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Authors: David Ebershoff

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BOOK: Pasadena
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On the terrace, she pointed out the orange grove and the ranch house and the outbuildings. “It comes with all sorts of picking and packing equipment. If you’re interested, if you’re serious, Mr. Blackwood, I will supply you with an inventory.”

He felt obliged to say, “I am serious, Mrs. Nay.”

Her finger traced the property line: “From that hill with the fire scar
in its side to that one shaped like a camel’s hump, including that little arroyo over there.”

“What’s that noise?” asked Blackwood.

“What noise?”

“That whirring noise?”

The two stood on the terrace, its red Welsh tiles casting a glow about their feet.

“That’s the parkway, Mr. Blackwood.”

“Is it
that
nearby?”

“Yes, it’s just beyond that first hill over there. Captain Poore, who was Mr. Poore’s son, sold some of his land to the men who dreamed of paving the Arroyo Seco with a six-lane road.” She failed to mention that one of those men was her husband.

“I suppose you can hear it night and day?”

“I’m afraid so. They say a thousand cars use it every hour.” She and Blackwood exchanged a look that they both understood to mean that the parkway’s proximity would knock something off the price; she held private the thought that the parkway had made her and George very rich. “Except for the automobiles, we really could be stepping back in time, couldn’t we, Mr. Blackwood.”

He thought her a handsome woman, small and mulish, like the few lady professors scuttling around Cal Tech. He thought to ask, “How about you, Mrs. Nay? Were you born in Pasadena as well?”

She said that she was from Baden-Baden-by-the-Sea, and that George was from Bakersfield. “We’re both upstarts in Pasadena, but we’ve done all right for ourselves. We’ve been over on Hillcrest for the past ten years and we’ve seen the changes, Mr. Blackwood. And we know the next ten will bring even more.” She was of two minds about what she did in real estate—ushering in progress and stamping out the past—and sometimes it was as simple and innocent as shepherding a bungalow with a swing on its porch from one generation to the next, but other times, especially with George’s deals, it meant deciding that the past should come down altogether: choosing one hundred tiny new houses over a citrus grove.

Blackwood noted that in the past several years the changes had been especially rapid: the Hotel Vista converted into an army hospital, the candied-fruit shops on Colorado Street boarded up, and a dozen Orange Grove mansions abandoned in the night and turned into rooming
houses, or pulled down by rat and ivy. A nearly imperceptible brown veil hung over the rancho’s valley, blurring the landscape like one of the
plein-air
paintings that hung in the ballroom of the Valley Hunt Club—or so Blackwood had heard.

“And what’s that over there, Mrs. Nay?”

“What?”

“That white structure at the far edge of the grove? Is it a folly?”

“Not at all. That’s the mausoleum. They’re all buried there, the whole family.”

“Who?”

“The Poores. Most recently Captain Poore. He followed his wife and sister by more than ten years.” And then the memory washed over Cherry and she said, although she didn’t intend to, “She was an unusual woman.”

“Who?”

“His wife.”

Continuing her tour, Mrs. Nay explained that the library’s mahogany paneling had come from a manor outside Windsor, pried from the walls of a cash-poor earl and crated to California by the Duveen Brothers. The roller shades were drawn and the seams in the herringbone parquet collected dust, and the room was gray and vacant, except for the six thousand books on the shelves. “The present owner chose not to take them. He says he doesn’t like to read another man’s books. He’s not from Pasadena, Mr. Blackwood. Or, I suppose he is, but not like anyone else.”

“How do you mean?”

“He was an orphan. Raised at the Children’s Training Society, out by the old City Farm. It closed a while back now. You probably don’t know it. There’s no reason you would.”

“I’m afraid not.” Blackwood pulled a volume of Gibbon from the shelf and found a bookplate that read,
This book belongs to the library of Lindy Poore, 1930
. The pages were heavily underlined and annotated. On the inside of a schoolroom edition of
The Three Musketeers
he found a signature, written over and over,
Sieglinde Stumpf
.

“Sieglinde Stumpf?”

“What’s that, Mr. Blackwood?”

“Who’s Sieglinde Stumpf?” He pointed to the signature.

“She was the mistress here.”

“Here?”

