The New York Times
Rodin's Debutanteby Ward Just
Tommy Ogden, a Gatsbyesque character living in a mansion outside robber-baron-era Chicago, declines to give his wife the money to commission a bust of herself from the French master Rodin and announces instead his intention to endow a boys’ school. Ogden’s decision reverberates years later in the life of Lee Goodell, whose coming of age is at the heart
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Tommy Ogden, a Gatsbyesque character living in a mansion outside robber-baron-era Chicago, declines to give his wife the money to commission a bust of herself from the French master Rodin and announces instead his intention to endow a boys’ school. Ogden’s decision reverberates years later in the life of Lee Goodell, whose coming of age is at the heart of Ward Just’s emotionally potent new novel.
Lee’s life decisions—to become a sculptor, to sojourn in the mean streets of the South Side, to marry into the haute-intellectual culture of Hyde Park—play out against the crude glamour of midcentury Chicago. Just’s signature skill of conveying emotional heft with few words is put into play as Lee confronts the meaning of his four years at Ogden Hall School under the purview, in the school library, of a bust known as Rodin’s Debutante. And, especially, as he meets again a childhood friend, the victim of a brutal sexual assault of which she has no memory. It was a crime marking the end of Lee’s boyhood and the beginning of his understanding—so powerfully under the surface of Just’s masterly story—that how and what we remember add up to nothing less than our very lives.
The New York Times
The Washington Post
"Don't be misled by the title; this engaging coming-of-age tale has little to do with either Auguste Rodin or a debutante. Instead it begins early in the 20th century with Tommy Ogden, a rich, enigmatic Chicagoan who drunkenly decides one day to endow a boys' prep school. Flash forward a few decades to Lee Goodell, who attends Ogden Hall School for Boys and privately wants to become a sculptor. We follow his life, witnessing the two acts of violence that change him. Rodin's Debutante is a surprising story, never going where you expect it to, and Just's spare prose packs a solid emotional punch. A-" –Entertainment Weekly
"To his immense credit, Just doesn’t turn this into a whodunit—in fact, we never learn who committed the crimes—but is instead focused on the intricate, almost Jamesian unfolding of the personal and private lives of his sharply delineated characters. An understated and delicate offering by a master."--Kirkus Reviews
"Just extends his grand inquiry into family, honor, and injustice in his beguiling and unnerving seventeenth novel. Like An Unfinished Season (2004), this bildungsroman is set on Just's home ground, northern Illinois, where Tommy Ogden, a man of enormous inherited wealth, flagrant taciturnity, and an excessive avidity for shooting animals, turns his massive prairie mansion into an ill-conceived boys' school at the onset of WWI. Lee Goodell, the son of a judge, grows up in a nearby small town, a bucolic place until the Great Depression delivers tramps and a horrific sex crime. Lee, dreamy, kind, and willful, attends Ogden's school, then headed by a Melville fanatic, where he plays football and swoons over a sculpted bust by Rodin. Determined to become a sculptor, Lee rents a basement studio on Chicago's South Side, where a knife attack jeopardizes his artistic vocation and involves him in the lives of his poor, struggling neighbors and the mission of a compassionate African American doctor. Stealthily meshing the gothic with the modern, the feral with the civilized, in this mordantly funny yet profoundly mysterious novel, Just asks what divides and what unites us. What should be kept secret? Which teaches us more, failure or success? And of what value is beauty? HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Award-winning Just attracts more readers with each uniquely compelling novel."--Booklist, STARRED review
A novel that plays out against a backdrop of Chicago and its environs, a setting that shapes the characters in unexpected ways.
Crusty Tommy Ogden wants to make a statement to his wife and to the world in general, so he decides to transform his family manor in New Jesper, Ill., into a school, grandly known as the Ogden Hall School for Boys. Problem is, Ogden knows nothing about education and in fact only cares for shooting game (elk, deer, boar—it makes no difference). Flash forward a generation or two: Lee Goodell, son of local judge Erwin Goodell and future student at Ogden Hall, overhears a conversation about iniquitous events that have recently occurred about a month apart in New Jesper—first the brutal murder of a tramp, and second the even more savage rape of Magda Serra, a local student. At a meeting at Judge Goodell's, the local nabobs make a decision to desensationalize the potentially damaging news coverage. Magda, so traumatized that she scarcely speaks a word thereafter, leaves town with her mother, Lee continues his life as a student at Ogden Hall, and later as a young intellectual at the University of Chicago, studying sculpture and philosophy. At the urging of Melody Goodell, the judge's wife (who feels she's now "seen the face of evil" in New Jesper), the family moves to a safer and more secure existence on the North Shore, living out their lives in full-throated ease amid country clubs and manicured lawns. Lee eventually marries a promising philosophy student at the University, but then Magda returns, still cautious, still uncertain, but determined to try to find out the full story of what happened to her on that dark day of her violation. To his immense credit, Just doesn't turn this into a whodunit—in fact, we never learn who committed the crimes—but is instead focused on the intricate, almost Jamesian unfolding of the personal and private lives of his sharply delineated characters.
An understated and delicate offering by a master.
