The Washington Post
The Good Priest's Son: A Novelby Reynolds Price
Reynolds Price, one of America's most distinguished and honored writers, has produced such masterpieces as Noble Norfleet, Roxanna Slade, and Kate Vaiden, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. Now in The Good Priest's Son, his fourteenth novel and thirty-sixth book, Price gives us another penetrating study -- full-length portraits of five arresting characters.
On September 11, 2001, Mabry Kincaid -- a fiftyish art conservator -- is flying home after a much-needed rest in Rome and Paris. Halfway across the Atlantic, his plane is diverted from New York to Nova Scotia. Two days later, when the United States has recovered sufficiently from the attack on the World Trade Center, Mabry discovers that his downtown New York loft is uninhabitable. He flies south to North Carolina instead to visit his aged father. A widowed Episcopal priest, Tasker Kincaid has been injured in a recent fall and is cared for by live-in Audrey Thornton, an African-American divinity student at Duke University, and her grown son, Marcus, an ambitious painter. During a week in North Carolina -- with help from his cantankerous father, from Audrey and Marcus and from Gwyn Williams, an old flame -- Mabry is compelled to explore his tormented relationship with his father and with a world that still harbors much that he's loved but has long since abandoned.
On his return to New York -- and in a swift and unexpected return to the south -- Mabry must deal with the near-ruin of his loft, with haunting memories of his infidelities to his recently deceased wife, with the end of his childhood family, the uncertainty of his professional career, the ambivalence of his adult daughter, and with a daunting likelihood that is terrifyingly at work inside his body.
Reynolds Price writes at peak form in this lean and masterful, comic yet profoundly moving novel -- one that unfolds the stages of one man's hope for ransom in old familiar worlds that are now forever changed.
The Washington Post
The New York Times
- Publication date:
- Sold by:
- SIMON & SCHUSTER
- NOOK Book
- Sales rank:
- File size:
- 335 KB
Read an Excerpt
9 . 11 . 2001
9 . 13 . 2001
The whole three weeks in Italy had felt like the rescue Mabry hoped for -- not a single moment of cloudy vision and almost none of the maddening jangle of threatened nerves in his hands and legs. Even the two quick days in France, despite the routine Parisian rudeness, had failed to crank his symptoms. So he'd stuffed his ears with the airline's free plugs and sunk into a nap in what he suspected was half-foolish hope. Maybe my body isn't ruined after all. Maybe Rome has cured me. And the nap was so deep that the pilot's first few news reports didn't reach him at all. What finally woke him was the huge plane itself -- a steep tilt northward, a wide swing, then a man's calm voice as the wings leveled off.
It said "Ladies and gentlemen," not the usual jaunty Folks. Then it took a long pause. "The latest news is even more impressive. At the World Trade Center, the second tower has also collapsed. As many as six thousand people may be lost. The plane that crashed into the Pentagon has taken maybe three hundred lives, and a fourth plane has crashed in a Pennsylvania field with all hands aboard. All U.S. airports are now closed to traffic, and we have our orders to divert. We're headed for Halifax, Nova Scotia. No further plans are available at present. I'll keep you posted."
Mabry had removed his earplugs by then; but he'd still never heard such silence in an airplane as what swept through in the wake of that voice. Before he could look around -- the plane was half empty -- the pilot said four more words that were worse than all the rest. "I hope I can." When had any of them heard such desolation?
Behind, a single voice sobbed distinctly. It seemed to be a man.
But since no other passenger was near in the first-class seats, Mabry rang for help; and a rattled steward told him the little they knew. Both of the World Trade Towers had been hit by full-sized jets, and both had now fallen. The collisions had come just after work started. Some reports said a plane had struck the Pentagon; a fourth plane had crashed in rural Pennsylvania. Mabry sipped at the double gin the steward brought, unasked. Then he shut his eyes to think, if thinking was possible. He knew just enough American history to calculate that, if six thousand human beings were dead, then this was the most disastrous day since the bloodiest day of the Civil War -- the battle at Antietam when, almost surely, nearly four thousand died. And this day had barely started. Whoever had done this and what else was planned?
Yet when he opened his eyes again, he looked to the jittery steward alone in the all-gray galley and saw him as clear as a stark photograph -- or grim as a Goya torture victim. Mabry gave him a brief consolatory wave, a windshield-wiper side-to-side gesture (he was in first class, courtesy of years of frequent-flier credits).
His wave brought the steward back; he leaned to Mabry's ear and whispered. "My partner works fifty yards away, across the plaza. He's an architect. Say a hard prayer for him. Me as well -- he's all I've got on the planet Earth."
Somehow Mabry felt he knew the truthful thing to say. "Your friend's OK. I'm all but sure." When he looked, the steward's name tag said Larry Leakins; so Mabry took the further risk of saying "He's truly safe, Larry. I live down there, just three blocks south."
For the moment at least, Larry seemed to believe him. He squeezed Mabry's shoulder and went back to work.