Mrs. Nay nodded, and her hand fell to his wrist. Sometimes Cherry would say to George that she hadn’t thought about Linda Stamp and Bruder in years: “It feels like someone else had known them, not me …” But in truth, a day didn’t pass when she didn’t turn over the details, the stones of the story tumbling and polishing in her mind. “Tell me, Mr. Blackwood. Is it the house or the land that interests you?”

“Both, Mrs. Nay.”

“Do you have any intention of preserving things as they are?”

“No plans yet, Mrs. Nay. But anything is possible. I’m most interested in what’s best for the property. And for Pasadena.”

“I was hoping you’d say that,” she confessed. “We shouldn’t rip up every last thing, should we? On most days, I find the past a useful thing to keep in mind. I had a gentleman in here who had an idea to turn the mansion into a halfway house. Another fellow wanted to build an apartment complex where the roses are. You can’t imagine what he had planned for the orange grove. Still, the present owner has little reason to seek preservation. If it were up to him, he’d tear down the whole thing. He says the only thing the mansion could be used for is a home for old ladies.”

“A home for old ladies?”

“That’s what he says, and I know he’s probably right. But I’m sure you can see this is a one-of-a-kind. In the end I am a realistic woman, Mr. Blackwood, and my only hope is that the future owner thinks carefully before he raises his ax.”

“There aren’t many people who can take on a mansion and one hundred and sixty acres just for themselves these days, are there, Mrs. Nay? Few people set themselves up as barons anymore.”

“That’s what the present owner says.” In the dim library, her eye gleamed and she made a little swing with her arm, as if she were on the tennis court.

“Did you mention who the present owner is? Is he Captain Poore’s heir?”

“I didn’t mention the name, Mr. Blackwood. He has asked me not to say.”

“I understand.”

“But he is an unusual man.” She said this to test Blackwood, to fillip the crystal of his interest to hear how it rang.

“Is that so?”

“I’ve known him for years and years.” She added, “He once worked the orange ranch here.”

“And now he owns it all?”

“It’s a long story, Mr. Blackwood. Mr. Bruder’s history is complex.” She knew that the revelation of Bruder’s name would startle Blackwood. Cherry wanted to grade his resourcefulness, to see if he was the type of man who could stitch together a story with the little scraps she had meted out.

“Mr. Bruder?” said Blackwood, pressing his lips together so as not to give anything away. He peeled back the window shade: the small valley lay before him, the hills fighting off the fiery reach of the new houses, the roof tiles as orange as flame and the fresh roads the color of smoke. What was the likelihood that it was the same man? On the other hand, what was the likelihood that there were two? “Do you have any idea why Mr. Bruder is selling?” asked Blackwood.

“As I said, it’s a long story.”

“I have time.”

“I really shouldn’t say. After all, I’m representing the seller.”

“It would help me in my decision. And my decision might be for the good of things in Pasadena.” Cherry didn’t say anything, and Blackwood tried again. “Who is this girl named Sieglinde?”

“Which Sieglinde? There are two.” Cherry checked her watch. She didn’t know why she felt the need to tell the story, but it pressed at her from beneath her skin, an angry fist punching out. Like Blackwood, she sensed that an era was coming to an end, and perhaps she wanted to set things straight before the world moved on. And unlike Bruder, Cherry had never made a promise to keep a secret; and oh! how from the day she first heard Bruder’s name she had known he would change their lives. Now they were allies of a sort, she and Bruder, hooked together to a past that was receding quickly. She had recounted the story to George early in their marriage, and he had said, his lips gentle upon her forehead, “Cherry, I’m glad you’ve given up newspapering. It makes you ponder such horrible truths.”

“Should we pull a couple of chairs onto the terrace?” she said to Blackwood. “Beneath the coral tree?”

“After you, Mrs. Nay.”

The transition from the library to the white sun erupted a flash in
Blackwood’s eyes. For a second he couldn’t see, and then his pupils readjusted and Mrs. Nay was waving her hand, “Over here, over here.”

On the breeze was a lingering scent of citrus. The past blossomed on its sturdy stalk. The memory carried Cherry upon its sweeping flood and she said, but not to Blackwood, “Where to begin, where to begin?” She hesitated, and then, with her eyes sealed, said, “Where did the trouble first begin?”

