Wise Men: A Novelby Stuart Nadler
Almost overnight, Arthur Wise has become one of the wealthiest and most powerful attorneys in America. His first big purchase is a simple beach house in a place called Bluepoint, a town on the far edge of the flexed arm of Cape Cod.
It's in Bluepoint, during the summer of 1952, that Arthur's teenage son, Hilly, makes friends with Lem Dawson, a black man whose job
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Almost overnight, Arthur Wise has become one of the wealthiest and most powerful attorneys in America. His first big purchase is a simple beach house in a place called Bluepoint, a town on the far edge of the flexed arm of Cape Cod.
It's in Bluepoint, during the summer of 1952, that Arthur's teenage son, Hilly, makes friends with Lem Dawson, a black man whose job it is to take care of the house but whose responsibilities quickly grow. When Hilly finds himself falling for Lem's niece, Savannah, his affection for her collides with his father's dark secrets. The results shatter his family, and hers.
Years later, haunted by his memories of that summer, Hilly sets out to find Savannah, in an attempt to right the wrongs he helped set in motion. But can his guilt, and his good intentions, overcome the forces of history, family, and identity?
A beautifully told multigenerational story about love and regret, Wise Men confirms that Stuart Nadler is one of the most exciting young writers at work today
"Surprising...The story stretches over both Wise men's lifetimes and fills them with resonant complications...expertly wrought."
Surprising...The story stretches over both Wise men's lifetimes and fills them with resonant complications...expertly wrought."Janet Maslin, New York Times"
A historical novel with the gusto of Gatsby."People
"Much of this complex and honest novel is about the possibility of redemption for our past actions. But the emotionally searing sections revolve around Hilly's ambitious, tyrannical father, who is endowed with a mixture of such uplifting and upsetting qualities that you're constantly sifting through secrets and motivations, trying to understand him-and getting sucked into the story in the process."Leigh Newman, Oprah.com"
Nadler is a gifted storyteller."Thom Geier, Entertainment Weekly"
Simple, powerful and a conclusion that is not only surprising but deeply satisfying."Karen M. Thomas, Dallas Morning News "
Genuinely moving."Kate Tuttle, Boston Globe"
It's an absorbing, well-crafted book, with all the story-telling virtues on display. It is atmospheric, thoughtful and mature, with characters whose fate arouses genuine curiosity. It is fiction of great integrity and vast promise."Hilary Mantel, Booker-winning author of Bring Up the Bodies and Wolf Hall"
A tense, evocative, page-turning saga of the bruising encounters between two families across the 'colour line' over half a century. Every conversation rings painfully, beautifully true."Emma Donoghue, author of Room
"Wise Men reads like a classic; it is a completely engrossing novel, one that scars the reader's heart in the most satisfying way. In confident, unpretentious prose, Nadler tackles the complexity of racial tension and fifties mores in a manner reminiscent of Harper Lee and Carson McCullers, and in a smart, misses-nothing style that summons comparisons to Salinger and Cheever. Hilton Wise is a winsome and compelling narrator, one you'll find yourself rooting for days after finishing the book. Nadler's deft rendering of place, namely a secluded compound in coastal Massachusetts, allows the reader to become completely lost in Hilly's world. Wise Men is, at its core, a brutal love story, full of surprise and conviction, insight and deception, staggering wealth and loss, truth and beauty."Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of BIRDS OF A LESSER PARADISE"
Wise Men is a brilliantly plotted and carefully observed novel that takes the reader deep inside a powerful family's most guarded secrets. An epic saga about a son's need to atone for the sins of his father and the sins of his own troubled youth. The driving heart of this ambitious novel is an impossible romance: one worth risking an entire outrageous fortune. With wisdom and compassion, Nadler examines the mysteries and manners of unrequited love. Wise Men confirms that Stuart Nadler is a writer of abundant talent and grace."Amber Dermont, author of the New York Times bestseller The Starboard Sea"
Stuart Nadler is an elegant writer and a compelling storyteller. Wise Men explores the big questions in life-love and money and race and identity-in a story packed with secrets, longings, and obsessions. It is not a book to be missed."Vanessa Diffenbaugh, author of the New York Times bestseller The Language of Flowers"
While Stuart Nadler's ambitious debut novel touches on money, class, race and religion, first and foremost Wise Men is about youth, betrayal and regret. In his idealism and denial, Hilly Wise, the poor little rich boy, is a truly American character, and the perfect narrator for the tale."Stewart O'Nan, author of Emily, Alone and The Odds"
Stuart Nadler's first novel zooms and dips like an airplane with a trick pilot, one in complete control of his loop-de-loops. I have no doubt that Stuart Nadler is going to be one of our great novelists, and it all starts here, on a dune in Cape Cod, with the Wise men. These charactersknotted together with obligation, guilt, and lovewill stay with me always."Emma Straub, author of OTHER PEOPLE WE MARRIED and LAURA LAMONT'S LIFE IN PICTURES"
Nadler's sprawling saga is many things...But at its heart it's the story of the complex, love/hate relationship between a father and son that grips the reader and won't let go until the final explosive page...it never fails in its searing portrayal of messy, complicated family angst."The Cleveland Plain Dealer
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Wise MenA Novel
By Stuart Nadler
Reagan Arthur BooksCopyright © 2013 Stuart Nadler
All right reserved.
In the spring of 1947, when I was twelve years old, a passenger plane crashed near Narragansett Bay. It was a small craft, newly built, operated by a nascent aviation outfit called Boston Airways. Color photographs show that the nose and tail of the plane were painted the yellow of a girl’s Easter dress. Because of this, in the hangars where it was stored, its name was Bunny, or Chickadee; both names are listed in the official testimony. The intended flight path that afternoon had the plane headed first to New York and then to Miami, and then, if weather permitted, back along the edge of the Atlantic to land in Baltimore.
Lately I’ve begun to collect artifacts from the crash: a shard of the captain’s seat belt; the sleek, burnished blade of a cracked propeller; the top flap of a carton of Fatima cigarettes, remarkably well preserved, a greasy, spectral fingerprint smeared across the red crescent moon of the logo. Filed away on a computer, I have recordings of the few radio transmissions that exist. The pilots are calm before their death. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve listened to them dozens, if not hundreds, of times. Everything in my story depends in some way on this crash.
Takeoff: eight past noon, out of Logan. Estimated arrival: half past one.
Sixty people were on board, fifteen of them were children; no one survived.
At the time of the crash we were living in New Haven. I was out in the yard when a man pedaled by me on a bicycle. He was in a gray suit and a black felt fedora. “Plane’s gone down outside Providence,” he said, slowing to tell me the news. He had a calabash pipe in his teeth, and the smoke from it was sweet, like apples cooking. “Guess it took off out of Boston and couldn’t get airborne. Just sort of floated above the trees all the way down into Rhode Island.” He put up his hand flat into the air and made a nosedive with it, his voice adding to the effect. A moment later, he was gone, off on his bicycle, the tails of his sports coat fluttering up as he wheeled away.
My mother was standing in the kitchen. I could see her from the lawn. There was a square window framed by a wheat-colored curtain. She had the glass open, bugs at the screen, a breeze frittering at the fabric. Her cheeks were flushed. Steam in the kitchen from a kettle. Maybe a trace of cinnamon, baking, from the stove. Only two months earlier she’d celebrated her thirtieth birthday, but if you were to look at her straight, and in good light, you’d think she was a college girl. For the occasion my father had bought her a fake sapphire ring, a solitary costume stone set up on a pewter band; it’d cost him three dollars and she hadn’t taken it off since.