Then Mabry scratched his palms deeply to check for numbness. He was hurting himself; the feeling was normal. And his legs were still calm. So in his mind he stroked the curious peace he still felt, like a cooling wound in the pit of his heart. He was tired, God knew, but not drunk or drugged. All his life he'd been a buoyant soul. Why on Earth now? From the time the Towers had first been bombed in 1993, he'd known the Muslims would try again -- and likely succeed. Now he was right, way righter than he could ever have guessed. And aside from the blow his city and country had suffered today -- and the future was botched for years to come -- he'd surely taken hits of his own.
His loft was in actual sight of the Towers. It was bound to be damaged if not destroyed. How many friends were dead? Likely the client who sent him to Paris. His daughter lived and worked uptown but was she safe? He'd never surrendered to the cell-phone plague, and he'd had no luck with airplane phones, so there was nothing he could do before landing -- if there was still land in Nova Scotia. He looked out and tried to imagine nothing but water water. It was easy enough to think that the heaving steel-blue plain stretching beneath them was all there was or ever would be, from here on at least. Well, he'd shut his eyes and try for more sleep.
Sleep took him straight in, no nightmares or frights. And even as early darkness settled round him, hours later, in Halifax -- and while he was waiting to learn where he'd roost till U.S. airports opened again -- he was still a calm man. By then he'd guessed that the small painting he'd brought from Paris, cushioned in socks and T-shirts in his suitcase, was the cause of his peace; but he couldn't know why. That understanding, and the help it would bring him, was weeks away.
With all the diverted flights, every hotel was filled before his plane touched the runway; so Mabry was seated in the living room of the Wilkins family, who'd offered him a tidy room, before he learned from their television that no private citizens were being allowed anywhere near his part of lower Manhattan. And after a welcome Irish-stew dinner, with healthy lashings of good rye whiskey, his eerily quiet hosts left Mabry alone in the kitchen to try once more to reach his daughter. After six tries he managed to speak with her brusque roommate on the Upper West Side. Yes, Charlotte was safe but at her yoga class.
When Mabry hung up he laughed for the first time since leaving Rome and Paris. Why should a world-class catastrophe disturb Charlotte Kincaid in the higher reaches of mind-bending yoga she'd now attained? He helped himself to another drink from the quart Tim Wilkins had left beside him and tried again to call the numbers of a couple of friends who lived in his building on Rector Street -- endless unanswered rings. Then he tried his father; and at last the phone in North Carolina gave its ancient cranky ring. It had been as busy all day as the White House.
Eventually an unexpected woman's voice answered. "Father Kincaid's residence. Who's calling please?" It had only been recently that Southern Episcopal clergymen were addressed as Father by their more fervent parishioners, and no one representing his father had ever asked to know who was calling. So when Mabry repeated his full name twice and was still apparently unrecognized, he raised his voice to a civil near-shout. "Just say I'm his son -- his last living child. I suspect he still knows me."
The woman thought through that as slowly as if she were testing the claim between her teeth for gold. Then her voice went lower, a sudden and disarmingly beautiful pitch. "Oh good, Mr. Kincaid, he's truly been worried. Next time, call him sooner." The words were slow and oddly accented -- an almost surely American black voice but distinctly altered by life abroad or by earnest intent.
For a moment a patch in Mabry's chest warmed to her sound. Even in Italy no woman's voice had sounded that welcoming, but the whiskey made him snag on her orders to call sooner next time. Before he could ask what plans the woman might have for further chaos, she set the receiver down. Mabry could hear the trail of her footsteps wandering off and at last the sound of his father's new wheelchair.
There were the usual thirty seconds of fumbling and wheezing; then "Darling Jackass, where is your butt?"
The big surprise of the long entirely incredible day came instantly. Tears filled Mabry's eyes. For another half minute, he couldn't speak. Then he said "Oh Pa, I'm almost up in the Arctic -- Halifax, Nova Scotia."
The Reverend Tasker Kincaid paused to test the truth of that. Was this truly his son? Was his only near-kin somehow safe in Canada? At last he said "This new TV you so rashly sent me? -- it's saying all the flights that weren't hijacked are skewed around badly. You're intact though, boy?" The rust was clearing from the old man's voice. By now he was sounding priestly again. Not the holy-Joe fraudulent timbre so rife in the Christian clergy but an almost trustworthy confident beat. He also sounded more nearly in control of his faculties than he'd been for months.
Mabry had thought that the day's disasters would have shaken his father. He'd stumbled only three weeks ago and broken an ankle; and at best lately, his memory had seemed more fragile by the week. But this voice now was encouraging. So Mabry said "Pa, I'm in full possession of all my limbs and most of my wits, such as they are. A kind family up here has taken me in for as long as I'm grounded -- two days at most, they say."
Tasker said "Who is they? You're assuming the airports will open, ever. I'm assuming worse trouble is barreling toward us than anything we've seen today. These Muslim lads know what they're doing and we plainly don't. They've got H-bombs."
