Authors: Louis Bayard
For Mark H.
Now quit bugging me
HREE OR FOUR
times a week, it comes.
Not a dream: closer to a vision,
from her but obscurely meant for her, too.
And each time the vision converges on a man. Working late into the evening. Streaks of sweat across his brow and neck. His head bowedâin prayer, she thinks, except she has never heard a prayer quite like this.
Lapis stones clatter in a copper pan.
Beneath the copper, a tallow flame crackles into life.
A pewter mist billows up, then resolves into a powder. The air grows heavy with current. The man thrusts up his hands and roars. Four centuries later, she can still hear him.
“Long live the School of Night!”
Three new marriadges here are made
One of the staffe and sea Astrolabe
Of the Sonne & Starre is an other
Which now agree like sister & brother
And charde and compasse which were at bate,
Will now agree like a master & mate.
Â Â Â Â “Three Sea Marriages”
D.C. SEPTEMBER 2009
GAINST ALL ODDS
, against my own wishes, this is a love story. And it began, of all places, at Alonzo Wax's funeral.
Now I'd known Alonzo pretty much all my adult life, but in the months after his death, I learned a surprising number of things about him. For instance, he chased his morning shots of Grey Goose with Rocky Road. He had never read a word of Alexander Popeâtoo modernâbut he followed every single comic strip in
The Washington Post
(even “Family Circus”). He was a sneak and a liar and a thief and would have slain every grandmother he had for an original edition of
And he loved me.
But in those early months of mourningâor whatever it was we were doing about Alonzoâthe biggest surprise was this: He had become Catholic. And had never gotten around to telling his parents, loosely observant Rockville Jews who found the baptism certificate while sorting through his filing cabinets. After some family debate, Alonzo's sister Shayla began shaking the trees for priests, until a friend told her that suicide was a mortal sin for the Church. So she opted to hold the memorial service at the Folger Shakespeare Library, which, in addition to being marble, was home to the world's largest collection of printed Shakespearean works and to a small mountain of preserved and cataloged Elizabethiana. The Folger, in other words, was engaged in roughly the same business as Alonzo had been: ransacking boxes and chests for centuries-old documents that were, in most cases, considered highly disposable by the original writers.
Shayla was glad to have missed the incense, but something else struck her as she stood greeting mourners at the entrance to the great hall.
“Henry,” she whispered. “I forgot. I hate lutes.”
It could have been worse, I reminded her. The last memorial service I'd attended at the Folger was for a Buddhist restaurateur, and we were subjected to an hour of Tibetan music: finger cymbals and skull drums and, glowering over everything, a massively built throat singer, swaddled in goatskin, belching up chord after chord.
“And besides,” I added, “the lute quartet was your idea.”
“You know, I thought maybe they'd bring a viol. Or an hautboy.”
“That's how it works. An Elizabethan collector dies, out come the lutes.”
More than lutes. Significant People had come to pay respects to Alonzo, and here and there, framed by long swords and halberds, one could make out the graven profiles of More Than Usually Significant People. An assistant librarian of Congress, a Smithsonian undersecretary, an ambassador from MauritiusÂ â¦ even a U.S. senator, longtime friend and beneficiary of the Wax family, who worked the room as deftly as if it were a PAC breakfast. Alonzo, I thought, would have been appalled and flattered all at once.
“Did I mention you're his executor?” Shayla said.
She turned just in time to catch the look on my face.
“If you want to pass,” she said, “I'll understand.”
“No. I'm honored.”
“There's some money in it, I think. Not a
“Does it matter if I don't know what I'm doing?”
“No,” she said. “Your remarksâthat's all you need to worry about today.”
She narrowed her eyes at me. The stripe of unretouched hair along her scalp shone like war paint.
prepare, right, Henry? Alonzo hated stammering; you know that.”
For that very reason, I had written my remarks on index cards, but as I laid them in ranks across the podium, they filled me with a strange revulsion. And so, at the last instant, I decided to wing it. I gazed out across those three-hundred-plus mourners, spread across nearly three thousand square feet of terra-cotta tile, under a massively vaulted strapwork ceilingÂ â¦ and I went deliberately small. Which is to say, I spoke about meeting Alonzo Wax.