When I came in to tell her, she already knew. The radio was on, a man’s voice, grave, full of baritone. He rattled off what was known at that point, the plane’s type, its supposed location upon impact, the assumed number of fatalities.
My mother—and I have always remembered this—became angry at the news.
“How can something that large just fall out of the sky?” she asked me. She slapped at the linoleum with her open hand. She’d been frying an egg. Her ring clapped the air. “All those children! Who is flying these things!”
My father’s connection to the crash was tenuous. A man on board had been the brother of a classmate of his. There were telephone calls, so many of them, and then a frantic hustling on my father’s part that culminated two weeks later in an office near Hartford, where he agreed to represent ten of the affected families. By then my father had collected enough information to believe he had a case: there was evidence that executives from the airline knew the plane’s engines were damaged; at airports along the coast, word had spread of lazy safety upkeep, mechanical ignorance, pilots capable of flying a six-ton bomber but unfamiliar with the relative delicacy of such a small aircraft. One night before it all really started, I found him at our kitchen table in his underwear, blueprints and memos and cigarettes scattered in a mess. It was a new plane, and apparently something this new shouldn’t have crashed. “Can you win?” I asked. He moved to make a space for me at the table and asked me to sit down. “What do you see?” he asked, pointing to the diagram of an airplane engine. “Gibberish,” I said. “Squiggles.” He laughed. “Me too.”
He wasn’t the best person for the job, something he likely kept to himself. He had been an ambulance chaser before all of this—your average slip-and-fall-and-sue attorney—and if for any reason my mother needed to get ahold of him in those days, her best bet was to search the waiting areas of the city’s emergency rooms, where, invariably, he was sure to be camped out with his coffee, his cigarettes, and a stack of his business cards. His arrogance was often mistaken for the genuine artifact: skill, or competence, or some combination of the two. His strategy was to charge only a small retainer fee, enough for us to pay our rent and to eat and occasionally to see a movie. In return he demanded a larger-than-usual portion of any potential winnings. He claimed that it would be difficult to emerge with a victory. The arrangement, he told his new clients, was a safe bet.
The number of plaintiffs grew. These calls came sparingly at first, waking us at night, a bereft mother sneaking away to call my father while her husband slept; a PFC in the army, stationed in Okinawa, whose father had died and whose brother could not be reached. Letters arrived. Two Cuban women had stood waiting at the airfield in Miami, unknowing, before word arrived. The abbess of a Connecticut orphanage wrote, claiming to represent one of the children; the girl had been on her way to New York to meet her new parents. With every call the case became larger, the potential purse of damages fuller, the bustle in our small rented house busier and noisier and filled every night with the whispered idea that maybe, possibly, if things went perfectly, if the judge saw something the right way, or if the opposing counsel decided to take a certain tack, we—it was always we—might win.
The first press photograph of my father was published in the New York Herald in August 1947. It shows him emulating one of Hoover’s G-men: a fedora tipped low, covering his face; a fussy double Windsor; black jacket, black pants, black belt, black shoes; an Old Gold cigarette on his lip; a charcoal Chesterfield trench coat and a leather briefcase.
“What do you expect to happen here?” a reporter is quoted as asking him. “Are you hoping to bring down the entire passenger aviation industry? Do you expect us to revert to the railroads to get around? Is that what you want, Mr. Wise?”
“Bring down!” my father answered, laughing. “What a terrible choice of words!”
My father was a handsome man. All my life people had said this to me, but I had never really seen evidence of it until he began to appear in the papers: his thin face, pointed cheeks, a cupid’s smile, a rumor of white in his widow’s peak. The first time we saw his picture in the news, my mother told me that publicity made a man more beautiful. She put her fingers down onto a photograph of him. “His eyelashes,” she said. “Look. He’s got the eyelashes of a lady.” The attention didn’t surprise my father. He had a certain glint in his eyes that seemed to imply he’d expected something like this all his life.
Lucky for him that in those days the class-action suit seemed revolutionary. The idea that big business could put lives at risk without recourse seemed to tap at some primal suspicion seeking a new home after the war. People love an enemy, and without the Germans or the Japanese, my father was smart to cast Boston Airways the way he did. In an article in the Times later that same summer of 1947, he actually paints it that way. “Left unchecked, this is the biggest threat to civilian safety since the Blitz.”
His partner’s name was Robert Ashley. They’d met as infantrymen in Cherbourg, where Robert had saved my father’s life, an act that forever placed him in Robert’s debt. Afterward they enrolled in law school together. Robert was a kind man, taller by a head than anyone I had ever seen, a pale and gawky Kansan with a flat accent, a taste for rye whiskey, and a reputation for kindness that did well to offset my father’s often repellent brashness. As far as I could tell, Robert’s primary responsibility was to keep my father’s worst impulses—and he had so many of them—in check. It is worth noting that there are no photographs of Robert from this period, no interviews, only the nominal mention in the firm’s name: Wise & Ashley. In my research, he is largely absent. He is a shadow in the court transcript, often interrupting my father’s questioning.
A typical interjection, taken from the first week of courtroom proceedings: “My colleague is motioning to me, Your Honor. I apologize. Allow me a moment.”
The trial seemed to go on forever. I was twelve when the plane crashed, thirteen when we won the first round, and seventeen when the appellate process was exhausted. Because my father needed to be closer to the court of appeals in New York, he decided to move us all out of New Haven my senior year. He rented us a house in a town called Wren’s Bridge, a bedroom community a half hour north of Manhattan. I hadn’t wanted to go. In New Haven I’d pitched for our middling excuse for a school baseball team. My best friends filled out the rest of the infield. I was popular in the way that most pitchers are popular, and I had for those few seasons something of what made my father so effortlessly confident in a room full of strangers. When people put their confidence in you, it’s not so difficult to let some of that hope and faith and trust change the way you act. I figured that if I was lucky, after graduation I’d get to play baseball in one of the less competitive collegiate divisions or that I would join the army, the way my father had. Leaving New Haven, leaving my friends, my ball club, that infield—all of it devastated me. I was seventeen, and devastation came easy.
Our new house was plain, decent, set on a quarter acre of crabgrass. Our lawn was sloped like a shallow soup bowl, and in the winter it flooded with rain and snow and then froze so thick, my mother could skate on it. We were, I’m sure of it, the first family of Jews on our street. Occasionally I was teased by some boys eager to get a rise out of me by chanting something about ovens or Germany, or by throwing pennies at me and daring me to fetch them. It was the fall of 1951. People are sometimes surprised to hear me say these things, but wars do nothing to end the cruelty of boys. In my first week there, I got myself into a half-dozen fistfights. In most of these I managed all right; in only one did I get my lip split and my nose cut open. This isn’t to say that Wren’s Bridge wasn’t a nice town. It had some good places to eat, a passable movie theater, and from a high peak called Traverstock you could see the tip of something that sort of resembled the very tallest point on what some people claimed might be the Empire State Building. The people there were nothing if not exact.