Mabry laughed again, now pleasantly weary. "Why is it that a heathen like me takes the rosy view while my favorite clergyman foresees the worst?"
" -- Because your pa is a priest, dear Hotdog. God is famous for smiting us, hip and thigh, just when we think He's our best friend."
Mabry said "He's holding four aces today, that's for sure. He or Allah."
"Don't knock Allah. Allah's got our phones tapped -- and don't forget, Allah's just the Arabic name for our God."
There was some consolation in learning that, whatever else the day had destroyed, his father still held on to monotheism; so Mabry took another deep draft from his tumbler of rye. He was not a big drinker under normal conditions, but surely he was past his limit today, so he tried to steer the talk to saner zones. "The airline says we may fly out tomorrow. Lord knows, there are ten million things I've got to check on." He'd been on his first real vacation in years.
Tasker said "Your zillion things can wait forever. Where are the things these people treasured who perished today? What good did things do them?" The old man heard himself mounting the pulpit and he chuckled apologetically. Then he said what he thought was his most important truth. "You don't have a home, son. Not in New York. You never did."
For an instant Mabry feared his father might know some awful fact; and the dim Canadian kitchen around him, with his hostess's cookie-jar collection, threatened to be a permanent prison.
In Mabry's pause, Tasker gouged his point deeper, though he kept his tone down. "You've never made a home since you left your mother. And you know that."
Again, for a moment, it seemed a mere fact. He'd never let his marriage be a home. Then his anger at his father's endless large-and-small condemnations rose in his throat. "Listen, Pa, you don't know that. You've spent as little time with me in the past forty years as you could possibly spare." That much, anyhow, was true.
And Tasker had the sudden grace to grant it. "It's been years, if ever, since I claimed to be a father. But I also know you've failed your own child, as lately as today."
"Pardon me, Preacher, but how do you know that?"
"I've talked to your daughter -- my one grandchild -- two or three times today. Talked to her, not ten minutes ago. She's not heard from you."
"You must have her cell-phone number then. I refuse to use it. And she won't respond to calls anyhow from the midst of a perfect yoga position with both heels locked behind her neck."
Once more Tasker laughed and, this time, his chuckle had become more nearly the giggle from the rare times he'd roll on the floor with Mabry and Gabriel (the golden brother who'd died at age eighteen). When Tasker had caught his breath, he took a new tack. "The weather down here is so damned gorgeous you'd barely believe it."
And Mabry saw a splendid Carolina late summer day -- he still loved the gripping damp and the blazing light like year-old brass. But he couldn't risk yielding to what reeked suspiciously of one more urge to fly down and visit the Aged Laid-Up Solitary Parent. He launched his own tack. "Reverend Kincaid, sir, who was the damsel that answered your phone? She didn't seem to know you had kinfolk. Have you found some chunky new girlfriend from Poland or an anorexic model from MazatlÁn?"
"Audrey -- you know her." Tasker clearly believed the claim.
"No, Pa, I don't."
"Don't lie to me. Audrey -- you grew up with her. Well, very nearly." Tasker's mind was balking on the woman's last name. "She's close kin to us, old Cooter's grandchild."
Mabry said "You mean Thornton? Wasn't Cooter a Thornton?" Cooter had been Mabry's grandmother's cook, an antique -- but nonetheless rail-straight -- figure from near slavery days. She wore a perpetual black cloche hat that made her head look like a cooter shell, the dark safe house of a ground turtle, a terrapin. And she'd only retired, with hard-earned dementia, at ninety-odd years old, when Mabry was maybe five or six. But even with his adult knowledge of the local miscegenation rate, any chance that they were kin to Cooter or her numerous clan was more than unlikely, however intriguing.
Tasker said "Thank you -- yes. She's Audrey Dell Thornton."
Mabry said "If she's who I think, she's bound to be Cooter's great-great- or great-granddaughter, Pa. She's something like twenty years younger than me."
But Tasker only said "Not quite." Then he said the full name again, rolling it out like a phrase from the grandest litany in the prayer book -- the old prayer book before they made it sound like something Xeroxed on cheap copy paper. And the nicely imposing sound braced the old voice even more strongly. It sounded almost as firm as it had, oh thirty years back -- the days when Mabry would call from college and try to ease out a few extra dollars for one more trip to a Vietnam protest in D.C. or Boston or down to Key West for "a spring break of painting." (Tasker might say "Painting what exactly? -- frescoes of luscious oases around girls' quivering navels?" And Mabry might say "You sound like you've seen more navels than me." Then Tasker would snort but shake loose a small piece of cash from the little he had.)
If Mabry had ever seen Audrey Thornton, he couldn't remember a face or voice. And what was this about being kin to her? At last report, his father was tended by Nelson Summers, an elderly black man of sumptuous dignity, reliable as any granite hillside. The family had known him since before Mabry's birth. "Where's Nelson tonight?"