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Read an Excerpt
This is a true story, or true as far as it goes. Ogden Hall School for Boys never would have existed were it not for the journey that two Chicago girls made to Paris with their mother. The eldest girl had her head sculpted in marble by the great Rodin in his atelier at the Dépôt des Marbres, a bust from his own hand and chisel. The Chicago girl was eighteen and lovely, the bust a present on her birthday. Rodin was demanding, meticulous in his craft. His eyes glittered as he worked, his unruly head moving to some mysterious rhythm. The girl was a little bit afraid of Rodin, his glare almost predatory, his eyes black as lumps of coal. And when she mentioned this to her mother, the woman only smiled and said that such men were forces of nature but that did not mean they could not be tamed. Only one question: Was the taming worth the trouble? This Rodin, probably yes; but it would take time to find out. The finding-out would be the amusing part and naturally there was ambiguity as in any sentimental endeavor. Taming had its unfortunate side.
In any case, the girl’s mother said, you are much too young for such an adventure. Wait two years.
The sitting took only a few days—Rodin wanted an additional day but that was out of the question owing to the travel schedule—and then the girls went on to Salzburg. Their mother was devoted to German opera. Then east to Vienna, south to Florence, and west to Nice, and when, one month later, they returned to Paris the bust was done and in due course sent by ship and installed in the hallway alcove of the Astor Street house, a beautiful work of art, most soulful, luminous in the yellow light from the new electric lamps, and a trenchant counterpoint to the soft Cézanne landscape on the wall opposite. All the newspapers took notice. The Art Institute took particular notice, though the curator privately thought that the bust showed signs of haste. Rodin’s debutante was the talk of Chicago. The cost was trifling, a bagatelle. Mother paid francs, cash, on the spot. Two husky workmen were required to transport the wooden case to the brougham waiting at curbside.
That was marie’s point, made again and again to her husband Tommy, who was unimpressed, sawing away at his beefsteak, his head low to the plate. Who knew if he was even listening. Tommy Ogden, irascible at all times, disliked discussion of money at meals. The price, Marie went on, was barely more than a wretched automobile, one of Ford’s small ones, a mere piece of machinery as opposed to a work of art that would endure forever and ever. The argument began at cocktails, continued through dinner, and did not end—well, in a sense it never ended. There were witnesses to it, the van Hornes and their daughter Trish and the Billingtons and Tommy’s lawyer Bert Marks and the Italian servants, Francesca and Alana. Marie wanted her own head in marble and Tommy was too damned cheap to pay for it. Cheap, self-centered, and an egoist, concerned with himself alone. Tommy who thought only of shooting, shooting in Georgia, shooting in Arkansas, shooting in Scotland and Austria and the eastern shore of Maryland and Montana and East Africa and beyond. His set of matched Purdeys cost much more than Rodin’s magnificent marble of the Chicago girl and that was consistent with his scale of values. Firearms figured mightily in Tommy Ogden’s scheme of things. So, Marie said, with Tommy or without him she intended to leave at once for the south of France, where she had engaged a pretty villa near Antibes. The route to Antibes led through Paris, where her destination was the atelier at Dépôt des Marbres.
Maître Rodin was said to be most engaging, a powerful presence, something of a roughneck, so French.
I have seen a photograph of the bust, Marie said. That girl’s head is even larger than yours, Tommy.
Go to Paris and be damned, Tommy said at last. Under his breath he added, If you can get there. As was often the case, Tommy had confidential information.
I will, Marie said. I propose to leave tomorrow.
Good luck, Tommy said. Don’t expect to find me here when you get back.
Steady on, Tommy, Bill van Horne said, but in the thickness of the atmosphere at table no one heard him.
And where are you going? Marie demanded.
Idaho, Tommy said. Pheasant.
Marie made a noise somewhere between a cluck and a growl and signaled Francesca to pass the wine. Tommy was drinking whiskey and now took a long swallow, draining his glass and replenishing it from the decanter on the table.
I’ve got news for you, Marie.
What’s that, Tommy? What’s your news?
I’m finished with this house.
This house, Tommy said. I’m getting rid of it.
You wouldn’t dare, Marie said. Your father built this house.
Watch me, Tommy said.
Drew up the plans himself, Marie said. The bedrooms, the library, the re-cep-shun room. But it doesn’t matter. No one wants this house. No one will buy it. It’s a white elephant.
Absolutely, she said.
I’m not selling it, Marie. Get that through your head. I’m giving it away. I’m donating it, you see. That’s my decision and it’s final. You better clear out your things before I get back from Idaho.
Tommy, Bill van Horne said, for God’s sake—
You’re crazy, Marie said. I’ve never heard of such a thing.
Bert has all the details, Tommy said. Isn’t that right, Bert?
Of course, Tommy. Bert Marks had no idea what his client was talking about.
Your mother died in this house, Marie said.
Leave my mother out of it. My mother is none of your damned business.
Died in the bedroom just upstairs—
Damn sight more comfortable than any hospital, Tommy said.
When did you get this crazy idea?
I don’t like that word, Marie.
Well, it’s crazy.
Don’t say that again.