And on the far west side of town, about as far from our house as possible, there was an indoor skating rink where on cold days you could get on the ice for a small fee. If you weren’t half-bad, you had a good chance of impressing some girls. I had my first kiss there, against the visitor’s penalty box, with Pauline McNamee. Of course, the twelfth grade was late for a first kiss, but I didn’t let on to Pauline. Before she kissed me, I’d had a sinking feeling that she liked me because she knew who my father was, that she’d seen him in the papers looking serious and important and blathering on about engines or mechanical failures. I was right. Afterward, as she pulled away, and while there were still strings of our saliva connecting us, she asked if she could meet him. “Maybe just once? Nobody knows this, but I really want to be a lawyer when I grow up. I just love Perry Mason.”
Soon after I started school in Wren’s Bridge, I was drafted into our debate club. Again, this was mostly because of my father’s reputation. I was a lousy debater. I’d wanted to play baseball, but we’d arrived too late for me to grab a spot on any of the teams, and so most afternoons, when our practice sessions ended and I’d exhausted myself with weak exhortations on Stalin or Trujillo or Happy Chandler, I went over to the Warren Fields and watched the local American Legion team practice their fungoes. All I’d ever wanted to do was to play ball, or to watch it, or to find some way to be around it. But everything in Wren’s Bridge centered on our lawsuit. For those first few months, my father did nothing but work and litigate and argue and appear with some regularity in the press. I wanted to go back home to New Haven. So suddenly I’d gone from being a normal, even popular, kid to being the son of a loudmouth, rabble-rousing attorney. I could divide all the people I knew into two camps: those, like Pauline McNamee and my debate coach, who wanted something from me, who wanted some of the sheen of my father’s fame to rub off on them; and everyone else, who saw the groveling and brownnosing, and decided because of it to hate me, or to ostracize me, or to throw pennies at the back of my skull while I tried to walk home.
I missed New Haven, the toughness of our neighborhood, all the Italian guys who lived on our street and hung out on their porches, shooting the shit and betting their paychecks on the Giants game. I missed the big arch of the New Haven Railroad headquarters, where the pigeons liked to roost, and I missed the stinking river weeds on the Quinnipiac. I hated Boston Airways, that their plane had crashed, that my father had taken the case. Soon, things began to crack. I stopped seeing Pauline, stopped keeping up with my assignments, and I picked a fight with the boy in my class who pitched for the high school team. I wanted what he had—his varsity letter, and the chance to throw every third day. We were in the cafeteria. I tripped him. When he got up to challenge me, I hit him in the teeth with a decent jab, walked out of the school and up a few blocks, to a spot on Adams Street, where I hailed a taxi. Ten minutes later I boarded a train to New Haven.
My father was the one to fetch me that day. When he found me standing in the cold on Elm Street, shivering in my car coat, searching for a familiar face, any familiar face, he laughed. He was proud of my gumption. I’d been standing on the corner by the Triumph Theater, staring at the movie bill for High Noon, Gary Cooper brandishing his pistol. Apparently, I’d been sold out by the guy I’d clobbered, and my father had come to get me not even a half hour after I’d gotten off the train.
“I know you hate it in town,” he said once we were in the car. “But you can’t just up and leave when things get tough.”
I turned up the radio. I’d been listening to him rehearse his arguments in the kitchen all year. He used my mother as his jury. Whenever he talked to me, I couldn’t help but think he thought of me as his opposing counsel.
“I don’t care,” I said. “I think you should let me re-enroll here in New Haven. I’m old enough. I can live on my own.”
“I don’t think that’s happening.”
“Why’s that? It’s a perfectly fine city. And I like it. We all used to like it.”
I despised him for moving us. This was the beginning of everything for him and me. All of our trouble came from that one decision. And I think he knew it before I did. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. What he wanted to say, which is obvious to me now, was that New Haven was too small for him. Already he’d begun to field offers from the big white-shoe Manhattan firms, the kind of places that sent over a baby-blue Lincoln Cosmopolitan, just for you to borrow, just to see how it would be if you were part of the company. He was happy to have the attention. That much was easy to tell. Each successive offer brought with it all sorts of celebrations in the house. Cheap champagne that they drank from coffee mugs, because all we had were coffee mugs. Or bottles of Moxie soda. Or just a dinner of spaghetti and meatballs one time on Mulberry Street. My mother seemed wild at the notion that her lifetime of near poverty was over, or nearly over. What was actually over for us was our life in New Haven, and as we rode away, I had to stop myself from turning around to see it pass behind me.
For a long while we drove in silence, down through the Connecticut River Valley, through Bridgeport, into Stamford and then west, where we crossed the Hudson at Wren’s Bridge and glided slowly back home. The sun set behind us. I remember it as a spectral sunset, full of heat, like all of New England had somehow caught fire. Beyond our car, and my mother’s ring, my father owned one suit, two pairs of loafers, a knockoff English wristwatch, and his old service revolver. Everything else, even the food we ate, was bought on credit. Everything in our lives hinged on the idea that his case was impossible to lose.
“What would you do if, say, you were to have more money than you’d ever thought possible?” He asked me this as we rolled up to the house. My mother was sitting on the front steps in a striped housedress, smoking a cigarette fitted into a short, stubby black holder. More and more, I saw her begin to assume these small affectations of what she believed aristocracy might be like. Being wealthy, I knew even then, was just an idea for her. She’d never known a rich person.
I shrugged. “I’d buy tickets to some ball games,” I said.
Beside me, my father tried to suppress his eager joy. “How about a gift, then? If I were to get you a gift. Anything you wanted. Anything. What would it be? Would you like a trip overseas? Or how about a car?”
He wanted me to go bigger, so I did. “How about a baseball team?” I asked. He laughed. Then I laughed. “You asked me, didn’t you?”
Robert Ashley came out onto the front steps then. He had a copy of the newspaper in his hands. My father was on the front page, a photograph of his face set beside a picture of that Boston Airways plane. Robert smiled, flashed us a thumbs-up.
“What’s he so happy about?” I asked.
“We’re getting close. That’s what.”
One week later, while I sat through a discussion of John Keats and his tuberculosis, our principal came into my class, whispered something into my teacher’s ear, and then navigated the rows of wooden desks to hand me a small envelope. He had a delirious smile on his face, as if he’d only just finished a laughing fit before coming to find me. The letter was handwritten and had only two words on it: We won! I knew right away what it meant, of course, and because the kid beside me stole the card and passed it around to all my classmates, so did everyone else.
Hours later, the news had spread, and while I was trying to eat my lunch in the cafeteria, a crowd gathered around me. My name is Hilton Samuel Wise—named after each of my grandfathers—but I have always been known as Hilly. That afternoon in the lunchroom, everyone around me began to clap and say my name—Hilly, Hilly, Hilly—as if I, and not my father, had done something extraordinary. When I left that day, walking the short distance back to our house on Hamilton, I turned at the curb to look back at my classmates, some of them lingering around to watch me go. Pauline McNamee was there, waving. So was Anthony Jackson, the pitcher for the school team whom I’d punched a few weeks earlier. They’d all gathered to see evidence of what had already spread around our school in that cunningly quick way of a good rumor: the Wise family had won.
In my research, I’ve come across a printed interview from Thanksgiving 1952. I will reproduce its most interesting section below.
Q: What happens now, Mr. Wise? Will you continue to take on the airline industry?
A: (Laughter) If they continue to keep me interested.
Q: Do you think you are the most famous young lawyer in America?
A: Famous? I don’t know how those things work. Who measures? I’d like to meet this man. Are you him? Are you that man?
Q: What about the best? Are you the best lawyer in America?
A: No. Definitely not the best. I didn’t do anything special here. There are men like me in every city. I’m not even close to the best.