Tasker paused till Mabry thought he was gone. "Nelson decided I was too hard on him. Audrey bailed me out. She's sleeping here now. You know all this."
There was no point in another denial, but Mabry had to ask "Can she handle your weight?"
"I beg your pardon?"
With a genuine mildness, Mabry said "Can she lift you onto the john; and what about that deep bathtub?"
"I haven't gained a pound in sixty years."
"I understand that, sir. But Nelson was Goliath. He could heave you over his shoulder and burp you."
Tasker said "I'm glad to hear your Sunday-school facts at least have stayed with you. But Audrey can handle most of my needs. And her son can manage the rest."
"Does the son also live with you now?"
"He comes in at bedtime, just long enough to help me."
There were whole new layers of important information here, but plainly tonight was not the right time to sort them out. Still, Mabry pushed on. "So she's treating you right?"
"Adequate, yes. She's an interesting cook." Tasker had always been a man who could easily engulf ten thousand calories any day -- on their rare family vacations -- and never gain an ounce. Other times, he'd never seemed to care what he ate.
Mabry said "So what did yall eat tonight?" Yall, as the second-person plural pronoun, was almost the only vestige of his native tongue that Mabry still clung to, after years in the north.
"She's brought in a five-foot shelf of cookbooks from around the world. We're working our way, by degrees, round the globe."
Since the most exotic foods of Mabry's childhood had come from his mother's inherited copy of The First Ladies' Table -- say, Dolly Madison's fricasseed chicken with boiled stuffed turnips -- this was interesting news: a dining tour through the entire planet, presided over by a woman whose family his own forebears had used like a rag? Mabry said "How on Earth did you find her?"
Tasker said "She found me -- unless the Holy Ghost called a cab and poured her in it. She heard how Nelson walked out on me; and she turned up, bag and baggage, two minutes before I started howling."
Mabry understood his father's tendency to endless hyperbole. It frequently cast an amusing light on whether or not the Reverend Kincaid believed a word of the lifetime's theology he showered on hapless congregations. But for now, Mabry let the Holy Ghost ride. Another question mattered more. "Have you got that leaking roof fixed yet?" Back in the spring, when Tasker retired from substitute priesthood and -- out of the blue -- announced he was moving back to the home place alone, a distant cousin phoned Mabry and warned him the roof "poured water like Niagara."
But all Tasker would ever admit when Mabry inquired was what he said now. "Those Mexican boys say they'll fix it tomorrow -- or someday soon. I'm mainly dry. I can still dodge water." Then, as if he were dredging an admittedly feeble memory, he found this to ask -- "Those strange pains of yours, son: they with you still?"
Mabry could barely recall ever telling his father about the strangeness that had worried him in the past few months, and he knew he hadn't told Charlotte yet, so was this just coincidence or some brand of blood-kin telepathy? Whatever, this man was the only human being left who could rightly call him son; and all the long day's fatigue and horror poured in behind the word. "Pa, they think it may be multiple sclerosis. Wouldn't that be a pisser?"
Tasker took an audible long dry breath. "Oh Jesus, that would be -- the whole waterworks. Darling boy, who is they?"
Mabry said "I've seen my personal physician and the two neurologists he recommended. They say it may take another few weeks, or even months, for a final diagnosis." In his father's next pause, Mabry took another slow look around him. This Canadian kitchen, that had just now seemed his prison, might be a place he'd beg to stay in forever. Nobody here could revel in his plight -- no one he'd hurt or cheated on. He could stay here and slowly freeze in each joint, and no one would feel either pity or blame.
Tasker said "You better come down here, to Duke or Chapel Hill, and get more opinions. They're both hospitals with world-class care. Or so I read."
"I've thought of that -- thanks. But I've got so much to do in the city right now; and if it's M.S., it's incurable anyhow."
Then Tasker said the most surprising thing of all. "You in need of any cash?"
Mabry knew his father had precious little cash -- a minuscule pension, the pitiful savings from more than a decade of fill-in services at pastorless churches, plus Social Security. In fact he even returned the occasional check Mabry tried to send, or he mentioned the charity to which they'd been forwarded. Was he sliding back now to those college-boy days, thinking his feckless son was broke? Anyhow, Mabry said "A world of thanks, sir. I'll tell you when I am."
Tasker said "I can sell what I've got. This house is a treasure."
Gently, Mabry said "Oh stop." The place was a hundred and twenty-odd years old, a likable one-story late Victorian but hardly a treasure to anyone who hadn't been born or reared there (and several of them had fled it like the cholera). When Tasker didn't speak, Mabry had to say "All I'm concerned for, here and now, is that you get the care you need and can handle in that no-doubt-lovable but rickety building."
A silence spread down both ends of the call till Tasker broke it. "You'll be the first to know, boy, when they find my cold corpse." Then without another word, the old voice burst into the finest laughter Mabry knew.
