from LINCOLN AT MERCY, a novel
Milo. November 16 1951.
He removes a wayward leaf, one of the last, fallen on the windshield overnight. There’s the smell of snow, a heaviness to the air, a metallic sharpness when he inhales. They’ve been predicting a foot if not more, a real setback for work on the great New Jersey Turnpike scheduled to open two weeks to the day. A model for the rest of the country—Governor Driscoll’s message to the press for the past three years.
He’s been on the road for most of a month, stopping at home for fresh clothes, then heading out again. To Secaucus and Newark. Elizabeth, Carteret, Woodbridge. Long days in New Brunswick where there are problems with the exits for 18 and 130. Then south to check out the trouble with the turnoff at Swedesboro, a stupidity with the grading someone should have caught months ago. He’ll review Camden again. Then Burlington. Bordentown’s in good shape so he’ll head back up to New Brunswick, then check the tunnel exits in Newark over the weekend. Everyone’s working overtime, trying to meet an impossible deadline. He opens the door and sits behind the wheel. The department would give him a state car, complete with driver, but he prefers to drive himself. His own car, his Pontiac, the solitude of a moving vehicle and the privacy it offers. His thoughts accompany him.
He’s talked to Clara by phone but hasn’t seen her in two weeks; he hasn’t seen or talked to Daniele in three. He’s unbalanced, his mind on the pictures Charlie showed him the last time he stopped in at home. In his mind he sees Daniele’s studio, he imagines the scenes unfolding there—scenes of the past, scenes in process, scenes still to unfold at some point in the future—all of them in his absence, all as if his existence were superfluous. He thinks back to the months when he first knew Clara, when he alone knew Clara and even though he was sleeping with her in Daniele’s bed he wasn’t sharing her with him, he hadn’t introduced them yet, Daniele’s loan of his bed and studio being one of the exchanges of their friendship. All in the past, he concedes.
He steps lightly on the gas, backs out of the space, then turns and exits the motel parking lot. This is the first time, he admits to himself a few moments later, as he waits for a red light to turn green, that his instincts have led him into territory for which he’s poorly equipped.
They’ve been to a reception at the Governor’s Mansion, then dining and dancing at The Red Fox, and though he’d normally turn off at The Lawrenceville School and take 546 to the river, to take Clara home, he stays on 206. He wants to drive her home through the north side of town, where she’s never been.
“Clara,” he says, “I want you to see where the other side lives.”
“Miles, stop,” she says, “you know I don’t like when you say things like that.”
He smiles, reaches across the seat, and pulls her towards him. She lets herself be pulled. She’s wearing a scent he seems to recognize but can’t name. She says it’s Guerlain but that doesn’t help. There’s a strain within the fragrance that resonates deep inside him, that claimed a part of his mind with almost atavistic force all the while they were dancing and every time he leaned towards her that evening.
“Actually I have a better idea,” he says. “I want to show you where my family and I live. Now. Right now.”
He’s already revealed Clara’s presence to his family and in two weeks he’ll bring her home for Sunday dinner, but at this particular moment he feels the urge to walk with her through his mother’s garden. In the dark. Undetected. The two of them alone in the glow of the moon.
Where 206 turns into Lincoln Avenue he slows, then continues past the house, driving one block farther, where he parks, not wanting to draw attention to the sound of his car, not wanting to wake his father and draw him to a window. The house is dark but for the desk lamp in his room at the top of the house that he switched on before leaving. Arm in arm they walk through the gate and down the walk.
“You know, Miles,” she says, “what I would really like is to see your mother’s garden in full daylight.”
“And you will,” he replies, “very soon.”
He stops, draws her into a pathway between the roses and lilies, and kisses her hard. Then he takes her arm and draws her back to the walk.
“Where are we going?” she says.
“I want to show you something.”
They walk past the house, and on, towards the large vegetable plot. The moon is full, bright and silver, it illuminates the rows of plants, the grid of small dark bushes, clusters of zucchini blossoms reflecting moonlight. She’s wearing a sleeveless evening blouse and the sequins of the bodice shimmer.
“Step inside,” he says as he walks to the shed and opens the door.
“My father’s shed. Mother’s too.”
He reaches inside a pocket, retrieves a book of matches, and strikes one. In the dim light Clara begins to perceive a work bench, a table, shelves. He strikes another. Packets of seeds? Rows of shoes? And another. The smell is of oil and shoe polish, earth and fertilizer.
“What’s this?” she says.
He manages to strike two matches at once, and in the broader flare she tries to examine the tall, dark machine of her curiosity. She touches it, taps the fingers of one hand against it.
“Iron?” she asks.
He strikes two more.
“Yes, cast iron,” he says. “A shoe repair machine I bought for my father.”