Q: The luckiest?
A: How about the richest? How’s that? Print that. I’m probably the richest. That’s probably true.
Between 1948 and 1952, hundreds of airplanes crashed across the globe. Some of these were military aircraft. Some of these were cargo planes, the only passengers onboard the skeleton crew required to bring the plane from one place to another. But a good deal of these were commercial aircrafts carrying innocent, unsuspecting passengers. Out of these disasters, my father became the lead plaintiff’s attorney in dozens of class-action lawsuits similar in design and scope to the one that had ruined Boston Airways. He had found a strategy that worked, and people wanted him on their side. Rather than battle in court with him, the enormous corporate defense firms hired to represent the affected airlines offered settlements as quickly as my father filed suit. They wanted nothing to do with him. The money came fast, and it was huge. We were rich.
What I remember is the instant accumulation of wealth: overcoats from Harrocourts; shoes from Dunbartons; silk ties from Saks or Bloomingdale’s; shoes straight from Italy, delivered by parcel; a pashmina from Afghanistan for my mother; a walking cane cut from Brazilian wood for my father, something he looked at, laughed at, and then put away until he said he might need it. There were steaks at Honey’s on Fifth; lobster at Nero’s; caviar from Zabar’s in the tin at midnight; spaghetti and clams at Lucitti’s. There were my mother’s cigarettes from Nat Sherman, arranged in the colors of the rainbow, held in a pewter clapping case. She smoked, always, from violet to red, right to left, like the text of the Torah. There was a silver-plated revolver, bought for my father by Robert, and then a matching one, except in gold, bought for Robert by my father. I remember a leatherbound collection of Heraclitus, Herodotus, Sophocles, in the original Greek. I don’t have a memory for what came when, and to whom it went. But there was more. There were furs, I know, never taken from the box. They were still there twenty years later, sitting in storage in the basement of Bergdorf’s. There was art: Chagall. We are Jews, and so we bought Chagalls. There was jewelry: bracelets fitted with Ethiopian turquoise; diamonds mined from West Africa; hematite strung up on a flossy gold necklace, imported from New South Wales; Chinese jade; pearls pried loose from Bora-Bora oysters; Siberian lapis lazuli; gold-rush nuggets dug from the earth at Mount Shasta and melted into rings.
There were also houses. First, there was the house on Riverside Drive, which my father allowed my mother to choose: a freestanding beast off 107th Street that had belonged once to a Turkish tobacco magnate—so much white marble; one enormous parlor, fit with a Venetian chandelier; a half-dozen fireplaces; and a limestone patio with a view of the flatlands in Edgewater. My mother thought that corner of Riverside was the prettiest, with the park out front, all of Manhattan to the south, Jersey to the west, and, from the roof, a gray-green hint of the Atlantic Ocean.
Because of this house, I’m a New Yorker, quick to anger, difficult to shake, able to pass unmarked through a crowd, capable of simultaneously managing a sandwich, the 7 train, and a detective novel. But because of what my father bought next—the big thing, the best thing, my favorite thing, the only thing he ever really demanded we buy—some part of me has always felt most at home in New England. Then, men like my father gave their houses names the way they gave their dogs names, but for whatever reason—ignorance, stubbornness, a rare show of modesty—he never did this. He made the purchase over the telephone, and I remember that when he hung up the receiver, he turned to me, and said, “My grandfather milked cows in the coldest, worst part of Poland, Hilly. Now your grandchildren are going to have their own goddamned piece of the American coastline to call home.” And then he leaned back, took off his glasses, and laughed. He slammed his fist down against the table. It was as if he’d just pulled off a magic trick. “What do you say, Hilly? How do you like that?”
The first time we saw the house in Bluepoint my mother screamed. We’d parked in the driveway, the tires loud against the pebbles underneath. She stepped out of the car, looked at the house, the ocean behind it, the white gulls circling overhead. Then she edged her sunglasses down to the point of her nose and let out an astonished yelp. Her reaction delighted my father. He had one foot up on the running board of the car. The engine was still going.
“Pretty damn good, right, Ruthie?”
She turned to him, one hand over her mouth. He was beaming. He jumped off the car’s runner. “I knew you’d like it,” he said.
Bluepoint was a town on the far edge of the flexed arm of Cape Cod, a sanded dot on the map between Wellfleet and Truro. We’d driven up from Wren’s Bridge that morning, making the trip in less than six hours. The house was simple, just a small two-bedroom saltbox. The shingles were stained so that the wood looked wet. The front door was red. The grass needed cutting. There were mosquitoes. All in all, it was the sort of house we saw every day in Wren’s Bridge or New Haven, but still, as we stood on the rocky driveway, my mother yelped.
He turned to me. “What do you think?”
I shrugged. “Not bad,” I said.
“Not bad, Hilly? It’s far better than that! It’s a hell of a lot better than not bad!”
The yard was big enough for a baseball game. This was something I liked about it. The street was quiet but dusty. The air was filled with salt, and the wind had teased my hair up above my head. My father was dressed in what amounted then to his summer uniform: a gray vest, a pair of slacks, and a white oxford-cloth shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbow. Except for the vest, I was dressed in exactly the same clothes. It was the end of June 1952, six weeks after the Boston Airways case had closed for good. In a few months, I was supposed to start classes at Dartmouth, and my father was trying to groom me, or train me, or make it so that when I went out into the world with his name, I didn’t embarrass anyone. Dartmouth was something he’d arranged for me. I didn’t have anything close to the grades to get in. But still, he was famous now. He wanted his son in the Ivy League, and that’s where I was going. He’d tried to get me into Yale, to get me back to New Haven, but evidently admissions there had some standards of decency they weren’t willing to compromise.
He put his hand on my shoulder and led me to the bluffs that sat above the beach. I knew the ocean mostly from New Haven, where Long Island Sound abutted the city, everything gray and unforgiving, the horizon marked by hydroelectric plants. We stood there together for a few moments at the edge of our lawn, where the earth gave way to a slope of loose sand, and then a sharp bluff, and then the Atlantic. He pointed toward a spot down the beach where the grass had been cleared, the ground tilled up. A small white house, very much like ours, sat dappled by sun. “Robert’s going to live there,” he said. He still had his hand on my shoulder, and every few moments he muttered to me, “What do you think of this, son?” I shrugged again. I was seventeen, and I didn’t understand what it meant to own a piece of the beach, the status of it, the way it would make people think of him. If the early part of his life was a battle, this house marked his victory. He wore brow-line eyeglasses then, and I saw him take them off and fold them into his hands and wipe at his eyes.
At some point a pod of dolphins appeared on the surface of the water, their silver hides emerging in small crescent-shaped ripples. My father slowly put his eyeglasses back onto his face, and then, having straightened them, took a step toward the sea, first testing the firmness of the eroding shoreline with the toe of his loafer and then standing with his head craned forward.
“They’re not real,” he said, turning to me, grinning, and then laughing. “They can’t be, right, Hilly?”
“Why wouldn’t they be real?” I answered. “It’s the ocean, isn’t it?”
“Nah,” he said, shaking his head.
“They’re clearly real,” I said. “What’s wrong with you?”
He wasn’t listening. He went one step farther out onto the silty ledge. He was afraid the ground would give way, and he reached out for me to steady him. The sea grass came up to his knees. Each of his steps disturbed a cloud of gnats. He peered out. “Nah,” he said, turning to me. “Definitely not real.”