It had been so long since he actually heard it that the boy -- a man fifty-three years old -- sat a long minute more, better than calm at the end of this nightmare, and longed to see the father who'd deviled his mind from the age of six onward: a thoughtful good man, still propped more or less upright on various items of a faith (that Mabry couldn't share) and never relenting in the drive to save this helpless son, this child who was all Tasker Kincaid had to leave to a world of demons, cutthroats, and simpletons, ready to kill in the name of God.
When the Wilkinses came to the kitchen to see if Mabry had further needs before bedtime, he thanked them and said that -- with their permission -- he might sit up awhile longer. He was hopelessly jetlagged. Kind as they'd been throughout the day, it had got embarrassing by now -- the extent to which they'd begun receding into the carpet, yielding their home (like so many kind locals in the crisis) to this tall American as if he owned it and they were only the overnight gypsies. And here they were, as early as ten o'clock, turning in like two aging sitters of a giant distressed baby they couldn't outlast.
Mabry was on the verge of saying "Look here, I can try the yellow pages one more time for a motel room." But Agnes Wilkins was in the act of setting beside him a plate of cheese biscuits so rich they were already oiling the lacey doily beneath them.
So, touched, Mabry thanked them with a quasi-formal bow. Then for another silent hour, he sat back down and wrote thank-you letters to friends in Rome -- two museum conservators of staggering skill, who always shared their knowledge with him as open-handedly as desert saints, and an even more dazzlingly gifted forger of Greek and Etruscan marbles and bronzes (an art that Mabry genuinely envied but had never quite attempted). Old as he was, those three colleagues still taught Mabry more on each short visit than all his American teachers had managed in the three decades of work behind him.
When he sealed the letters, he opened Tim Wilkins's rye again, then paused to consult the health of his brain and his actual vision. Though he drank so seldom, he'd inherited Tasker's cast-iron head for spirits; so he poured another shot. Then he took his journal and began to bring it up to date. At half past eleven, he'd almost finished describing the telephone talk with his father when his hand quit on him. As surely as if a crucial motor nerve had severed, the fingers of his right hand wouldn't make more words to describe Tasker's prankish good sense or to sketch the outlines of what seemed a promising mystery -- Audrey Thornton, the new strong woman in the family. Surely it was understandable fatigue. But he looked beyond him to the wall to check his eyes. He could read the text of the stitched motto on the yellowing sampler -- You Are The Cause Of Everything. His eyes were working then. But, Lord, was this the chosen message of some long-dead Presbyterian maiden with too much needlework time on her hands? He noticed that both his feet had started the awful tingle that would only increase till he slept.
At last the right hand moved on its own, so he turned to his journal; and instead of describing the end of his conversation with Tasker, his hand wrote quickly what (for whatever reason) demanded recording -- in a compact italic script with exaggerated care for spacing and straightness -- An Inventory of Loss and Failure. Then it made the list.
-- Frances Kenyon Kincaid dies, medulloblastoma
-- Mabry K. commences neuro weirdness
-- MK likely to inherit disastrous funds from FKK
-- MK rejects Tasker K
-- Charlotte K likely to reject MK
-- New York assaulted by Allah
-- MK's loft rightly stove-in
The hand paused there, then returned to the list and made the child's symbol for rays of light around two words -- straight lines emitted by the words disastrous and rightly. Only then did Mabry's sense of control begin to return. He laughed a little. Now the words were like something in one of his junior-high-school notebooks -- love or peace with garlands and flowers and kissing doves. Still he wondered what the rays meant. Were they only, at the end of this hard day, a switch-back to the corny codes of his boyhood?
Before he could think, a whisper spooked him. "Mr. Kincaid, may I bother you?"
It was Leah Wilkins, the daughter of the house, sixteen years old and even better looking now than she'd been at dinner. She was in a dark burgundy bathrobe, holding a hushing finger to her lips. But her straight ash-blond hair and the pale blue eyes were no bother at all.
Mabry whispered "By all means" and cleared a space for her.
She went to the refrigerator first, found a Coke, and asked what Mabry wanted.
He flourished his glass of rye.
And Leah frowned before she managed to suppress her regret at one more imbibing adult. Then she silently refused the space he'd cleared. She stood in the midst of the room, a good ten feet from the overnight American. "I'm desperate to sleep. See, I've got an exam tomorrow at school. But after all this tragic stuff today, I'm wide awake."
No doubt he'd heard the word tragic fifty times since leaving his room in Paris before dawn. Coming from this lovely child, though, it had the instant weight of a verdict without appeal. He'd weigh it further once she left the room. For now he said "And the caffeine in that Coke will guarantee you're wide awake till your teacher hands out the dreaded exam. Then you'll plop right over." He let his head fall forward on the table, then felt as silly as he no doubt looked. So when Leah still resisted a chair, he lured her gently. "What's the exam? Maybe I can help."