The light dies. He flings the book of matches to the floor and spins her around, presses her up against the machine.
“Miles, be careful,” she says.
Her blouse is loose at the waist and she’s not wearing a belt or a sash so it’s easy for his hands to travel and unhook her skirt. She undoes his belt, then helps him with the mechanics of her underwear, and there, against his father’s shoe machine he thrusts himself inside her, she wraps her legs around him, and they continue like this.
“Try to not make noise,” he implores as together they attain their separate pinnacles and he bites her lip, as her scent combines with the scents of the room, creating within him an awareness that becomes a potent memory the very moment the event is ending. He is unlike himself with this woman, unlike any part of himself he has understood up until now, unlike any projection he has challenged himself to become. His senses are upended, his judgments not quite what they used to be.
Several months before the night in the shed, on a Saturday evening in January, Miles Sisley makes a right turn off River Road onto a sinuous drive. Past banks of holly, cypress, hemlock and spruce, his car is one of a dozen approaching the great house. Miles has known the Hon. George H. Miller—Broad Street National Bank President, Stacy-Trent Operating Company director, Mercer County Freeholder, Brother Mason—for several years. He’s been a guest at his house before, for casual meetings, but this is the first time he’s been invited to one of Miller’s celebrated parties. Mr. and Mrs. George Howard Miller request the pleasure of your company at their home, 17300 River Road, Titusville, to welcome home from New York City their daughter Clara Penelope Miller. The house is ablaze, illuminated inside and out, the surrounding landscape of trees dark and dense to his eyes as he approaches the valet. He gets out of his car, hands over the key, and climbs the broad steps, noting through the windows on either side a sizeable crowd, the men in tuxedos, the women in gowns. His own tux should probably be replaced he thinks, the lapels a bit outdated but it’ll do, it’s not the sort of thing likely to be noticed. In the foyer he sheds his coat and is offered a glass of champagne but declines. His host is at the far end of the room to his left, in a discussion with other Mason Brothers he’s familiar with, so he heads there.
One floor above her father and his group of friends Clara Miller continues to dress—slowly, indifferently, moving from closet to window and back again, loath to be the party’s center of attention—even as the second wave of guests flows through the foyer and into the great rooms, canapés and champagne glasses in hand. She conceded defeat weeks ago. You need to start a social life here, her parents argued. If you intend to open a dance school you need to meet people, you can’t go on living in a cocoon.
She takes a red gown from its hanger and steps into it. From below she hears the orchestra, not a tune she recognizes; and the muffled din from the kitchen, the clank and rattle of silver trays and platters. Again she walks to the window and looks out. Cars file up the drive from the river, their headlights like the eyes of nocturnal animals blinking through the trees that surround the house. She’d like to walk out the back door and disappear. Instead she looks in the mirror and reconsiders, decides the color red doesn’t suit her mood, takes off the gown. She returns to the closet and finds another. Blue. Her mood is blue.
By the time her father introduces her to Miles Sisley one half-hour later Clara has adjusted to the demands of the evening. She knows how to be personable if not charming, appear interested when bored, energetic when tired. But after her first exchange with Miles Sisley the evening turns interesting and she’s no longer pretending. He’s unlike her father’s other friends, this tall man with the light gray eyes in a tux that’s slightly outmoded. His bearing is patrician though his background’s unclear. His manners are impeccable. And there’s a directness about him that she likes, feels attracted to, even if at the same time he holds himself apart. He wants to know about her. He asks her questions but he’s discreet, he doesn’t ask too many. She tells him she’s a dancer, studied at Bennington, tried acting in New York but it didn’t suit her, now she’s planning to open a school of dance, ballet and modern, perhaps in Princeton. That’s all. That’s all she’ll say. She turns the table on him. Trained as an engineer but clearly he’s read widely. He loves painting, knows art history, architecture. He hasn’t paid much attention to dance but he’s interested. When he asks if he can get her a drink she says Yes, a whisky and soda please, with ice but not too much, and then she finds her father. Rotating between guests he whispers in her ear: “Smart as a whip. He really knows how to move in the world. Glad you like him.”
Daniele sits at the end of Milo’s bed, his back against the wall. He reaches for a pillow and positions it behind his back. Milo is on his knees, rummaging through the lowest shelf of the bookcase. He removes a large book, places it on the carpet next to the book already there and flips through the pages, then stops. He aligns the two open books next to each other: Raphael’s Marriage of the Virgin next to Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin.