Did you get your idea yesterday? This morning? Did it come at dusk like a bird on the wing? I’ll bet it did.
Tommy pushed his chair from the table and crossed his legs with a show of nonchalance. His expression was vacant, as if he were alone at table, deep in thought. When he moved his body the chair creaked. It was much too small for him, a rosewood chair that looked as if it could be smashed into matchsticks by his huge fingers. His face was flushed but the company did not notice owing to the darkness of the room. Tommy’s face was in shadow. They waited for him to speak and dreaded whatever it was he might say. Tommy Ogden was unpredictable to say the least of it and an atmosphere of violence followed him wherever he went. When he was shooting he was most excited at the kill itself. The beauty of the day or the natural surroundings had no meaning for him. His shooting partners were ignored. Bloodlust had meaning and he was a natural marksman. Now he took another swallow of whiskey and looked directly across the table at Marie. He said, I’ve had the idea for a while. But I decided definitely only ten minutes ago when you started mouthing off about French sculptors and that damned Chicago girl. I’m sick and tired of it. I’m sick and tired of you, so you’d better stop mouthing off.
But that was not Marie’s way. She and Tommy had been married just seven years and argument was their natural milieu. It was how they got on day to day, arguments over small things, large things, often nothing at all. They had both learned to make their way in the world, Tommy because he was rich and Marie because she wasn’t. Marie once explained to Beth van Horne that she looked on her husband as the tyrant of the city-state next door; give him an inch and he’d take a mile and before you knew it you were a province of his realm. Subject to whim. Tommy’s not sinister, Marie said to Beth, it’s his nature. He can’t help it and there were times when he was quite sweet, really, though those times had become rare lately. Marie wore a small sarcastic smile and now she said, So you’re donating my house.
That’s right, Tommy said.
And in the meanwhile?
That’s my business, Tommy said.
I’ll just bet it is, Tommy. Let me guess. A cabin in Idaho? Your Scottish lodge?
Her husband only looked at her, his foot tapping the parquet floor.
And the donation? To whom? And for what? Marie began to laugh, a harridan’s cackle in the quiet of the vast room, its ceiling so high that it was invisible in candlelight. The Italian serving girls had disappeared. Trish van Horne had excused herself and left the table. She was now waiting alone in her parents’ car, smoking a cigarette and wondering when she could go home. Marie said, What do you have in mind, darling? An orphanage? An old folks’ home? Perhaps an asylum, lunatics would feel at home in Ogden Hall. Or—a firearms museum. All your shotguns and rifles, even that wee revolver you carry in your jacket pocket when we go on the town. Your stuffed animals round and about, that bear carcass in the library? The antelope horns on the wall? An owl. Who’s the lucky, lucky beneficiary? I can’t wait.
Tommy wasn’t listening. His eyes were far away. He had refilled his glass once again and remembered the estate as it was when he was a boy, the road through the iron gates, the gatekeeper’s house to the right, the long run up the road and under the railroad trestle—a spur off the main line for his father’s private car, a necessary convenience for the man who owned the railroad—with wide fields and thick stands of black oak either side of the road, two hundred and fifty acres in all. There were two barns and a dormitory for the farmhands. A quarter mile in, the road entered a dark space winding through white pines. Sunlight never penetrated the canopy and midday looked like dusk.
That was where, at age ten, Tommy found his love of the kill, roaming the estate with a .410-bore shotgun his father had given him on his birthday, an efficient piece, walnut stock, American made. It came with a leather slipcase, his initials on the case and the year, 1883. He always began the hunt in the copse of white pines, stalking squirrels and rabbits, muskrats on those few occasions they showed themselves. On the far side of the white pines was a field, and beyond the field a one-acre pond, habitat for the muskrats. Ugly beasts, bad-tempered, scavengers. At eleven years old Tommy shot his first mallard, the bird rising from the water in a frenzy of wings, gathering speed and in one second arrested in flight, its rhythm collapsed; and his whole life Tommy remembered bringing the .410 to his shoulder and the snap of the shot, the descent of the mallard and the heavy splash when it landed mid-pond, dead duck. The time was dusk, mid-November, cold enough so that ice had formed around the edges of the pond. But he stripped off his clothes and went in after the bird. He did not feel the cold, only a surge of—he supposed it was pride, a kind of mastery, certainly an unambiguous happiness along with great slowness, deathlike calm. He heard a voice behind him: Fine shooting, young man. Congratulations, you’ll have a tasty meal tonight. It was the farm manager, a Scotsman sparing with compliments. But Tommy did not like it that he had appeared unannounced; something underhanded about it. Shooting was a private business. Tommy said, Do you know the name of a taxidermist? He spoke with his trademark sneer, a family property inherited from his mother. The farm manager replied that he would try to find the name of a taxidermist but a mallard made mighty fine eating.