It was the first day of our freshman year, and Alonzo was the very first student I met, and because I didn't know any better, I thought all students were like him. (“I'm sorry now they weren't,” I said.) The first thing Alonzo did was to offer me a tumbler of Pimm'sâhe kept it in a tiny cut-glass container in his hip pocket. And when he found out I was planning to major in English, he demanded my opinion of
A Winter's Tale.
I got out maybe three sentences before he cut me off and told me how benighted I was. (“âBenighted' was the exact word.”) And when I told him I'd never read Chapmanâwell, I thought he was going to wash his hands of me then and there. Instead, he invited me to dinner.
“It was a
dinner,” I said. “With courses. He explained to me that university food was a known carcinogen. âOf course, the science has been suppressed,' he said, âbut the findings are unanimous. That shit will kill you.'”
Before I could retrieve them, the wordsâ
âwent shivering through the climate-controlled air. And in that moment, yes, I wished I could turn the clock back to Elizabethan days, when this great hall would have been a hive of distraction. Masques and plays and dances. Rushes covering the floor, dogs roaming free, a smell of agriculture everywhere. My voice just one thread among many.
Alonzo, I hurried on, paid for our meal, as he usually did. The tip was about the same size as the bill. And he allowed as how my ideas on
weren't quite so daft as he first thought. But I should still read Chapman.
“âYou'll never get anywhere,' he said, âuntil you find a nice minor poet.'”
I stacked my unused index cards in a nice little pile. I squinted down at the finish line.
“Alonzo's self-assurance seemed to me something colossal. I was just this kid from the burbs, and here was this guy my own age carrying himself like a professor. And the
professors, they were as scared of him as I was, and why wouldn't they be, he wasâ”
He was what? I can't now remember what I was going to say because she, in effect, finished the sentence for me. Or began another one altogether. Just by walking into the great hall.
At least forty minutes late.
To this day I'm not sure I would have noticed her if she'd dressed properly. Like the rest of us, I mean, in our black wool and crepe. She was wearing an old-fashioned A-line dress, cottonâscarlet!âtight in the bust, loose and jovial in the skirt. She walked like somebody who was used to wearing such a dress. She looked more comfortable than anyone else in the room.
Nobody said a word to her. We were all probably just waiting for her to see her error.
Oh, the wedding's across the street! At the Congregational church!
But she gave no sign of having come to the wrong place. She took a seat at the end of the third row and, without embarrassment, turned her attention on the speaker.
Who was me.
I had briefly forgotten this.
“Alonzo,” I said, “was aâa great
we all know that. That's why there areÂ â¦ so many of us
right? But to me, nothing in his collection wasÂ â¦ ever as unique as he was. Soâ¦”âFinish.
â“so that's what I'll remember.”
Who spoke after me? I couldn't tell you. By the time I sat down, I was gathering data. A tough job, because she was two rows behind me and slightly northward, which meant I had to wheel about in my seat at regular intervals and pretend I wasn't being the most irksome guy in the room. Somehow, through the heads and hats, sections of her came back to me. A profusion of dark hair. A creamy arm, draped across the back of her chair. And, most enticing of all, a ledge of collarbone, striking a note of pioneer resilience against the slenderness of her neck.
And then, from the podium, came the throbbing contralto of Alonzo's mother.
“My heart is so full,” she said. “So very
to see all these people gathered to honor my son.”
You might suppose I felt guilt. Given that, in this moment, I wasn't honoring her son. You would be half right. But here's the thing. You can get just as lucky at a funeral as at a wedding. In fact, luckier. Someone always needs to be comforted.
And Alonzo, more than anyone else, would have guessed how complicated the act of grieving him would be. He'd left behind no children. He'd never courted sentiment, he'd never courted anythingâor anybody. But all the same he understood me.
Just come back when you're done,
I could hear him saying.
There's a letter I want to show you in the Maggs and Quaritch catalog. Written to the Laird of Craighall