealing again that picture-star profile and the night-dark scar. Sometimes Blackwood’s boyish face left him feeling a bit insubstantial, and he would stand at the mirror and imagine himself transformed, with the bursting, manly features Bruder possessed in full supply: bushy hair thick enough to snare a hand, a granite-hard profile, a sturdy chin. Bruder probably didn’t even know what he had, and a flea of insecurity bit Blackwood’s sensitive flesh.

“You’re from Pasadena?” said Bruder. He was busy unlacing and opening his boots to dry them at the fire. “That’s a long way from here.”

“Not so far. The Imperial Victoria gets me there in a few hours.”

“I remember when it would take a day.”

“You’ve been?”

“You could say that. It was long ago.”

“You might not recognize it. It’s become quite a city. And we’ve got a concrete parkway that runs along the bottom of the arroyo all the way
to Los Angeles. Three lanes in each direction. They’re thinking of extending it out to Santa Monica Beach.”

“I’ve heard.”

A flame rose in the fire, eucalyptus sap cracking, and the two men sat silently until Blackwood cleared his throat. “I’m prepared to make an offer.”

“I’m not prepared to sell.”

“Why not?”

“I’ll never leave Condor’s Nest.”

“Don’t you think one day you’ll grow tired of winter fishing and tugging up a couple of acres of onions?”

“I plan to die here, Mr. Blackwood.”

“You want to be buried
here
?”

“I didn’t say that.”

The conversation had turned ghastlier than Blackwood liked, and he tried again. “Think about your daughter.”

“My daughter?”

“Yes, Sieglinde.”

Bruder sat frozen, his lips pressed together so hard they were turning white. Then his hand reached out and delicately stroked a twig of pink coral that sat upon the bookshelf.

“I’m sorry. That was her name, wasn’t it?”

“No one has told you that Sieglinde is my daughter.”

“Of course, I’m sorry. My mistake, Mr. Bruder. But tell me, what kind of name is Sieglinde, anyway? Rather unusual for a girl these days. Is it a family name, by chance?”

“I’m afraid it’s time for you to leave, Mr. Blackwood. Condor’s Nest is not for sale.”

“I hope I didn’t say anything to upset you.”

“You’ve said nothing that I’ll remember in the morning.”

“Can I give you my card? In case you change your mind?”

“My mind is firm.”

“But just in case,” and Blackwood left it next to the pendant of coral, which was intricately carved and strung along a leather thong. He held the coral to his eye and saw that there were words inscribed on it, but he couldn’t read them in the dim light. “Beautiful piece,” he said, holding it in the space between his face and Bruder’s.

Bruder took it and folded it into his palm. “Yes, she is.” An eerie
calm veiled him, as if for a moment he were traveling somewhere else. Blackwood tried to shake his hand good-bye, but Bruder was motionless, propped against the wall, his eyes glassy. He was staring at nothing in particular; Blackwood stood beside him and could hear their breath rise and fall in unison. Blackwood didn’t want to leave just yet, not until Bruder shook himself from his daze, and standing next to the bookshelf Blackwood pulled out the volume of Gibbon. Stinky had recommended it once, but where would Blackwood find the time? Blackwood and Bruder were close, their shoulders nearly touching. The rank odor of salt and fish scale seeped from Bruder. Lightning flashed over the ocean, and the bulb on the wire went out. The cottage fell dark, and then, eventually, the weak yellow light returned. Blackwood opened the book and found on the endpaper a name written over and over:
Sieglinde! Sieglinde! Sieglinde!
There was also written, “This here book belongs to my brother Siegmund and to no one else and to those who crack its pages and smudge its ink I curse you, all of you, to your death! And beyond!” It was dated 1914. Because he was a man of numbers, Blackwood knew the dates didn’t add up. “Was this written by your girl?”

“Who?”

“Sieglinde?”

But Bruder said nothing, and Blackwood returned the book to the shelf. “Good night, Mr. Bruder.”

Bruder failed to respond.

“I’m sure we’ll see each other sometime soon,” Blackwood added, but after he’d buttoned himself into his coat and pulled down his hat, a tic rose in Bruder’s jaw and he said, his finger caressing the coral, “I doubt that, Mr. Blackwood. I should think we’ll never meet again.”