Tommy turned his back and walked away, the duck’s neck pinched between his icy fingers, its belly bumping against his thigh, reliving the moment when the bird crumpled and died, arrested action, utter stillness except for the echo in his ears. He liked to wait for windy days, the birds careering every which way. Tommy stationed himself at the eastern edge of the field waiting for the birds to come to him as he calculated the horizontal flight and the vertical shudder and the distance he was obliged to lead, a matter of geometry until geometry became instinct. On the windiest days he would lead the bird by three feet or more, swinging with it, and then by its flight guessing high or low—whether the wind would raise the bird or lower it. More exacting was the passing shot, the bird cruising from his left or right, appearing as a dot in the sky, and then he led it by four or five feet. The bird flew into a hail of lead. The more difficult the calculation, the more Tommy liked it, the test of skill. He thought of the winds as Homeric, a creature of the gods, gods heedless of consequence, gods who did anything they wished to do. Tommy’s view of himself in the field, unobserved and unmonitored, was that he matched any god. At such moments he felt himself stretched to the breaking point, discovering a kind of perfection of equilibrium.
when he turned twelve years old his father gave him a side-by-side twenty-gauge shotgun, cherrywood stock, a British-made Boss, beautifully balanced and as light as a walking stick. He came to appreciate shooting in bad weather, in the hours following an electrical storm, the ground sodden underfoot, thick with leaves, the air carrying a scorched odor. Nothing moved in the dampness. Tommy stepped with caution, waiting for the stray target. Some creatures were obtuse and impatient, careless in their habits. Tommy was never impatient and sooner or later his discipline was rewarded with a sighting of a squirrel or mallard alone and defenseless, disoriented in the heavy silence. He often stood motionless for an hour at a time waiting for a creature to show itself, and it was in the stand of pines, one afternoon in the late fall, that he had a revelation. Something in his eyesight did not look quite right, a color he had never seen before in the woods. He was standing in the shadows of the white pines and staring dead ahead at a tawny patch where the woods gave onto a cornfield. With his usual deliberation he raised his binoculars to his eyes and found the tawny patch dissolving into a hunter’s cap, the bill pulled low; and the cap moved, revealing a bearded face. No one was allowed on Ogden property, for hunting or for any other reason. Tommy believed his domain had been violated. There was no excuse for trespassing. When he raised the Boss he saw the hunter move his shoulders, and then the barrel and telescopic sight of a rifle came into view. So the trespasser was waiting for deer. Then Tommy saw a plume of smoke, indistinct in the gray air. The fool was smoking a cigarette, the one thing above all the other things that was forbidden when stalking deer. A deer would smell tobacco a mile away. The hunter rose to full height, the cigarette in his mouth, the rifle resting barrel-forward on his shoulder. Tommy had a clean shot if he wanted to take it. The range was fifty yards, too far for a twenty-gauge load to be fatal. But the wound would hurt and hurt badly and would not be forgotten, and that would put an end to trespassing.
The hunter’s neck might as well have had a bull’s-eye drawn on it. Tommy sighted the Boss, then paused at a distant rattle from the trestle followed by the shriek of a whistle, his father’s train. When he looked again the trespasser had broken from cover and was running through the cornfield and in a moment was gone. Tommy began to laugh, the scene somehow reminiscent of a vaudeville act. He waited another minute before he turned to work his way through the copse to the great house, dark at dusk, a long Georgian silhouette against the black oaks beyond, trees that had first seen daylight when General Washington was a boy. Ogden Hall had forty-two rooms, including a vast library and a solarium, a garden room and a kitchen nearly the size of a tennis court; and there were two of those next to the swimming pool and the flagstone terrace at the rear of the house where the lawn rolled away to a muddy stream. The railroad had been very good to the Ogden family. Tommy entered by the front door, the house silent, dark within. His mother was somewhere about, knitting or writing letters. Standing in the foyer with its grand piano and six cane-backed chairs for the ensemble that gathered on Sunday for musical evenings, Tommy felt an inhabitant of an antique world that had begun long ago but was vital still, with breath to last at least until tomorrow or the day after. The hush of the room was spoiled only by the hiss of the radiators and the smell of beeswax.
Tommy took off his coat and dropped it on the piano bench and took the stairs two at a time to the second floor and went down the long corridor to his room, the Boss resting on his shoulder. Inside, the door closed, he cleaned and oiled the shotgun and returned it to its case in the corner. Then from his desk he took out the heavy sketchpad and sat on the window seat and began to draw, heavy black lines that described vegetation and soon a bearded face among the branches, difficult to see unless you looked closely and perhaps had an idea what you were looking for. The face had a furtive look, someone who was in a place he ought not to be. Present also was a rifle with a telescopic sight and in the far distance a railroad trestle. Tommy Ogden went long minutes without drawing anything at all, staring at his composition, then making one, two erasures. Twice he dropped the paper to the floor and began again. When the buzzer sounded for dinner he had almost finished the piece but put it aside now. He never hurried his work. He returned the sketchpad to the top shelf of his closet, put the sketch on top of it, and the pens and charcoal pencils on top of that, then closed and locked the door. No one knew of his fascination with drawing. He believed that to share it would be to lose it. Like so much in his life, Tommy’s drawing was private.