“Raphael! A different time! A different world!” Daniele says. “We are never going back! And I don’t want. But now Caravaggio! People all the time want to talk about the technical, the chiaroscuro. Strong light, strong shadow all together, so much—contrasto!—yes—so much, so extreme! And why? Why so much? Because he used the light and the shadow to make his composition. Yes! The light and the shadow in his hands have great power, they tell the eye what to see, maybe you can say the light and the shadow they create a teatro—a theater—and the subjects in the paintings are the actors. And that is my second point. Because the other great thing that he did is to put the beauty together with the ugly—he painted the people he knew—le puttane, i ladri—the thieves and the whores he ran around with. He was not afraid to show what life can be. All the light on the faces of Jesus Christ and the saints right next to the dirty faces of the poor, the dirty hands and feet and clothes of the poor. He painted the muscles on the backs, on the legs of the executioners. He painted the filth, la porcheria, the garbage in the streets. This is his greatest achievement. He was not afraid to show what life can be.”
Daniele comes down from the bed and sits on the floor.
“When he painted the young boys, like here,“ Daniele says as he flips a few pages, then points to Boy with a Basket of Fruit, “that is a different thing. I am not talking about that now. I am talking about the religious scenes —“ he says, as he thumbs through pages, “—he did not paint ‘ideas’. He painted human beings—the people around him every day. Because that is how he saw, in his mind, how he saw the reality of Jesus Christ and the saints. The historic reality—no abstraction! Why the people don’t understand this I cannot say. But maybe this is starting to change. For example, this book that you have. When did this book appear?”
“Last year,” Milo says, lighting a cigarette. “So in your opinion there’s greater value in Caravaggio’s painting than in the great paintings of the Renaissance. Than the great paintings of his predecessors.”
Daniele prefers cigars. He reaches behind, finds the pack he left on the bed, takes one out and lights it.
“Caravaggio was giving to us the greatest gift that an artist can offer,” he says. “He was giving to us the two ends of the human experience. The opposites. All in the same picture. Look—“ he says, flipping through pages, “Jesus Christ—here Peter—here Matthew—Lucy—Caravaggio putting all of them right next to the men who are killing them, who are torturing them, the men who are burying them. We can see the fear on their faces, on the faces of the saints, and right next them we see la brutalità of the men who are torturing them. And sometimes, sometimes what we see on the faces of the men who are torturing is nothing, because they are what? Annoiati. They are bored. They are doing a hard job and they would like to be at home with their wife instead. Or they are tired and they want to eat and go to sleep. Because I tell you, Milo, when you have all the light like in Raphael, all the reason, and all the things in unity, and there is no contradiction—is this true? Is this reality? Does Raphael help us to understand what life is about? But enough. Let us talk about Cézanne. I would like us to talk about Cézanne and Matisse. Because for me, they are the two, at this point—they are the ones of interest to me.”
“And this is of interest,” Milo says, opening the lower cabinet of the desk. He withdraws a decanter and two small glasses. “Un po’ di grappa per avanzare il dialogo.”
Non facciamo troppo rumore?“
“No, they can’t hear us.”
The two men alternate between English and Italian, formal Italian and dialect, as the spirit moves them, as they did the when they met at Clara’s party in January. Standing in line at the bar Miles recognized the sharp, clipped sounds of his native dialect: the two bartenders talking to each other about their girlfriends, understood by no one in the line except himself. The shorter of the two, who was quick but precise, his face open, his dark eyes sharp and direct, was lamenting that he’d left Italy to follow the woman he wanted to marry, who’d left for the States a year earlier, and searched for her everywhere in New York only to find that she’d fallen in love with someone else and moved to Trenton with him. So he followed her but she wouldn’t have him, and now there he was, not sure what to do.
“Du whisky e soda pe favuri. Jack Daniels ,” Miles said. “E non troppu ghiacciu.”
“So, Calabrese once but no more,” the bartender said in English. “How can this be?”
Since then they’ve taken to seeing each other once a week, sometimes more. Milo admires Daniele’s work and has secured commissions for him. Wives of the directors of banks and industries, mostly from Trenton and Philadelphia though there’ve been a few in New York. Then there are paintings of a different sort. Studies of workers from the wire factories, the rubber factories and potteries. Men and women behind the counters of the butcher shops and bakeries surrounding Daniele’s studio. His neighbors are charmed by him and many sit uncomplainingly, for them the portraits become gifts. He knocks on their doors on a Sunday evening, finished painting in hand, is invited in for a glass of wine, a dish of macaroni. From time to time he sells a painting through a dealer in Philadelphia but the others sit unsold, stowed in rows against the walls of his studio. Still lifes of the fruits and vegetables he collects from the trash behind the groceries, that he paints as they decay and their colors slowly dim and their flesh crumbles and caves. Landscapes. Views of the river from farther north in Pennsylvania. And further in, the country roads and farms of Bucks County.
When Daniele’s not at the easel he’s busy waiting tables. Parties for bank directors and manufacturing entrepreneurs, fundraising dinners for Congressmen and presidential candidates in the dining rooms of the Hildebrecht and Stacy-Trent Hotels.
