Dominick is always just passing through. He is a professional house guest who follows the sun and the leisure class from resort to resort. But this winter he lingers on a quaint New England island and in spite of his best intentions becomes involved in the travails of his eccentric geriatric hosts. An environmental protest against a proposed liquid natural gas terminal turns ugly, and by accident and happenstance Dominick becomes a mistaken suspect in terrorist bombings.
But New Jerusalem News is really about its charactersthe plot is just to keep them busy as we get to know them. None of them are youngwhite-bearded men and blue-coiffed women busy with aging, dementia, and ungrateful children. But Dominick strives to float above it all in a life of itinerant escape. A New England comedy of sorts, on another level New Jerusalem News is an extended meditation on history, identity, and what it means to drift.
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New Jerusalem News
By John Enright
Skyhorse PublishingCopyright © 2015 John Enright
All rights reserved.
It was Brenda's idea. That was the summer of Brenda's bright ideas — mango margaritas, golden carp in the swimming pool, hanging the guys' sweaty T-shirts and shorts about the yard to keep the deer from eating her garden plants. Charlie had long since learned just to let his wife have her way with such things, and Dominick felt that as their houseguest he really had no say in the matter. Brenda was his hostess; she could do what she would with his dirty laundry. This idea, however, involved more than just the three of them and random wild animals.
It all started on a visit to one of those quaint little villages up the coast. They all ran together in Dominick's mind — marinas filled with otiose unpeopled pleasure boats, heavy square buildings with plaques attached attesting to their longevity, fish and chips shops and pubs with cute names that sold clothing declaiming them, and tan flotillas of teenage girls showing the maximum amount of skin allowed by law. Brenda was off trolling the curio shoppes and boutiques. Charlie had found a stool and a drink in the dark cave of a bar lit solely by plasma TV screens playing the afternoon Red Sox game. Dominick plopped his considerable self down on a shaded bench in front of one of the ubiquitous realtor's offices and lit a cigar.
Firing up a Romeo y Julieta Churchill had always been a distinctly personal pleasure for Dominick, a curtain (of smoke) going up on a fine half hour of solitary sedentary drugged meditation. But now, in this strange new smokeless land, the public employment of his private enjoyment had become the occasion of civic drama. What he was doing there on a bench on the sidewalk was not against any law, but he might as well have been fondling some ewe's genitalia. Children stared, men scowled, and women mimed mustard gas poisoning. In a minor way Dominick enjoyed the performances, but they could sometimes become a distraction. One should not be distracted from a good cigar.
But then this was New England after all, home of Hawthorne and the Reverends Mather, where the evil inventions of teenage girls had once sent scores of their betters to horrible deaths for far lesser offenses. To be a sinner was to break some god's rule. It did not necessarily have to be your god, if you happened to have one, who made rules and cared about them enough to go about punishing people. The fine fumes of the Churchill in his head led Dominick off into a consideration of the etiology and evolution of the concept of punishment — the same root and basic meaning all the way back to the Greek — and of punishments in different civilizations, varieties of castigation. Was punishment or just its specialization a human invention? There were outcasts throughout the animal kingdom. Could a culture's refinement be measured by the sophistication of its criminal code? Dominick's meditation was interrupted by a henna-haired woman from the realtor's office behind him, who threatened to call the police if he did not move on.
There was a certain type of woman to whom Dominick had always been attracted. They were invariably foreign and full-bodied, medium to tall in height, and wore high heels. They would be slightly overdressed for whatever occasion in garments that looked as if they were meant to be shed and that showed off the fullness of their ample breasts and constrained décolletage. They had a look in their eyes that said they expected to be treated with the respect due to them as women. His henna-haired verbal attacker was such a woman. He could not place her almost hidden accent. Russian? Dominick rose to his feet to receive her, bowing slightly. "Madame?"
Brenda arrived on the scene simultaneously with the police cruiser. Dominick had, of course, refused to move on as he hoped to make the acquaintance of this feisty foreigner, and he had no intention of ruining his now perfectly tuned Churchill by stubbing it out to placate her. He expected the respect due to him as a man. She would not give him her name. A small crowd had stopped to watch and listen, blocking the sidewalk pedestrian flow. Dominick heard a small child say, "Look, I think his thumb is on fire."
Brenda took Dominick by the arm. "Lord Witherspoon, I am so sorry to have stranded you here like this. What on earth could be the problem?"
"This charming lady," Dominick began.
"I will not have this foul tobacco smell invade my office and affect my clientele," his temptress said, stamping her foot like a Parisian. A bejeweled hand swept her bangs away from her face.
The policeman got out of his car the way they always do, as if burdened once more with the obligation to interfere.
"But, ma'am, we are your clientele, or rather would have been," Brenda said. "I am assisting His Lordship in the search for the proper property here at the shore. We were about to inquire into your top listings, but if this "— Brenda gestured to the policeman now standing beside them — "is your idea of customer service, we will take our inquiries elsewhere. Come along, Lord Witherspoon." And Brenda led Dominick through the crowd and down the sidewalk.