Every year until he was twenty his father presented him with a firearm on his birthday, and when he turned twenty-one his father died and Tommy had no further need for anyone’s largesse. Tommy bought the set of matched Purdeys at auction, staying dollar for dollar with a property developer who was twice his age but much less than half as rich. He asked his mother to come with him to the auction because he did not know the form of things, the signals, how the bidding progressed, and the percentage that went to the house. He did know enough to maintain a stony demeanor, the look that said to his competitors: I am in this forever if need be, so fold your hand now and save yourself the trouble. Lily Ogden explained the procedures and left him alone, moving to the rear of the chandeliered room to watch the bidding. And as she said later, it was thrilling to watch her son, a natural, natural aplomb, ice water in his veins, implacable. Chinoiserie, impressionist canvases, Fabergé eggs, Syrian carpets, and Biedermeier cabinets flew by as Tommy sat quietly, arms folded, his head bent forward as if he were stalking game, awaiting the presentation of the Purdeys. Quite frightening, Lily told a friend, how much her son loved the hunt—or, as he said, shooting and the game that made shooting worthwhile. He rarely spoke of his passion in company because it was no one else’s business. The phrase he used was, It’s nothing to do with them. I don’t know where he came from, Lily said. He is nothing like his father and nothing like me. Then she laughed: Well, maybe a little like me and a little like his father, bless him, who always kept his cards close to his vest. I imagine shooting is what Tommy will do in his life and how fortunate he will never have to work for a living because he has no head for commerce.
This was mostly true. Shooting was Tommy’s vocation and everything else in his life seemed incidental, schoolwork, games, the news of the day, even girls. Like his drawing, shooting was personal and he would no more confess to it than a priest would confess to vice, though probably not for the same reason. He believed that people—anyone, anywhere—were eager to take from him what was rightfully his. He believed it as a boy and believed it more strongly as he aged, no doubt the legacy of his father, who maintained that anyone, anywhere was after his money. Friendships were suspect for that reason. The railroad was most presciently sold by his father in the months before the Panic of 1893, the old man explaining to his son that he was uneasy about the capital markets, an orgy of ill-considered speculation with dubious characters in the vanguard. They were scoundrels, connoisseurs of swindle. They would ruin the economy and take the railroad down with it. Lily and Henry Ogden were exceptionally close and when Henry explained his suspicions, Lily urged him to consult her psychic. The psychic was never wrong. Henry followed his wife’s advice and when Madame Hauska advised him to sell the railroad at once, without delay, he did so and not long after the market crashed. The old man told the story again and again to his son, proposing that the psychic was evidence of the existence of a spirit world that trumped Wall Street; and he never failed to add that he had persuaded the buyers of the railroad to lease him his private car for a dollar a year, ten-year minimum. They were happy to do it because they thought they had a bargain, even though the terms were cash, no notes, no bonds. The psychic had insisted on it, knowing very well that Mr. Ogden cherished his car and would be unhappy without it.
Tommy came to know every tree and trail on the estate, a monotonous terrain where the horizon was invisible. In that part of Illinois, well beyond the city’s monstrous clamor, the land was flat as a plate, an anonymous kingdom of farms, small-holdings, and the one market town nearby that contained a restaurant, a movie house, and the station that served the Ogden railroad. A hardware store and a barber shop completed the ensemble. Ogden Hall was the only estate of note in the vicinity, the site deliberately chosen by Henry Ogden for its distance from the glitter of the horse country west of the city. He disliked horses almost as much as he disliked glitter. The Ogdens were seldom seen except for the boy Tommy—an impolite boy, badly mannered, abrupt—who stopped by the hardware store every few weeks to buy ammunition. Never a pleasantry. Never a hello, never a goodbye. He spoke two words only: Charge it. As time went by, his logbook filling up with his precise recording of creatures shot dead, the date and time, mallards, geese, deer, muskrats, squirrels, rabbits, and one German shepherd he had mistaken for a wolf, Tommy wondered what shooting would be like in the mountains or the high plains of the West or the equatorial jungles, dangerous ground, dangerous animals, perhaps a fairer test of the shooter’s skills and nerve. But that was the future. For the time being he was content on the estate, familiar ground. At night you could see Chicago’s sulfurous glow to the east. The market town, Jesper, had a rustic appeal, slow--moving, people going about their business normally. The barber gave an honest cut. The people in Jesper talked too much but that was a rural conceit and easily ignored. There were other small towns round and about, Hilling to the south and Quarterday to the north. Hilling was home to the German taxidermist, an old-world figure who spoke little English but was a wizard with fur and feathers. In Hilling the sidewalks were deserted at dusk. There was one peculiar attraction a few miles north of Jesper, a nightclub called Villa Siracusa. Incongruous place for a nightclub, in a cornfield an hour’s drive from Chicago. The parking lot was crowded with black Packards and Cadillacs, many of them chauffeur-driven. In the spring and summer and early fall, when the weather was benign, the chauffeurs sat at an outside table that was reserved for them. A waiter was on call to fetch drinks. Patrons crossed a humpback bridge—an unsuccessful attempt to replicate the Ponte dei Sospiri in Venice—over a pond to reach Villa Siracusa, named for the ancestral city of the family that owned it. The façade was a gaudy marriage of stucco and steel and lit by red and yellow spotlights that could not be seen from the main road a half mile distant. Inside, the loggia gave way to a lounge with tables and a long oak bar. Villa Siracusa was notorious in the neighborhood, something mysterious and surreptitious about it, and one evening early in their acquaintance Bert Marks explained. Bert was an occasional patron. I’ll call ahead, he said, let them know you’re coming. The Villa is a kind of club and like most clubs they’re suspicious of strangers. The bartender’s name is Ed and he’ll want a moment or two of conversation before he clues you in. Give him some money. The action doesn’t start until ten or eleven and for God’s sake eat before you go. The food’s terrible. So at eleven on a Thursday night in October, Tommy Ogden installed himself at the long bar and waited for Ed to finish his conversation with a sheriff’s deputy at one of the tables. The deputy was in uniform, a pearl-handled revolver in a holster on his hip. Ed was talking and the deputy was listening and nodding without enthusiasm; and when he saw Tommy at the bar he nodded stiffly and smiled, saying something to Ed. Tommy continued to stare at the deputy’s back until he pushed his chair away from the table and hurried from the room. There were a dozen customers, all of them men, a few of them even larger than Tommy. However, none of them were dressed in a soft tweed Norfolk jacket and gray flannel trousers, tattersal vest, bow tie. None of them had blond hair and blue eyes. When Ed made his way at last to Tommy he found a twenty-dollar bill on the bar. Tommy said, Bert Marks sent me.