3

Mrs. Cherry Nay wasn’t
from Pasadena, nor did she pretend to be, but by 1944 she knew as much about the city as anyone born at the Arroyo Seco’s lip. Her name as a girl hadn’t been Cherry, and certainly it hadn’t been Nay, and when she arrived in Pasadena on New Year’s Day 1920, she quickly shed a few pounds from her past. Cherry walked with small strong legs and a sturdy gait, her pistol-gray curls shooting from her head. Since the outbreak of war, the simple, colorless clothing she had worn all her life had become fashionable among the women of Pasadena; over the years, Cherry had begun to blend in in other aspects too. She was forty-one, and only once in her life had she lied about her age: when she was seventeen, she told the editor at the
Star-News
that she was eighteen and a half; during this interview she also embroidered her experience reporting society gossip, inventing a story of lurking in a hibiscus to catch a railroad heiress in illicit arms. On the spot, the editor had hired Cherry, and she’d worked for him for more than ten years, stringing for the
American Weekly
insert too, eventually becoming a well-known and sometimes feared columnist. But long ago, Cherry Nay had given up that sort of life. Now she and her husband, George, ran Nay & Nay, real-estate brokers and development. She left the development to George and handled the residential sales, and over the years Cherry had learned that a real-estate broker could uncover as much as a reporter, often more. Because she no longer considered herself a snoop, she tried not to peer into the yawning drawers in her clients’ bedside tables, but there they were, open like infant coffins, offering her a full view into their lives, the Bible next to the sleeping pills. Ever since her childhood, Cherry had taken pride in her ability to
piece together a person’s life with only a few scraps of information, a Holmesian skill she put to use throughout her day. Back in 1930, she had first met George at a City Hall hearing over the proposed motor parkway, six lanes of concrete he and the others wanted to pour along the bottom of the arroyo. George had an attractive, muscular build and pretty, almost girlish blue eyes, and he carried a volume of Marcus Aurelius shoved up under his arm. He looked like the type of man who was prone to yelling, but in fact he spoke softly, choosing his words with care. He was determined to build the parkway, and he told the hearing in nearly a whisper that he wouldn’t give up until the concrete had dried. At the time, Cherry had known nothing else about him, but just this was enough for her to be able to imagine his entire life; and it was enough for her to know she wanted to give up reporting—“It’s a dirty business,” she predicted George would say one day—to become Mrs. Cherry Nay.

But on this December morning in 1944, all that felt like another life, one she had reported on, filed, and tossed away. She had a near perfect memory, recalling everything of the years when she had signed her columns “Chatty Cherry,” but there was an uncomfortable, telescoped distance between that woman and Mrs. Cherry Nay, who had to get across town for a nine o’clock showing at the Rancho Pasadena. The seller was a man by the name of Bruder; she had known him since she was a girl, and she liked to think that if she had done any good as a journalist, it had been with him. He was selling the old orange ranch, 160 acres, a place where quite a few things had happened in the last generation, and as Cherry drove west on the Colorado Street Bridge—“Suicide Bridge,” they’d been calling it since it opened years ago—she promised herself not to get bogged down in its past. That was the trouble of a perfect memory: at any time it could flood Cherry, the dam loosened by the scent of orange blossoms on the breeze or the way the morning light cut into the hillside, and especially when she drove down the coast to Baden-Baden-by-the-Sea. Cherry hadn’t spent much time at the rancho herself, but her old friend Linda Stamp had seen her life change there, end there too, and in some ways, Cherry had to admit, her life as well had turned the corner because of the Rancho Pasadena. Cherry preferred to keep herself removed from the narratives of others, but in this case she hadn’t entirely succeeded, becoming a bit player in a larger story, a fact she was reluctant to admit, especially to herself.

Her appointment was with a man named Blackwood, whom she knew of but had never met. George, who had gone to Washington to draw up contingency plans for the real estate of German cities, had warned that Blackwood was a small-timer; “a bit of a looky-loo,” George had written in one of his nightly letters. Yet few others had called about the rancho—it had become something of an anachronism by 1944—and Bruder had reminded Cherry that he was anxious to strike a deal: “Do what you can to relieve me of it,” he had said. The pain in his voice would be apparent even to those less observant than Cherry Nay.

On the telephone, Mr. Blackwood had spoken in a somewhat childlike voice, one that Cherry had found sincere, and she pasted this observation to her developing profile of Andrew J. Blackwood.

She was driving quickly through the Linda Vista hills, where the live-oaks canopied the streets and the scent of run-over skunk hung noxiously in the dewy morning; she was in a hurry to reach the house and open things up prior to Mr. Blackwood’s arrival. And at precisely the same time that Mrs. Cherry Nay was turning her key in the door of the Rancho Pasadena mansion, the Imperial Victoria was crossing Suicide Bridge, the morning sun burning in Andrew Jackson Blackwood’s rearview mirror.

BOOK: Pasadena
6.09Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Midnight Special by Phoef Sutton
The Zero Dog War by Keith Melton
Lake of Dreams by Linda Howard
The Six: Complete Series by E.C. Richard
Eva's Journey by Judi Curtin
Last Chance by Norah McClintock
Longshot by Lance Allred
The Gay Icon Classics of the World by Robert Joseph Greene