“Do you think somebody put fake dolphins in the sea—just for you?”
He smirked. He was putting me on. Every day was a show for him. “It’s pretty, right? I hope you like. I got it for all of us.”
By then, my attention had shifted to a small two-story garage out behind the house. It was a bright day, and I could see inside to the second floor, where a finely dressed black man was standing, watching me as I was watching him. I managed a weak wave, and after a long moment, he waved back.
My father saw that I was waving.
“Didn’t think they’d actually do it,” he said. He still seemed giddy from seeing the dolphins.
“Do what?” I asked.
“The sellers threw in their boy.”
“Their caretaker,” he said, fluttering his hands in front of himself to indicate that I was supposed to understand that he wasn’t sure which term to use. Servant. Butler. Housekeeper. Valet. He was walking back to the front of the house. Then he looked over to me. “They told me they thought he might move. Also said he might stay. I said, let him stay if he wants to. If he’s good, I’ll take him on. Don’t know how much work he’s gonna get cleaning up after us three, though. But, he’s cheap. And by cheap, I mean very cheap.”
We came back around to the front of the house, where my mother was still standing beside our new Cadillac. She had her sandals in her hands. I went ahead to tell her about the dolphins. When I was younger, she used to take me to an aquarium near New Haven. She loved that sort of thing—tapping at the glass to see if the fish would move, hearing small facts about each new species. She’d always seemed so much like a kid when we went to an aquarium or a museum, her curiosity rising up in her. That was the best part of having a young mother: she remembered what it was like to be excited by something new.
In the sun, wearing a brand-new coat and shoes and jewelry, she seemed so pretty. She’d curled her hair for the drive, and it was still hanging in tight ringlets. That was when I noticed that she’d never stopped screaming; she’d only stopped doing so aloud. Her hand was up against her mouth. What I’d first thought was her happiness—she screamed a little at everything in those early years: a good chocolate cake, a baby in a stroller that smiled at her, every mention of my father in the newspaper—I saw now was actual fear. She lifted her hand to point at the house.
“What is it?” my father asked. He began to run to her. “Ruthie?”
I saw it before he did: resting on the window’s ledge, just inside the living room window, was a dead cat. It was a big cat, a fluffy tuxedo cat, obviously a pet, and it had died with its paws against the glass, as if the poor thing had been trying to push itself out of the house before it lost its struggle. Because we were there, my mother felt the liberty to scream loudly now. “It’s a cat! A house cat!” She stumbled forward and slumped despondently on the hood of the Cadillac.
My father and I looked nervously at the window. Neither of us was very good with animals, and neither of us wanted to go move a dead cat. This much we could communicate to each other without words.
“Probably a present from one of my admirers,” my father said finally. “Don’t you think?”
“What in the hell,” I offered.
“I can’t believe they left her here,” I heard a man say. He was the black man I’d seen above the garage. He was running toward the house, moving quickly. He was wearing fine gray slacks and a white dress shirt, which he began to unbutton.
“I told them not to do it,” he said, taking my father’s keys. “I told them I’d find her a home.”
A few moments later he wrapped his shirt around the cat as a makeshift body bag. It was a Sunday morning, and he was, I realized, dressed for church.
His name was Lem Dawson. He was a small man, with tiny hands, chewed nails, a corona of white hair from temple to temple, and a hint of the South in his vowels. He was a smoker, and his clothes betrayed this whenever he passed by me. It had been his responsibility to prepare for our visit, and to do so he’d turned the soil in the gardens, putting beach plums into the ground, pink tulips, and white hydrangeas with blossoms as big as softballs. Because the locks had been changed, he said that he hadn’t been able to stock our refrigerator with the jams and freshly prospected littlenecks he said we would love. He said this to us when we met him, his hand out to shake my father’s, an overture my dad refused. “What’s a littleneck?” my father asked. “Is that a kind of chicken?” My mother refused to shake his hand, too. All she wanted from him was that he check the house twice over for any other abandoned house pets. “Please,” she said, still quivering. “Make sure it’s clear.”
The house itself was spare, white, the floorboards bleached, the back windows open to the water. Salt air in the kitchen. Twin wicker settees in the living room, a shipman’s lanterns on a side table, a tide chart, two years old, folded on the lip of a broken radiator like a road map. We went back into the kitchen, where my father stood, one hand on the stove’s handle, one on his belt, breathing vigorously, his nostrils flared. “I really like this house,” he said, and then he took his shoes off, and then his socks. He rolled his pants up above his knees while both Lem Dawson and I stood and watched, and then he walked out through the back door, leaving it open, his feet in the high grass, mosquitoes buzzing as he went. I saw him stand out on the shore for a while, looking blankly at the sea before he disappeared down to the beach.
My mother was on the telephone with Robert, who had stayed behind in New York to close up the rented houses in Wren’s Bridge, and who was planning to come north the following week, carrying with him everything my mother had just bought for our new home: French linens, new breakfast china, the paperback romance novels that she would love no matter her level of wealth, and all the heaps of beach clothing she’d picked out from Abercrombie & Fitch. I could hear her in the hallway off the kitchen. “It’s fine here,” she was saying. “But it’s in the middle of nowhere. I told him we should go to the Catskills. That’s where everyone else is. Arthur thinks he knows everything. Oh, Robert, I’m bored already. And there was a dead cat. Have I told you about the cat, yet? Maybe you should send a car for me.”
I was left alone in the kitchen with Lem. He’d changed his clothes. He leaned back against the counter, a blue work shirt unbuttoned, a stained white undershirt on underneath, khaki trousers hitched above the ankle, green-and-blue striped socks, a pack of cigarettes in his hand. He had a thin mustache, as delicate as if he’d drawn it with a marker. He saw me, looked down to his hands, and then raised his eyebrows.
“Your papa let you smoke?” he asked. “Or does he think you’re too young?”
I shook my head. “No. I probably shouldn’t.”
Still, he held out the pack for me. I looked out to see if my father was nearby before I grabbed one.
It was our first conversation. Even then, Lem could see how much sway my father held over me.
That first week was brutal, heat in waves from the steel girders on the boat docks, the birds dunking their heads in the onrushing tide to cool themselves. Inside, our new house sweltered. Even with the windows open, we had no relief. My mother grew quickly irritated, first with the heat, and then with the house itself. Having decided that she disliked the furniture that had come with the place—all the wicker and the white wood end tables and the nautical bric-a-brac—she set off for Boston to buy something that fit her style. Whatever that style was; until now she’d never had the money to really know. She’d always loved home decor magazines, collecting them when we lived in New Haven and keeping the pictures she liked in a series of carefully organized paper folders, but our house was nothing like the ones she’d seen in Better Homes and Gardens or House Beautiful, those open rooms full of Tiffany lamps or wax-dripped candelabras. This was rustic. It was spare. Some of the windows were painted shut. The bugs near the sea bothered her. So did the scent of seaweed, and the faint tracks of loose sand that were suddenly everywhere. My father, though, had none of these problems. He’d installed himself in one of the bedrooms on the house’s second floor, a room to which he’d taken so much paperwork, an antique rolltop, an Underwood Universal, and a loud electric fan. He had Lem place a fresh bowl of iced water under the fan every hour. At first my father called him by his name, the way he’d call after a bartender he knew: Mr. Lem Dawson! Mr. Lem Dawson! But on the last day of that week, when we were all waiting around for Robert and my mother to come, he lost his patience. From then on he called Lem Boy!