"Good god, Brenda, Lord Witherspoon? Could you not come up with something better than that? I feel like a fugitive from a Brontë novel," Dominick said, giving his Churchill a few puffs to keep it burning. "Didn't you find her a bit alluring?"
"I can't stand that perfume. Where's Charlie?"
"In the saloon at the corner. Look, I will wait here." Dominick had found another sidewalk bench and sat down there to enjoy what was left of his cigar. "Take your time."
* * *
Thus was the character of Lord Witherspoon created. Henceforward restaurant reservations and takeout pizza orders were placed in his name. "Lord Witherspoon, party of three," always turned heads, and they got better tables. It did not seem to make any difference with the pizzas. Dominick wondered out loud once why more parents did not name their children Lord and Lady. Charlie just went along with it, calling Dominick "ya lawdship." Brenda bought Dominick several silk ascots. They were uncomfortably warm, but he looked good in them. He started to trim his moustache differently, a more colonial look.
The nationwide real estate crisis had hit the second-home market, and suddenly there were lots of seaside mansions for sale. In local parlance these lavish eight- and ten-bedroom century-old monstrosities were called "cottages," though they each sat on many manicured acres and carried multimillion-dollar price tags. A drive down the coast road now was a for-sale-sign tour of descendants of old families turning their backs on their Gilded Age past. Even the named estates were up for grabs — Westwind, Cliff Retreat, Surfhead, Rockledge, The Pines.
It was Brenda's idea. It was a hot, still afternoon. The summer had been especially warm, and they all were getting tired of it. Charlie proposed going for a drive, perhaps out to the lighthouse at the end of the island where there might be a sea breeze. But Brenda suggested that they go for a tour instead. "A tour of what?" Charlie asked. "Someplace air-conditioned, I hope."
"Oh, yes, all very cool. Dominick dear, go change your clothes and come back as Lord Witherspoon. I'll dress up, too. Charlie, you'll be fine as you are as our driver."
They took Dominick's car, because it was the newest and closest to being upscale. They drove into the village, to the block with most of the realtors' offices. Charlie waited in the car while Brenda and Dominick went into the office that had in its windows the most photographs of seaside mansions. Within ten minutes Brenda and Dominick were back in the car and Charlie was following the real estate agent's Lexus out of the village and down the oceanside drive.
"What a strange creature," Dominick said. "Do you think she is ill?"
"She is a real estate agent, Dominick, a salesperson. Her life is hell. She would like to smile, but she has forgotten how."
"Do you think she believed us?"
"She really has no choice. Did you see any other customers in there?"
"Where are we going?" Charlie asked.
"That's her call, really," Brenda said. "We told her that at this point price was not a consideration, that His Lordship was looking not so much for another home as for a family investment property now that the market seemed so favorable. She'd be a fool not to start at the top of her list."
"This is fun," Dominick said. "Perhaps tomorrow we could do it with that lady who took such umbrage with my cigar. Do you remember what village that was?"
They were on a stretch of wooded road where occasional gated driveways led off toward the coast. The Lexus signaled long in advance of turning into one of these drives. Charlie followed. There was a chain across the drive, suspended from two vine-covered stone pillars. The agent got out of her car to unlock the chain. In her high heels she stumbled in the uneven gravel and almost fell. There was a dark sweat stain down the back of her green silk blouse. She didn't appeal to Dominick at all. If this was their new game, it needed some refinement. They ought to have a better choice of the players, for one thing.
The driveway curved scenically, unnecessarily for maybe an eighth of a mile through a young evergreen forest before opening onto a broad expanse of undulating lawn surrounding a multistoried, turreted, cream-colored copy of a French villa set against the two pale blues of the sea and the sky. A fairy-tale castle.
"Must be fun to heat in the winter," Charlie said. "Do you think they'll have the air-con on?"
Inside, the house was grand and empty and stiflingly hot. It felt as if no one had ever lived there. "A tragic story," the agent began. "A husband built it for his wife, who died before it was completed." She opened some French doors leading out to the seaside patio, and a cool breeze swept in as if the house, awakened, was gasping for air. The agent went on with her fairy-tale story for the fairy-tale house, but Dominick and Charlie walked out through the French doors to the lawn sloping down to an empty dock. Brenda and the agent went off on a tour of the many rooms.
"Could you live here, Charlie?" Dominick asked, loosening his ascot.
"I'd like to hunt deer here, my own private game reserve. There's got to be a dozen acres at least."
They looked at four other houses before calling it a day, none quite as grand as the first but some nicer and two still occupied. It was a diverting afternoon. Brenda especially had a marvelous time, lying to and dueling with the real estate agent, whose name was Alice or Alisha or Alison or something similar. "Poor thing," Brenda said. "It's her job to know everything and never be wrong. She has to be two steps ahead of every conversation. What a suck job."