Ed said, You know Deputy Ralph?
I know him, Tommy said. We meet now and then on the highway.
That’s what he said, Ed said.
My car is faster than his but sometimes I let him catch up.
Yes. That’s what Ralph said.
In a moment Tommy was through the inconspicuous door at the far end of the room and inside the casino, tables of craps and blackjack, baccarat and roulette. The gaming tables were crowded with players, their conversation raucous and punctuated by the ka-thump of slot machines arrayed along one wall. Next to the slot machines was a caisse where chips were bought and cashed in. When Ed turned to leave, Tommy said, I don’t want this room. I want the other room. You know the room I want. When Ed hesitated he found another twenty dollars in his palm and presently a curtain parted and Tommy found himself in a parlor, a trio of musicians playing quietly in an alcove. A bartender polished glasses behind a shiny steel bar. Young women were seated here and there on sofas and overstuffed leather chairs that looked as if they belonged at a downtown men’s club. The women were staring at Tommy and smiling. He looked as if he had just arrived from a golf course or a racetrack and they knew at once that he could pay the freight, whatever the freight turned out to be.
Tommy took his time, inspecting each of the women in turn, attractive women, well turned out, big-boned country girls. Bert had told him that most of the girls were from farming communities in the immediate vicinity, two towns in particular that had been hard hit by falling prices and mediocre yields of corn and soybeans. The Midwest had been in a half drought for most of the past decade and in thrall to the brokers of the Board of Trade in Chicago. The towns were depressed, without life, and the girls were looking for a way out. Their parents had grown listless, worn down by hard work and discouraged at the prospects. All the boys had left home seeking work elsewhere, far downstate or in the West, the army. The way of the world, Bert said, not a damned thing to be done about it. One girl, almost thirty, was a sort of supervisor and talent scout for Villa Siracusa. She was from one of the distressed towns and had recruited others, friends from high school. Word had gone around and before long girls from the farming towns were sending messages asking if there was work "where you are." They always sent photographs of themselves, often in gowns made by their mothers for graduation day and the prom that night. Anything to get away from the farm. Many of them sent money home, like immigrants from Ireland or Italy, claiming they had found work as shop girls at Field’s or Montgomery Ward and that business was good in Chicago. Tommy looked at them now, eight round-faced girls and one tall brunette in a black floor-length gown, a rope of pearls around her slender throat, smoking a cigarette and smiling nicely. She had a beautiful clear complexion, one Lily would have called peaches-and-cream. She looked city rather than country, not because of the dress and the pearls but because of the way she stood and the frankness of her look.
Tommy nodded at her and she was at his side at once, her arm through his. She said, Champagne? He said, You have champagne, I’ll take whiskey. She stepped to the bar and returned bearing a tray with two glasses, an ice bucket, a bottle of champagne, and a bottle of Johnnie Walker. She indicated the stairs and preceded him to the second floor, where she paused. She asked Tommy if he would prefer the third-floor room, the best room in the house, most comfortable. It had been furnished by a client, a gentleman of the old world. Tommy said fine, it didn’t matter to him. They continued up the stairs and through a soundproof door and into a spacious, dimly lit bedroom with three chairs, a sofa, a cocktail table, and the bed, appointed with red sheets and a white duvet and plump pillows. The furniture looked as if it had been assembled from the German-speaking world, Vienna or Berlin, bowed blond wood and steel, not a straight line anywhere you looked. The drawings on the wall were vaguely pornographic, big-haired women in corsets, their breasts exposed. Tommy was offended, he was no friend of the Hun, whether Austrian or German. The Kaiser was a scoundrel.
She said, Do you like it?
He said, I’ll have to get used to it.