Quickly her face assumed the solemn gravity that haunts the border between late childhood and what it hears from the land ahead -- the high notes of hope for the long onward life and the harsher chords that promise sure failure. Then she nodded, almost fiercely. "You could absolutely save my neck! It's in studio art -- you remember I mentioned art was my thing. Tomorrow we have to draw a brilliant still life in an hour-long class."
Had she mentioned art? Mabry anyhow said he remembered and got to his feet. "You sit down here. I can show you something right down your line, for better or worse." His bedroom opened off the far kitchen wall. He ducked in there and came right back with the package that had maybe fueled his peace all day.
By the time he returned, Leah had sat and laid both hands -- palm down -- on the table. When Mabry stood in his former place to open the package, she actually whispered "If we don't make a lot less noise, the two of us'll be pitched out in the night. Beyond a certain point, my dad's a major dragon."
Mabry said "He trusts me, darling -- he gave me this entire bottle of whiskey." Before it had fully sounded in the room, he knew the darling was likely wrong, this far north anyhow. And it did strike a definite silence around them. Within three seconds they'd both gone quieter than Leah could have hoped as Mabry peeled off layers of paper and tissue from the mystery object. At last he held the canvas in its heavy frame, maybe eighteen by twenty. He'd never seen it till now and had heard very little about it from his client, who was maybe dead -- almost surely, if he'd gone to work as early as usual this morning.
Nothing to do now but hold the picture at arm's length before him, with Leah to his right. Its age was immediately clear to see, especially at the top and sides where a wide matting liner invaded the image. Especially there the linen itself was almost uniformly discolored and splotched. Mabry stared for so long that Leah finally stood again, came round and looked with him. A good deal of surface was almost the color of bitter chocolate, and Mabry's fingers were stroking the surface, uneven as a child's flour-and-water relief map of a country with low hills and crooked valleys, all exposed to floods and lava flows.
At last Leah said "Is it a picture?"
He said "It's meant to be a picture of the château at Auvers near Paris. Or so we were told. But sorry, I'm afraid it's no art lesson. My client heard it was a picture, a charming one at that." Mabry sat and went on feeling the canvas, even sniffing it in spots.
Leah was standing behind him now. "You work for a museum?"
"Not regularly, no. I'm a private conservator -- the gent you hire, if you're rich enough to have a collection of your own or are in a hot rush to get your great-grandmother's awful portrait cleaned before your pregnant daughter's wedding, just to show off your few blameless ancestors to the reception guests."
By then Leah was closing the door between the kitchen and the rest of the house.
Mabry said a quick "Don't -- " but his hand had just found an envelope tucked between the canvas and the frame on the underside. It was the size that mostly accompanies gifts of flowers, big baskets of roses. He couldn't suppress a conspiratorial "Ah-ha!" and that brought Leah back to her seat.
With the same slow care which had marked his inventory of loss and failure, Mabry opened the envelope and drew out a stiff card folded once on itself. It was crowded, both sides, with a message in a tiny script so eccentric it might have been beamed down from deep outer space. For whatever reason, he leaned back and looked toward the ceiling with shut eyes.
So Leah slipped the card from his fingers and whispered "May I?" When Mabry nodded, she read out softly but with perfect eyes --
Philip Adger, 29 July 1950."
"This small treasure was painted by a twelve-year-old American, a native of Charleston, South Carolina, with M. Vincent van Gogh beside him on the evening of 27 July 1890. The picture shows the chÂteau on the edge of Auvers-sur-Oise. In the field behind the mansion, M. Vincent suffered by his own hand while the boy, unaware, continued this image which sadness prevented his ever completing. The boy's name was Philip Adger, who -- at the age of seventy-two, and sixty years after M. Vincent's necessary death -- signs his name. What he says is the plain truth, though precious.
Philip Adger, 29 July 1950."
When Leah finished, Mabry was still facing upward, his eyes still shut. Now he suddenly rocked his chair back down, looked to the girl and almost whispered "Surely you just invented that."
As suddenly, her sense of insult flared; and her eyes and cheeks went ten degrees hotter. "I didn't. It's all right here in plain English." She held the card toward him, absolute proof.
The ring on her forefinger caught the overhead light, and the sight of it hooked in Mabry's heart with more pain than anything earlier today. Why? Then the answer all but floored him. He'd given Frances, his now-dead wife, a literally identical ring the first evening they spent together -- an inexpensive replica of a ring the Queen of England had worn at her coronation in 1952. He'd found it at a flea market in Key West two days after meeting Frances there, and he'd bargained the dealer down from twenty dollars to a little over ten. That evening, Frances joined him as promised for the sunset on Mallory Pier; and as the surrounding hippies burst into applause for the sinking sun, Mabry reached for her hand and found that the ring would only fit her right forefinger -- her hands were that small from the start. Too small, he might have guessed, for the several huge handfuls he'd prove to be in the years before his repeated sad cheating forced her to ask him to set her free.