A mute remembrancer of crime
,

Long lost, concealed, forgot for years
,

It comes at last to cancel time
,

And waken unavailing tears
.

EMILY BRONTË

1

Down the coast
, along the old El Camino Real, in a flatland between the ocean and a rancid salt lagoon, not quite midway between the bougainvillea-buttressed missions of San Juan Capistrano and San Luis Rey, was the village of Baden-Baden-by-the-Sea. At the turn of the century it was a handful of acre farms and fishing shacks—“blackies,” they were called—and a straight strip of gray-sand beach. At one end of town, on the bank of Agua Apestosa, the long-dead virgin Donna Marròn had built a schoolhouse, where generations of student eyes had reddened in the swamp-ripe afternoon breeze. At the other end, on Los Kiotes Street, was Margarita Sprengkraft’s P.O. and general store, where the twine of gossip wrapped up every purchase. A hundred yards from Margarita’s porch stretched the village pier, which groaned under the pressure of high tide and the weight of fishermen leaning perpetually against its rail. Up on the bluff above the village was the Fleisher gutting house, a lean- to warehouse that swayed in the wind and dumped buckets of fish blood into the sea and employed fishergirls from the farms, young women whose fingers stank and whose clothes at day’s end sparkled with the sequins of scales. Each March, after the last winter storm, the farmers came to town to rebuild the pier, but the gutting house never fell to the January storms; the fishergirls were always busy, day after day, year after year, knifing open the pale pink shells of quivering rock scallops, or slitting open mackerels and turning their delicate flesh inside out.

And in the village center sat a large round boulder of red chert. At sunset, the fiery rays playing on its dimpled surface made it look like a ten-ton navel orange. It was surrounded by a bunting-draped viewing
platform that resembled something out of a small midway or carnival. The villagers called this rock Apfelsine, and perpetually trickling down its stone-rind face was the mineral water that gave the town its name. Since the 1870s the Apfelsine mineral spring had drawn settlers to this part of the coastland, and it had drawn real-estate speculators too, men who erected hotels for the tourists who journeyed here to buy tin cups of Apfelsine water for twenty-five cents apiece. The waters were of such a rich mineral complexity that the village promoters guaranteed that their imbibement would deliver not only rejuvenation but transformation: “Drink a cup of pure Apfelsine water and be the man you were meant to be! Become the girl you’ve always dreamed of!” The tourists arrived with hopes of changing their lives and their fates, and they drank at the spring and departed certain of their altered, and improved, destinies: ugly girls went away hopeful of husbands, slow boys left hopeful of fortunes, hard-luck men and women wet their lips with spring water and returned home believing they would rise beyond their lot. Every few years, when the real-estate speculators became swamped by debt, the hotel at the spring’s side would burn in a mysterious midnight fire, guests in white sleeping dresses running from the smoke. But within a month a grander hotel would always replace it, its veranda wider, its mineral baths deeper, its views of San Clemente Island forty-nine miles offshore expanded.

And the villagers of Baden-Baden-by-the-Sea would laugh at the visitors and the speculators and sell them sips of water and souvenir tin cups and lobster dinners. But they would never turn to the Apfelsine for their own thirst. For everyone on this particular stretch of coastland knew better than to challenge his fate.

Almost everyone, that is.

Inland, tucked among the gold-grass hills, was an abandoned silkworm farm called the Cocoonery, which Herr Beck had refashioned as a flower house and depot. Where millions of silkworms had once devoured themselves cannibalistically, now Ensenada girls pruned bird-of-paradise and long-stemmed lilies, packing the stalks in wet newspaper for train delivery. All around the village, nitrogen laced the soil, and when the year saw thirty inches of rain the farmers made skimpy but reliable livings rotating their crops among sweet onion and alfalfa, red-leaf lettuce and white corn, leeks and chives and a little cotton. During the wet years, a few farmers dabbled in gladiolus and the hundred-petal
ranunculus. Once, a German farmer named Dieter Stumpf tested fate by planting thirty rosebushes on his ocean farm. But the salt in the wind pickled the buds and everyone told him to leave the rose briars to Pasadena, where they had better luck with their blooms.

BOOK: Pasadena
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