She poured a glass of whiskey for him and a glass of champagne for herself and gave her name as Claire, twenty-one going on twenty-two, working her way through the university seeking a degree in art history. Claire was well-spoken but nervous, perhaps daunted by Tommy’s size and forbidding glower. Tommy, himself nearly thirty-five years old, guessed she was more like eighteen than twenty-one and perhaps younger than eighteen. He introduced himself as Tom Ogden, the closest he had ever come to assuming an alias. No one had ever called him anything but Tommy. They had one drink and another while, in a rare inquisitive moment, he asked her about herself. Was she one of the girls from a farm? No, she had never been on a farm. She came from downstate near Kankakee. Her father was a salesman but now he was gone, caught the flu and died, her mother too. Would you rather have a girl from a farm? No, Tommy said, I like you. Claire looked around the room and said it was her favorite. The client who furnished it was not her client but sometimes in the afternoon when it was quiet she and one of the other girls came up to listen to the phonograph and smoke.
Do you mind if I smoke? she asked.
Yes, Tommy said. I don’t like tobacco.
Anyhow, Claire said, being in the third-floor room was like being in another world. It’s far from Kankakee, Tommy said. No kidding, Claire replied. They sat quietly and then she began to describe her studies, utterly fascinating. Did he know that art authorities had drawn a direct line from Rembrandt to the French impressionists? Everybody steals from everybody else, Tommy said, and fifty years from now everyone will be stealing from the impressionists. Claire blushed and turned from him to hide her confusion. She giggled and admitted she knew nothing of art history. But the client who furnished this room had become a friend. He owned an art gallery and liked to talk about painters, how they were derivative of each other. Rembrandt was his specialty. Also, she went on, the university was a fiction. She was saving her money to buy a beauty parlor. She intended to return to Kankakee and open a beauty parlor, a place of her own where she was the boss. Later, telling the story, Claire said she had no idea what caused her to lie and then retract the lie. Probably she felt that Tom Ogden would find out somehow and be displeased. She had never met this Tom Ogden before and had no idea what he was capable of, but from the look of him he could break her neck with his bare hands. He had a tremendous stillness about him, as if there were no moving parts beneath his skin. He was very direct. Her own work had taught her to go slowly with clients and reveal nothing of her personal life. She had said Kankakee but actually her home was Moline and her late father was not a salesman but a druggist. Somehow Tom Ogden inspired trust, otherwise she would not have retracted her lie. He didn’t seem to care, only asked her the name of the art dealer. When she hesitated he said to her that he had need of an art dealer, so she gave up the name. When Claire asked Tommy what he did for a living, his business, he said he didn’t do anything for a living. He was not in business. He had no interest in business. She should not speak to him of business. He was a shooter, and when he saw the look of alarm in her eyes he sneered and assured her, not that kind. He shot animals. Pheasant, deer, duck, squirrel. Whatever animal was available. Elk. Tigers and lions. Elephant.
Sport, she said.
I suppose so, he replied.
Claire relaxed then and they undressed as if they had known each other for years. He was not rough at all, as she expected, but rather formal. He was limber for so large a man, and fit. The word for him was considerate and she was surprised at that. She could not say it was the most exciting evening of her life—there were few enough of those in any case—but she was not frightened, either. There was but one pause in the play that followed. Round about dawn Tom Ogden sat straight up in bed, turned his head, told Claire to shush, and put his palm to his ear in order to clearly hear the plaintive faraway sound of a train’s whistle. Tom was silent a long moment and then began to laugh. When Claire asked him what was so funny he said that his father had paid them a call, first time he had heard from the old man in years and years.
What do you mean?
My father is dead, he said and made no further comment.
Tom Ogden did not leave Villa Siracusa until Sunday morning. Food and drink were brought to them. The arrangements were everything Bert Marks had promised and more. Claire was good-natured and willing. She never complained. Each morning around dawn Tommy heard the sound of the train’s whistle, a signal of approval from his even-tempered father. And no wonder. Tommy was the happiest he had been and the amazement of it was the absence of complications. He made a date with Claire for the following Thursday, and the Thursday after that, and before long Thursday through Sunday was a permanent appointment unless Tommy was away shooting. A productive conversation with Herr Mackel, the owner of the gallery, transferred the lease of the third-floor room to Tommy; he became a silent partner in the Mackel Gallery, the better to display his sketches. He thought it time to move into the world a little bit, and Herr Mackel turned out to be a considerate German.