Regarding Lem: our first night in the house, my father pulled me aside and told me to stay away from him or, if I couldn’t, to keep to myself around him. I wasn’t supposed to let Lem know anything about us. Not our sudden wealth, not our family history, not our address in New York, not even that we were Jews. He said this to me in the front room. It was dark. My father was drinking. He claimed that he was concerned about his privacy. Bluepoint wasn’t a popular vacation spot for somebody of my father’s new social status, but it made a great deal of sense, he told me, if what you wanted was to be left alone. “You want to be left alone?” I asked him.
“When I’m here, I don’t want anybody to be able to find me.”
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“Because sometimes men just need a place to go. To retreat. To be away. That’s why I bought this place.” He told me that Bluepoint appeared so infrequently, even on good maps, that a man determined to find us might not even be capable of doing so. But I knew that what my father was truly worried about was having someone like Lem, which is to say a Negro, living so near us, carrying with him all of what my father considered to be the various indignities of a man of his race. He didn’t need to tell me that he was worried about being called upon to serve as an attorney for an aggrieved black man; I could see it on him. There was a noticeable hitch in his voice whenever the subject of Lem was raised, a breaking point in his speech, his apprehension becoming clear. My father, for all his apparent gifts, his certain, precise locution, his big, brash voice, his ability to sway a jury, never learned to wear his circumspection well. He believed such a thing—this was his word of choice, and by thing he meant involving himself in any small way in the matters of the struggles of black Americans—was a trap he wouldn’t be able to extricate himself from. He’d said as much to Robert Ashley once, in New Haven, when Robert had wanted to take on a black man as a client. “The last thing I need are these people after me for help. God knows how they are when they know someone’s on their side. Everything’s a fucking church sermon.” Still, he kept him on. My father liked having somebody to do things for him. He liked ordering people around. My father thrived on control.
For all of his abilities, he had no general skills as a parent—no ability to cook, other than to open a can, something he did with a serviceman’s utility, cleaving the lid whole with the knife he’d been given in the war. And for a while that first week, with my mother in Boston, we subsisted that way, on condensed soup for lunch and dinner, even in the heat, just the way we’d done in New Haven when we couldn’t afford any better. Because of the heat we ate outside at a badly worn picnic table off the patio. It was red as a Radio Flyer, chewed at by wood beetles, flanked only by one bench, so that we had to eat side by side. It was the only time in our life that we did this. Lem offered to make our meals. He was a decent cook, he said, and could make for us food far better than a scalding bowl of tomato broth. “That’s what I’m here for,” he said. To which my father replied: “I haven’t figured out exactly why you’re here.”
Most of the time we ate in total silence. I tried to talk to him about baseball, about how the Red Sox were faring now that Ted Williams was off in Korea. I even tried to talk to him about what I wanted to study when I went off to Dartmouth in the fall, but he couldn’t be bothered to pay much attention to me. He had other cases coming up, other clients. Planes kept crashing, law suits kept arriving. There was work that needed to be done on the house, on Robert’s house. There were people constantly calling to talk to him, to interview him, to ask him for legal advice. There was my mother to worry about. And there was Lem, always at the edge of our meals, hovering, waiting for my father to give him direction or orders. The tension between all of us—between Lem and my father and me—was clear and uncomfortable. Every meal seemed to make it worse, the quiet between us deepening, Lem watching us in silence from a cinder-block bench he’d fashioned outside the garage.
This all began to change our second Sunday at Bluepoint. My father was awake earlier than usual. The weather had cooled finally, and fog from the bay had come across to the sea side of the Cape. Robert Ashley was coming that afternoon with my mother. He’d called the night before and suggested that we put some flowers around the place to spruce it up. “That might make Ruthie feel better about all this,” he told my dad. “She might stop saying that you made such a big mistake buying this place.” Early that morning my father walked out into the backyard, up the rickety catwalk staircase that led to Lem Dawson’s apartment, and knocked loudly on his door. He wanted Lem to drive out into town, buy the flowers, come back, and do the plantings. I’d have done it myself if he’d asked. I had my license now, and I was itching for the chance to drive my father’s new Cadillac, or to do anything, really, other than the very little I was doing. Lem answered the door slowly, as if he already knew that his day was about to be ruined. I was down in the yard, watching all of this. It’d taken me a few tries, but I’d finally hung a tire from the backyard poplar. Even though I hadn’t pitched my last season in high school, I still figured I had a decent chance to make the squad at Dartmouth. It was, after all, the Ivy League. How good did I really need to be?
Lem had music going. Piano, trumpet, an insistent high hat. He was wearing a suit. I heard my father’s voice. “What’s this? Where do you think you’re going?”
A car pulled up to the house just then. It was a Packard, most of the name carved out over the grille—the second A was missing. Its muffler was dislodged from the undercarriage, and as it slowed to park behind my father’s Cadillac, the bottom end of the car scraped against a high bump in the ground. At the wheel was a black man about Lem’s age but with large, round eyeglasses, a dark suit, and a thin gray tie. Beside him was a young woman in a wide-brimmed white hat. My father grabbed hold of the railing. “What’s the big idea, boy? You throwing a party at my house? You call the whole goddamned NAACP over for a clambake?”
They got out of the Packard, the young woman shielding her eyes from the sun and then resting her back against the car door, her hands set nervously behind her. She had on a halter-neck dress, red with small white spots, her shoulders bare. My father slapped a closed fist against the banister. Everyone looked up, and I saw the man, his arm on the hood of the Packard, laugh quietly to himself. My father disappeared into Lem’s apartment.
The man at the Packard scoffed again and then turned his attention to me. “What are you trying to do?” he asked. He adjusted his eyeglasses with the point of his finger.
“Trying to get it through the tire,” I said, holding up the ball.
“That’s it?” The man laughed. “That’s not hard.”
“With a curveball,” I said, trying to make what had been an impossible task sound relatively simple.
“Might hurt your arm if you do it wrong,” he said, walking toward me. “You know that, don’t you?” He reached out to touch my shoulder slightly, and instinctively, at the glancing contact, I looked up fearfully to see if my father had seen. I was relieved he hadn’t.
I blew air through my teeth. Of course I’d never heard anything about hurting your arm. I was a hack of a pitcher. Real pitchers were artists. I was the worst kind: a pretender. “I know,” I said. “Everybody knows that.”
The door to Lem’s apartment was still open. It was clear they were arguing, even though by now my father was making sure to lower his voice. He’d come out onto the landing, looked out at the water, and then turned back to Lem. His fists were clenched, and periodically he pointed down to the flower bed or to the piles of mulch or the back porch, which was strewn with birdseed and leaves. I heard my mother’s name uttered, and then Robert Ashley’s name, and then I saw my father look at his wristwatch, as if to say that there wasn’t much time left in the day before they arrived together.
I’d made my way over to stand beside the girl. She was pretty, and dressed up, and I wanted to talk to her. I’d been out at the beach for a week, basically in the middle of nowhere, with no one to talk to but my dad. She looked about my age, and about as uncomfortable to be here as I did. While I was standing there beside her, the man took our picture with a small camera.
“Would you put that damn thing away,” she said, shooing him away with her hand.
“What? You two make a good picture,” he said, smiling.
She looked at me. “He won this stupid camera playing poker.”
“Twenty-one,” he said. “Not poker.”
“Now he’s shooting off pictures every five seconds,” she said. “Thinks he knows what he’s doing with it.”