Lord Witherspoon house tours quickly became one of their main summer pastimes. Charlie even got all of the golden carp out of the swimming pool. God knows what he did with them. They honed their visitation routine. Charlie now took digital photos wherever they went. Brenda carried a fancy notebook in which she made secret notes. Dominick found it most comfortable to say nothing at all, just make small grunts and throat-clearing sounds now and then, and look bored and vaguely disappointed. Soon they were getting calls back from agents with a new — "perfect," always "perfect" — estate to show them. It certainly was a buyer's market. They became jaded clients, hypercritical, always finding the cons to counter the agents' pros, never satisfied. And it never had anything to do with the price.
* * *
The Jamesons were the most charming couple Dominick had yet met on the island. Lydia and Atticus. Lydia would have always been petite, but her seven decades had refined it. She was an ad for the well-kept woman, and she had also somehow preserved, for her own amusement, a young girl's outlook on life. It showed in the lights in her eyes, her amused lips, and the tilt of her head as she watched you as if you were unique. Atticus was not much bigger than his wife, a yachtsman shrunken with age and years in the sun. Dominick came to think of them as fine bottled spirits — brandy and port — that aging had brightened and mellowed and deepened. Atticus liked a good cigar, and Lydia claimed to love its aroma in her house. "All the men who smoked here," she sighed. "What fond memories that aroma brings back." Atticus also fixed a fine mint julep.
They called their house Mt. Sinai, although it was not listed as such. The village had only recently learned to act ambivalent toward Jews and things Jewish. Not that the Jamesons were Jewish. Their house had been built atop a large rock outcrop, and from the seaside its flat, double-arched façade resembled the outline of certain famed tablets. "Calling the house Mt. Sinai was my grandfather's idea of a joke," Lydia said. The house had come from that side of the family. Mt. Sinai was for sale, which was how they made the Jamesons' acquaintance.
It had started out as a normal visit. The real estate agent — a new one, a mysteriously obsequious Persian woman — had made the appointment for them and then had not shown up. So the opening was awkward. Without the mediating salesperson present, what exactly were their roles? Brenda, Charlie, and Dominick were well aware of their duplicity and felt exposed without the agent's shield of authenticity. The Jamesons had never been retailers but were practiced hosts. Iced tea was offered, seats on the veranda, small talk — the record-breaking hot weather, gardening, the story of the house's name — but no one knew quite how to broach the purpose of their meeting. The topic just seemed impolite.
There was a squall approaching — dark sky and lightning off in the distance. Charlie asked if he could take some photos of the grounds and the view before the rain arrived. Lydia offered to take them on a quick tour of the grounds. She was proud of her flowers and wanted to show off her potting shed and small artist's studio on the edge of their rock outcrop. She led Brenda and Charlie off down a garden path. Dominick and Atticus stayed behind. Dominick was too comfortable in his cushioned settee and had no interest in seeing flowers.
"How about something stronger than that?" Atticus asked once they were alone.
Dominick gave one of his Lord Witherspoon grunts that were meant to sound agreeable and handed his host his half-empty glass. Atticus vanished into the house. The air was thick with that stillness that arrives before the storm. Dominick's view was out over treetops to the still-sunlit sea. There was something about this house that he had not felt in any of their other visitations, a déjà vu feeling of being at home. Without really thinking about it, he pulled a Churchill out of his sport coat's breast pocket and lit it up. He could tobacco meditate here. When Atticus returned with their two tall and icy mint juleps, he accepted with a little bow the fresh Churchill that Dominick wordlessly offered him in return for his drink. They sat, silently sipping and puffing, looking out at the same view.
"You don't really want to buy this place, Mr. Witherspoon," Atticus said, studying his thick cigar.
Dominick cleared his throat, trying to make it sound like a question.
"It's way overpriced for one thing, and the market for this sort of property has nowhere near bottomed out yet."
Dominick managed an agreeable sounding noise in his throat.
"None of these ridiculous 'cottages' were built to be lived in before June or after September, unheated, uninsulated."
"But you and the missus live here all year long?"
"This will be our first winter here. We will close down most of the place and just live in the kitchen and a couple of rooms. All exposed like this, the place takes a beating in winter nor'easters."
As if summoned by stage directions, the squall hit. The wind and the rain came from the back of the house, so the veranda remained dry, but all the foliage in front of them bent to the fury of the first onslaught.
"Figures," Atticus said. "Lydia likes to be out in her little place when it rains." The squall brought the end to their conversation. By the time the shower had ended and Brenda and Charlie and Lydia had come back into the house, Dominick and Atticus were in an upstairs billiards room shooting pool, still tending their Churchills and sipping the last of their bottom-sweet mint juleps. That was where Lydia delivered her praise of the past in the smell of cigar smoke. Just the simple sharing of a squall had brought them all into a closer circle of acquaintanceship. The sun broke through the clouds and the wavy old lead glass windows of the billiards room. Lydia and Brenda settled themselves into a window seat and continued their conversation. Charlie took photographs. The reason for their visit was never mentioned again.
Excerpted from New Jerusalem News by John Enright. Copyright © 2015 John Enright. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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