A year or so later, Villa Siracusa was raided by the sheriff’s department, some question about the monthly stipend. After that was straightened out, federal agents arrived to close the place for good, a complaint about unpaid income taxes. The Siracusa family moved the business from its location north of Jesper to a more sympathetic jurisdiction but five years later there was more trouble from the county sheriff, who had been bought but refused to stay bought, a chronic problem in Illinois, though rarely in Chicago. At last, acknowledging defeat, the family returned to the big city, where the rules, once set, were scrupulously adhered to. Villa Siracusa—now Chez Siracusa—was established in a handsome brownstone on a tree-lined street on the South Side not far from the university. Once again Tommy was provided with a room of his own, furnished as before with a nice view: a private library of a scientific nature was situated across the street and over the rooftop of the library could be seen soaring church towers and the spires of the university and there was so little traffic you could believe you were in a small town downstate. Papa Siracusa himself assured Tommy that the trouble had gone away, vanished, because so many aldermen were clients. Chicago was a difficult environment, unforgiving, rough-edged. Costs were higher all around, he said, but there was peace of mind too, knowing that the rules, once set, were scrupulously adhered to. Tommy listened and concluded that the old man was losing his mind, believing he was back in Sicily. Rules endured only so long as they were convenient for everyone concerned, and when they ceased to be convenient they bent like giraffes in a hurricane. Watch yourself, Tommy, Bert Marks said, to which Tommy replied, Why should I? Susanna followed Claire, and Monica followed Susanna. Papa Siracusa died and was succeeded by his eldest son and everyone agreed that the apple had fallen far from the tree, the boy but a shadow of his father, a gentleman of the old school. The atmosphere Chez Siracusa became rowdier. One night a doctor was summoned to see to one of the girls who had become hysterical and on another night shots were fired and police actually entered the premises, weapons drawn. Tommy remained in his room on the top floor, well away from the unpleasantness, not that he cared.
He was a loner certainly and found repose Chez Siracusa. One of the girls compared Tom Ogden to a farm animal, content to remain at rest in a field chewing its cud until it felt hunger or some other manly urge. He would remain silent for hours at a time, deep in thought, often sketching—the roofline of the scientific library, the rooftops of the university high on the horizon, students in the street below, Claire, Monica, or Susanna reading or doing her toenails. The sketches were simple but took hours to complete because Tom was meticulous, never drawing a line until he had thought it out and the lines that would follow. He drew the way he shot, with patience and economy, and when he was finished he told the girls stories about his shooting adventures, the firearms he owned, and the correct manner to stalk game. Silence was the first trick, quick reaction the second. Third was composure, though surely composure was a function of silence. It’s fair to say that the girls had never met anyone like Tom Ogden. Everything about him was a puzzle, including his courtesy in bed. He had only sporadic interest in knowing anything about them, and when Claire and Susanna moved on, he gave each girl a wad of money for whatever the future might bring. If asked, Tommy would have said that his happiest hours spent indoors were on the topmost floor of the brownstone, a view of the university rooftops beyond the scientific library across the street. In the autumn the colors were marvelous and in winter the roofs were stacked high with snow. Tommy had a massive lack of interest in the world around him, or that part of it unrelated to shooting, but he found consolation in the small-town feel of the South Side. Naturally he was most at home in the country, his firearms within easy reach, the fields always filled with game. He was never lonely in the great house with its forty-two rooms, listening to the echo of his footsteps wherever he went.
He supposed that at some point he would marry. Most men did. Probably he would marry if he could find a suitable woman, a woman who liked her privacy as much as he liked his. When he asked Susanna what she thought about marriage she misunderstood—she was so startled by the question that she was unable to speak for a full minute—and thought he was proposing to her. Susanna’s eyes grew wide and tear-filled and when she threw her arms around him he was obliged to say, No, not you, marriage in general. Marriage as an institution. Her feelings were hurt but Tommy did not grasp that; hurt feelings, his own or anyone else’s, were not in his arsenal of sentiments. Susanna, furious, her mouth drawn in a thin line, said that in fact she believed in marriage despite appearances. She had a fiancé and in due course she intended to marry the fiancé and settle up near the Wisconsin Dells where the fiancé had business prospects. They aimed to have three children. Tommy had ceased to listen. He half suspected that marriage was a chore in the way that his father had decided that business was a chore and had visited the psychic Madame Hauska who gave sound advice, and his father never worked again. His father swore by her, maintaining that she was a wizard with a balance sheet along with being a prophet. Surely she would be no less deft with matrimony.
Meanwhile, Tommy had iron-hearted Chicago, its fearless clamor, its no-nonsense way of going about things, its license, meaning contempt for civic virtue. He felt Chicago was a city with a curled lip and chips on both shoulders, a remark an infuriated schoolteacher once made about him. Tommy Ogden felt he knew Chicago in his bones; they were the same bones. At any event, for the remainder of his days he made the detested journey from his estate near Jesper to the South Side brownstone where he was most favored customer Chez Siracusa. He had furnished the top-floor room to his own taste—it had the leather quality of a shooting lodge—and caused a fireplace to be installed. In the heavy armoire below the mirror he kept shirts and a change of linen, pens and sketchpads and a revolver in the event of mischief. Everyone respected Tom Ogden. Never made trouble, never complained, paid handsomely, a perfect gentleman. All the girls liked him even as they tended to tune out his lectures, the monologues about shooting that went on for so many, many minutes. But he did not notice that, either, because he was not looking at them as he talked. He was deep inside himself, an inaccessible, perhaps barren, region to which only he possessed a map. It was always pleasant for Tommy to talk to someone who did not talk back.
Meet the Author
WARD JUST's seventeen previous novels include Exiles in the Garden, Forgetfulness, the National Book Award finalist Echo House, A Dangerous Friend, winner of the Cooper Prize for fiction from the Society of American Historians, and An Unfinished Season, winner of the Chicago Tribune Heartland Award and a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize.
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