“Fine,” he said, putting the camera back inside his car. Then he turned to me. “If we can’t take pictures, let’s see the boy go at it, then.”
“See what?” I asked.
“Your curve. Show me what you got.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “I’m just practicing.”
He came and took the ball. “You can’t do it. You’re bluffing me. Let me show you how to do it.”
“That’s Charles Ewing,” the girl said as he went away. She’d come toward me, walking slowly, just as Charles stalked off with my ball. She seemed less interested in me than she was in the view behind me—the sea, the dunes, a blue tarp the team of carpenters had left on what was to become Robert’s house. After a moment, she sighed, her shoulders rising and then falling. “You never heard of him, have you? Before this minute, you never heard of a guy named Charles Ewing, right?”
“No,” I said.
“Thought so,” she said.
“Should I have heard of him?”
“You like baseball?”
I nodded. And then laughed a little. “I love baseball.”
“Then you ought to know Charles Ewing,” she said. She pursed her lips doubtfully. “According to him, that is.”
Charles was walking deliberately across the grass. He was, I realized, counting off sixty paces.
“He’s always trying to prove himself,” she said, snickering. “Even to kids.”
“I’m not a kid,” I said.
She looked me up and down. I was in short pants, bare feet; my hair hadn’t been cut in weeks. “You could’ve fooled me,” she said, smiling.
Although I was usually terrible at this sort of thing, and although it seemed impossible to me, the thought crossed my mind that she might be flirting back at me. “So what? Is he your father or something?” I asked.
The sun was in her eyes. She put up a hand to shield herself. Her expression was suspicious, her head tilted away from me, an infinitely small calibration of doubt. She smiled in a way that I took to mean that he might have been her father, but even if he was, it was none of my business.
“You all live here?” she asked, looking beyond me now, out at the water.
“Yeah,” I said.
She raised an eyebrow. “So all of this is yours?”
I turned. “Not all of it,” I said.
“But a lot of it?”
“Damn.” A high, long whistle split between her teeth.
“My father’s a lawyer,” I said.
“He a lawyer for a president or something?”
“No,” I said.
“He famous?” she asked.
I nodded. “Kind of.”
“That’s what I heard,” she said. “On the way over here, I heard we were going to see some famous person’s house. That’s why I bought myself a new dress.” She ran her hands down from her neck to her waist like a showroom model. This was supposed to be a joke. I realized this a moment too late, and she smirked dismissively at me. I guess I had overlooked what were obvious signs of wear in her outfit: loose threads, a tiny hole on the hem, a soft, dull stain at her navel. It wasn’t a new dress at all. Her shoes were worn, the buckle on her left foot assisted by twine.
She pointed down toward Robert’s house. “That your place, also?”
“That’s my father’s colleague’s house,” I said.
“He famous, too?”
“Not as much,” I said.
Then she whistled again. “Y’all got an entire corner of the world, don’t you?” she said, smiling, her teeth showing finally. Her hair moved—she had it tied behind her with a white ribbon—and when it did I could smell the sugar in her shampoo. “That must be nice.”
I felt so quickly incapable of moving at the proper speed, or at any speed, really, as if by smiling at me, she’d actually took hold of my ankles or my shoulders. This had happened before, in Wren’s Bridge with Pauline McNamee. After she’d kissed me, I’d just frozen stiff. She’d wanted to kiss me again, had even leaned in to do it, but I couldn’t. I was stuck, in shock. Now it was happening again. She was saying something to me, but I’d missed it. I was thinking about the fact that she was clearly, undoubtedly flirting with me, and that I was clearly flirting with her. Now she’d noticed that I was in a daze, so she repeated what she’d said. “It must be nice to be that rich,” she said. What I wanted to say in response was that two years ago we’d been living in New Haven in four rented rooms; that this, our corner of the world, was so new that I still woke up in the morning thinking I was elsewhere. But I didn’t do anything except blink foolishly at her. She was like a comic-book villain: by looking at me calmly she’d obliterated any trace of my intelligence or charm or wit—really, any trace of my personality.
Finally, she stepped toward me—a wonderful moment of terror—and put her hand on my shoulder.
“What is it?” I whispered.
She pointed behind me, out to where Charles was standing on the grass, tossing the ball in his hand. I was standing between him and the tire.
“You’re in his way,” she whispered.
“Yeah.” She grinned. She knew I was a wreck. “I think he wants to show you how good he is.”
“Right,” I said.
“First thing you want to do,” Charles called out to me, “is disguise the pitch in your hand.”
“Oh please,” the girl called out. “Stop giving a lecture to the boy.”
“I got ten that he misses,” I said.
“He won’t miss,” she said. “Unfortunately for all of us.” And then, to Charles: “You’re a show-off!”
He turned and scowled. “I’m gonna show him how to throw this thing right. His daddy sure not doing it.” He looked up over his left shoulder at Lem’s apartment. My father was still inside, and periodically the sound of his angry, recriminating, exacting voice came down onto the lawn. At this, Charles let out a burst of cocky laughter, and then, a moment later, he whipped a blazingly paced curveball across the grass, his windup as perfect as an illustration in a textbook, his arms clasped behind his head and then pumping in front of his chest. The kick of his right leg propelled the rest of his body, his chest perpendicular to the ground for the briefest instant. The ball sailed toward the tire—there was never a doubt it wouldn’t ace the thing—with such speed that I took a sharp, shocked breath at the sight of it. And then, just as it seemed the ball had begun to rise a bit high, the speed of its trajectory lifting it on the wind, the pitch broke, just like someone had swatted it out of the air. It was the finest pitch I’d ever witnessed.
Above us, my father and Lem appeared on the staircase. Now Lem was dressed in his coveralls and his work shoes. Charles saw this and then looked down at his feet before he quickly and wordlessly walked back to the Packard. The girl lingered for a moment, looking out at the water, and then up at Lem with what I knew was an expression of deep disappointment. When she walked past me to get back to the car, I asked her quietly what her name was.
“Savannah,” she said. She didn’t look me in the eyes. “It was nice to meet you.” She lowered her head and gave me half of a humiliating curtsy. “Sorry we disturbed your day.”
My father went off toward the house before the Packard left, Charles backing up down the long drive, his muffler once again scraping the dirt. Savannah had pulled the brim on her hat down on her face. To hide, I figured. At the sight of the car backing up, Lem cried out to my father.
“It’s Sunday,” he said. “Least you can do is let a man go worship.”
My father turned, one hand on the handle to the patio door. “Least you can do is shut the fuck up and do what I’m paying you to do. How’s that?”
I stood for a long while, holding the baseball. Lem eventually took his shears and got onto his knees to begin pruning flowers.
“Who were those people?” I asked. “Are they family?”
He rolled his eyes. “I got things to do, Hilly. In case you haven’t heard.”
“Is she your niece or something? Savannah?”
He seemed surprised that I knew her name. “Look,” he said, the points of the shears in his hand sharp, new, and polished. It was hot. Already he had sweat on his forehead, perhaps from the weather, perhaps from arguing with my father. He lowered the shears so that they were pointed at me. “I got orders to get back to work. So how about you leave me alone.”