With the start of warm weather Daniele’s begun to paint the vegetables, flowers and fruit trees of the Lincoln Avenue garden. He paints Gaetano on his bench and Consolata in her apron, watering. A formal portrait of the couple, commissioned by Milo, hangs in the living room. There’s always a seat for him at the Cicero lunch or dinner table. Milo’s family doesn’t know quite what to make of him—this Daniele Carabetta, this painter who left his home to follow a woman who didn’t love him anymore. They listen to the two men talk about things they themselves know nothing of—paintings, music, buildings and cities—not sure what to make of it all. Often Daniele stays after dinner and the two men move to the living room. They listen to records on the phonograph, mostly opera recordings Milo has collected. Opera is where their tastes converge. Verdi is indisputably king. When they want privacy they retreat to Milo’s attic room, where they discuss and argue until the early morning hours. Often Daniele stays the night, sleeping in the small back bedroom. Not until meeting Daniele has Milo understood the depth of his loneliness. It doesn’t matter to him that he and Daniele disagree on many things, he in fact finds their disagreements energizing. Daniele’s thinking springs from points of reference so different from his own, he thinks. Daniele’s his other, what he might have been—an artist—had his early life been different, had he not been adopted by a pair of poor farmers. Because Daniele was also an orphan, raised by nuns, sent at age twelve to a monastery where he studied languages and was apprenticed to a painter of religious scenes. He went out into the world when he turned sixteen and has been on his own ever since. He never allows himself to think too far ahead, preferring to act on impulse. He turns down an evening of waiting tables, for instance, even when he could use the money, because the weather is good and it means he can borrow a car and head to the countryside to paint for a few days. He’ll eat sparingly for a week and then splurge on a meal when a little money comes in. He’ll head up to New York on a whim, to roam the galleries of the Metropolitan or Modern or simply walk the streets and study the architecture. He keeps no schedule. He has no nervousness, no restraints. None that Milo detects.
The two men stay seated on the floor, sipping their grappa, smoke from the cigar and cigarette moving in upward spirals. They’re enveloped by a pool of light thrown from the desk lamp, the rest of the room cast in shadow—the book cases and dresser, walls lined with photographs, all submerged in a dark slumber—as if the men themselves had been posed for a sketch in chiaroscuro. The room is silent, the rest of the house silent, Milo’s family asleep in the rooms one floor beneath. The time is two-thirty in the morning, it’s mid-June, the windows are open, the occasional moth thumps against the screen and the sound of crickets rises from the verdancy below, a soft bed of song in the gardens. If someone were to drift through the gate and walk along the path beside the house they might hear the undertones of conversation fall lightly from the open window, though barely. A passenger in one of several cars that now and then move along Lincoln Avenue might glimpse a single light in the third-story window of the large house.
“So then what’s the point of it all, Daniele? What do you think?” Milo says. As always, Milo doesn’t want the evening to end, he wants to prolong this intimacy for as long as Daniele will permit.
“I get the feeling, Milo,” Daniele says, “that you are starting again on one of your deep conversations.”
“Once the body is gone what is left? Only our actions are left, right?” Milo says. “The only things left of us are those things that we’ve done for others. What we’ll be remembered by. The things we’ve done to help those we leave behind. The generations to come. More and more that’s what I think . Everything else is vanity.”
“And these actions of yours—?” Daniele replies. “They are not vanity? For me I am hoping my paintings will speak for me when I am no longer here. But this is vanity also. I see that. I ask you to think more about what you say and about your vanity. Your kind of vanity.”
“Well then tell me—what do you think is the right way to be?” Milo says. “I think I know what your answer will be but I’m asking you anyway. Should we live in full recognition of the future? What I mean is: should we live in full recognition of our mortality? And should we therefore temper our instincts? And put the well-being of those close to us, our loved ones, first, before our own needs? Or, is that the path of the fool? Is it wiser to follow our instincts and live for the moment, and live without inhibitions, also in full recognition of our mortality? Precisely because we recognize and respect life’s brevity.”
“Here it is almost three o’clock in the morning, I would like to go to sleep, and you want to talk about these things. But I will answer you, my friend, Milo Cicero. This is what I know: I know the flesh. I know color. I know light, I know form. I know leaves, I know flowers and trees. I know how to paint the light, how to paint the light on the water, on the glass, on the skin. How to paint the eyes and the hair. I know how to paint the shadows. I know the things that I can see in front of me, what my eyes are telling me is in front of me, in front of my face, what I can put my hands on, the things I can touch, and that is all. That is all. So I go for the second way you give. I follow my instincts. But I am a painter, Milo. Just a painter.”