He wouldn't tell Leah that story now. It might do him in. So he smiled and took the card from her. When he'd studied it a moment, he said "Wonder why he wrote this in English, after sixty years in France? Who did he think could ever read it?"
Leah's curiosity was calming her. "God, Mr. Kincaid, what is this?"
Mabry said "I didn't know we had that note. But it more or less describes what my client thought he was buying -- for a song, not more than five hundred dollars."
"Who's your client?"
"His name's a little funny -- Baxter P. Sample, Esquire. I should likely say was, unless he slept later than usual this morning."
Leah said, with a child's indifferent candor, "Did he die today?"
Mabry held out his hand for the envelope; and Leah returned it, almost reluctantly. Only then, somehow, could he answer her question. "Baxter had his office in the World Trade Center. I honestly don't know which Tower. The second plane hit just after nine, and the first Tower fell just after ten. Unless he answers his home phone in the next few days, I'll have to wait for a list of the missing. To the best of my knowledge, he had no family. And he made no bones about being a gay man who didn't need a partner and whose parents were dead. I'm almost sure he was an only child too. He seemed to crave loneliness, in his after hours -- just him and his pictures and a few absolutely first-class Greek marbles and vases, madly pornographic vases!"
Luckily, the girl ignored his pornographic. She said "Oh no, it'll take days, won't it? -- just finding all the bodies?"
Mabry nodded, suddenly sadder than he thought he'd be for a man he'd found even more reptilian than the average lawyer -- a reptile, though, who paid his bills almost before you sent them. "They won't find many bodies. That many thousand gallons of jet fuel has cremated almost everybody who didn't start running at the first explosion. And Leah, what started today won't end before you die of old age." When he looked up at her, he saw how hard his last sentence struck her -- like a hand on her teeth. He took a new tack. "So far I've restored Mr. Sample's smashed ceramic Tang horse. I only just mounted his very nice Rembrandt drawing of a boat on a river. And I cleaned his small Degas head of a baby boy -- you hardly think of Degas and babies, much less baby boys. He heard I was spending some recent time in Rome and hired me to loop through Paris just yesterday and pick this up from a small hotel he discovered on his last trip."
Leah looked at Philip Adger's picture again. "Mr. Sample paid good money for this? Then he's truly loaded."
Every assaulted nerve down the length of both Mabry's legs was roaring now; and for the first time, he was fully convinced. Baxter Sample is gone.
But the canvas held Leah more closely than further news about lawyers. She followed Mabry's lead and felt the surface gently, intent as any blind girl in serious need of instruction. At last she looked up and said "Is there much of a picture under all this -- fudge?"
Mabry smiled. "Or peanut butter. But do they make either one in France? If Mr. Sample's alive, he'll have to see it before I decide on how to proceed. Between you and me, now that I see this, I'm not at all sure he'll want to fork out my standard fee for a clean-and-varnish job. If it were mine, I doubt I would. I might just hang it somewhere in a half-dim corner of the kitchen and call it a dubious relic of a bibulous visit to a Left Bank hotel."
Leah said "So you don't believe an American boy painted this while poor Mr. Van Gogh shot himself?" Plainly she knew a little, at least, about the event.
Mabry registered that but pushed to tell her more. "It's sometimes one of my jobs to be a stubborn doubter, when a client thinks he's found a cheap treasure that's just a cheap fake (and I've bought the occasional fake myself when it proved truly fine -- I've got a fake Renoir that beats a third of the genuine Renoirs I've ever cleaned; and I've cleaned fifty thousand, or so it feels sometimes when I'm brought another adorable Renoir girl in Easter finery). All I know about Philip Adger at present -- and I just read a new life of Van Gogh -- is that Auvers did indeed sport a number of resident American would-be painters at the time of Vincent's death. The old woman who runs the hotel told Mr. Sample that her long-dead father-in-law was the boy himself and that he'd kept the picture behind the hotel desk till his death some forty years ago. Then her own husband took it down and stored it in the cellar. Late one night, while Mr. Sample was staying there -- he always stayed in little dark hotels where he tended to run across interesting souls or so he claimed -- he and the woman somehow began to talk about Impressionist painters, and she told him the story of her father-in-law's contact with Vincent. As a boy, young Philip had gone with his wealthy parents from steamy Charleston to cool Auvers, precisely to paint -- the whole family were amateur painters, and the father was even more ambitious than the rest. None of them had the slightest knowledge of who Monsieur Vincent Van Gogh was or where he lived -- I mean, nobody knew him, not even in France. You know he was Dutch; he'd never sold a painting and barely would, not while he drew breath. Anyhow Baxter Sample offered to buy this picture, sight unseen once he heard the story, and he gave the woman his trusting personal check on the spot. She told him she'd have to hunt it down but would ship it right away. It didn't arrive for several months, which is when he asked me to turn up and claim it on my way home from Italy. I think he'd begun to suspect she meant to abscond with his funds and keep the picture. I met her all right. She's the kind of monstrous crone of a sort Paris specializes in. I stood her down, though; and she coughed up the picture. But as you say, it's hardly a picture."
Leah had already found a roll of masking tape and was setting the canvas back into its wrappings.
Mabry stopped her for one more look at the painter's card. "Philip Adger -- " He said it in French first -- Ad-jay -- then in English, Adger to rhyme with badger. "It's a Charleston name all right. I knew an Adger from Charleston in college, and I know his father was rich as Croesus; but they couldn't have painted a basement door, much less a landscape."
By then the parcel was wrapped again. Leah was standing across the table, facing Mabry with a combination of a wary child's What next? and a young woman's frank readiness for whatever came.
Mabry went so far -- she was that lovely now -- as to list in silence the dangers involved in reaching toward her. The table was narrow. Even without her reaching toward him, he could brush at least the back of her hand. But how could he stop that process if his interest was shared? He was not a firm believer (nor a full-fledged doubter); but he actually spoke his relief out loud -- "No, thank God."
And Leah seemed partly to understand. Whether she'd offered him a single thing more, she nodded and looked to the watch on her arm. "Oh crumbs, it's two o'clock!" In another three seconds, she'd opened the kitchen door to leave. At the final moment, she turned, faced him once more; and when he only waved, she blew him a kiss that likely meant no more than the XXs and OOs at the ends of school valentines.
Yet, as she left, Mabry felt he'd made one more of the billion mistakes of his life -- the stingy denials he'd learned to make in a Protestant minister's household fifty years ago. Granted, I'm a year or two older than her father, but more than a few girls wouldn't turn down a kindly cuddle with a substitute dad who'd promise to vanish in a day or two. Oh, go to bed, Mabry -- your own safe bed, you sleazy bugger. You're a fifty-three-year-old piece of damaged goods that the worst raddled whore wouldn't stretch out for, much less this pure girl (maybe not pure as the driven snow; but when was the driven snow pure, here lately, traffic and pollution being what it is?). She could almost be your grandchild anyhow; and here you're baying at her as if she were a harvest moon -- and all at the end of a day when your country had its throat cut, right through to the spine.
At least he was all but exhausted now, and going through the minimal rites of preparation for sleep had sandbagged him further. But once he'd finally switched off the pink-beribboned bedside lamp at 2:38, Mabry wasn't too tired to feel what he'd felt at the end of his conversation with Tasker -- an actual longing to see the old man and a sudden chill of fright that his father might die before Mabry reached him and said whatever he might find to say. Is there one last single thing that needs saying? As best he could, that near sunrise this far toward the Arctic, Mabry racked his brain. Nothing volunteered as remotely urgent -- Which truly means nothing in a mind as wild as mine is now. Then, even on his thin hard Nova Scotian pillow, he was gone in a perfectly harmless dream -- not murderous Muslims, not even a pit bull dog as unpredictable as his nearest neighbor's (a bull named Rodney).
Copyright © 2005 by Reynolds Price
Meet the Author
Reynolds Price (1933-2011) was born in Macon, North Carolina. Educated at Duke University and, as a Rhodes Scholar, at Merton College, Oxford University, he taught at Duke beginning in 1958 and was the James B. Duke Professor of English at the time of his death. His first short stories, and many later ones, are published in his Collected Stories. A Long and Happy Life was published in 1962 and won the William Faulkner Award for a best first novel. Kate Vaiden was published in 1986 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. The Good Priest's Son in 2005 was his fourteenth novel. Among his thirty-seven volumes are further collections of fiction, poetry, plays, essays, and translations. Price is a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and his work has been translated into seventeen languages.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >
How does one write a post-9/11 novel without flooding the page with tears and creating a sense of never-ending angst for the reader who has dealt with enough gloom and doom to last many lifetimes? Reynolds Price gives us a good example of how to render such a novel personal yet also universal. The protagonist Mabry's own collapsing physical condition--he is the 'son' to the 'good priest' whose health is also failing--is a powerful microcosm of the macrocosmic catastrophe of 9/11/2001. By traveling within these two zones--the specific and the general--Price succeeds at giving us both ends of the telescope at once. His prose, never better than in this book, is uniquely Pricean: no one else writes with such a sure-handed sense of the unique poetic language of his Tar Heel natives--both black and white--nor is there anyone else writing today who can enliven his or her prose with the metaphoric power of the quotidian, the everyday acceptance of life's calamities and its joys. This novel is a welcome bounce-back (after the longeurs of *Norbert Norfleet*) for a novelist who--since the death of Eudora Welty--must now be viewed as the South's premier fictionist.
I generally like 'character driven' books, but in this book, the main character is tedious, self absorbed and boring. The storyline isn't much better because it repeats the same information over and over. By the end of the book, I just didn't care about any of the characters. Finishing it was a relief - it felt like saying goodbye to guests who had long overstayed their welcome.