Most mornings my father was at his desk by eight. The racket of his Underwood would wake me. He was always typing. A mile down the shore, Robert Ashley was doing the same thing. His house was a twin of ours except that he lacked a telephone connection. Apparently, when the houses were being built, the local telephone company had balked at trying to run a line that far out toward the water. Because of this, dozens of times a day my father called Lem to his office to hand him a sealed envelope, or a stack of papers, or sometimes a box of documents, with the instructions to run it over across the beach to Robert. And Robert did the same, exchanging my father’s papers with a set of his own, so that all during the morning and early afternoon, I could find Lem running their mail back and forth. They typed on carbon paper, so every document existed in double, one for each of their files. For Lem, the trips between the houses weighed twice as much as they should have.
He took the beach path, which at that point included a boardwalk built from rickety blue planks. When the boardwalk ended there were rocks and sand. The road between our houses was paved, but Lem claimed that it was shorter to go by the beach. He’d make the first of his trips quickly, running down the slope behind our house and off toward Robert’s back door. Lem kept a key to Robert’s house on a ring he had clipped to his belt. He ran because he had other chores to do—he cooked breakfast for my mother, he tended to the gardens, he folded linens, he did our laundry, he cleaned our bathrooms, he straightened our various messes, and he unpacked whatever it was that my mother had bought that week. There were, just in the first month alone, nearly two dozen deliveries: beach furniture, wicker picnic baskets, hats from Paul Stuart, tweed from Oxley & Hawlings, tubes of zinc oxide from Leifbaums, boxes of Florida oranges, insect repellent, English gin, Old Gold cigarettes, crates of Dewar’s, Christofle stemware, and furniture from Florence Knoll. Even though Lem was a very good runner, by late in the afternoon, after he’d done the trip a dozen times, I’d find him exhausted, sweating, crouched at a low crook among the dunes where he thought nobody could see him. I knew that the arrangement made Robert uncomfortable. I’d see him out in the yard, watching Lem run, something close to remorse on his face, a glass of water waiting in his hand. But my father didn’t care whether Lem was tired or whether making a grown man do something so ridiculous was beneath his stature. When I complained to him and said that perhaps Lem might be better off using a car, or at the least a bicycle, my father laughed at me. “First off, Hilly, I offered him the Cadillac. My new Cadillac. And a bicycle. I even offered to buy him a motorcycle. He turned it all down. Says he likes the outdoors. Likes the water.”
“He was just being nice,” I said. “Obviously he needs something.”
“Nice? What does that even mean? Either you want a bike or you don’t. It’s not that hard a concept to get.”
“It’s cruel, making him run like that.”
“So, you’re telling me I’ve got the one colored boy in all America who can’t manage a simple run, Hilly? Men like him got an engine. Only thing that stops them is their laziness. And that’s congenital, Hilly. It’s my job to get him moving. And if you catch him slacking, it’s your job, too.”
After a month of watching Lem struggle under my father’s orders, I found myself in such a position. I heard him struggling as he came up the bluff. The last bit near our house was the toughest, purely and steeply uphill. He had a crate in his arms the size of an apple box and, on top of that, a pile of envelopes balanced in two stacks. All of them were emblazoned with the familiar square art deco logo of Wise & Ashley. It was the W that had become so iconic: the two columns on either side, like glass skyscrapers rising, their serifs like balustrades, the connection at the center marked with a barely perceptible pearl.
Lem glared at me, panting.
“Hi there,” I offered.
Another long moment. His eyes on me. I wondered what was darker: his irises or his pupils. I had iced tea beside me. The glass sweated. He’d brewed it that morning. His brow flickered.
“How about grabbing something,” he said.
I saw his fingers flex beneath the box.
“Uh—” I stood up. Instinctively I looked to see if my father was watching me. This was certainly not allowed. Helping Lem. Helping any man like Lem. The curtains at my father’s window stirred in the sea breeze. They were new curtains, of course, bright blue, stitched from fine cotton, ordered from Wanamaker’s or Bloomingdale’s or Saks. Maybe even from Paris; Printemps. There was the faint murmur of my father’s radio; he listened to the news all afternoon.
“Just take the box, at least,” he said.
“You made it all this way,” I said. “It’s just another few steps.”
“Can I have a sip of your iced tea?” he asked.
I looked down at my cup. The imprint of my lips was clear on the glass. I hated acting like this.
“I might be getting sick,” I said. I held it in my hands. “But I guess, if you need it.”
He turned around toward the house, also trying, it was clear, to see if my father was watching us. Finally, when Lem was content that my father was, as usual, locked in his office, or drunkenly examining all the new things my mother had bought, he dropped everything onto the ground. He put his hands onto his knees.
“Are you OK?” I asked.
“Oh, now you’re interested?”
“I was interested before,” I said.
“Usually, when someone asks for help, a man gives it.”
I was quiet. He had the box between his legs. The letters had become shuffled. There were perhaps a dozen of them. Droplets of sweat fell onto the top envelope in a crisp, wet rhythm. That would make my father angry—the sweat, the drops. Lem continued to suck for air. Behind him there were birds out over the water. Far out, there was a lighthouse, visible only on the clearest days. Sun had burned through the clouds in stripes. It was a gorgeous afternoon, and this was a beautiful place to sit to see it; it occurred to me that maybe he took the path by the beach to be closer to it all.
He arched his back. “Your damn father’s got me running every other minute.”
I frowned. “Sorry.”
“He’s trying to kill me.”
“I doubt that.”
“No,” Lem said. “He told me. He said: ‘This case is going to get so tough, I might end up killing you before summer’s over.’ ”
“He was joking,” I said.
Lem tried to right himself, thought better of it, and clutched again at his knees. “Said he’d need to shoot me if I pulled up limp. Like I’m a goddamned horse.”
“It’s a joke. Trust me.”
“Is he watching me? Turn and see. He watching me?”
I turned. My father’s office window was empty. “No,” I said.
“All right, then,” he said, looking at his wristwatch, “I’m gonna get a glass of water. Change my shirt. Then I’ll get this to him.”
“Maybe you should do that after you deliver the letters,” I said.
He scoffed at me, stood up, and went off toward his apartment, grabbing the box with his hand, and then the letters, his feet heavy on the staircase, the wood creaking beneath him, the entire structure swaying in the light wind.
“Why are you taking it all upstairs if you have to bring it back down?” I asked.
He turned and smiled. “Your dad says I’m not supposed to let this out of my sight. He also said he might shoot me. So, you do the math.”
He moved slowly, hunched, every step an effort. As he got to the top of the staircase, wind blew some of the letters down onto the ground. Lem hadn’t noticed. I went to fetch them. Beside the logo of Wise & Ashley was a simple red stamp: BROOKLYN.
Brooklyn stood for a case my father and Robert had that year against the New York City Subway System. A man named Rooney had lost his foot on the tracks beneath Flatbush Avenue and was suing the city over what he and my father claimed were dangerous working conditions. The case involved a dump truck’s worth of paperwork, and most if not all of what Lem ferried back and forth that summer were documents my father and Robert called the Brooklyn Pages. Often, he’d call Lem into his office to give him a new stack, and say something like, “Another slim volume to add to the Brooklyn Pages.” By the second week of the summer, the volume of the traffic involving these pages grew. And as I stood that day on the beach, with those envelopes that the wind had blown off Lem’s stack, I worried for him. If any of these envelopes went missing, my father would go ballistic. “Lem!” I yelled, calling up. “You dropped something.”
I turned to see my father’s window. The shades were pulled.
“Lem!” I tried again, before climbing up the stairs.
I went slowly at first, afraid of what I might find, or of what might happen to me if I were found. His apartment was a small space, with two rooms, each of them without any furniture aside from a mattress and a row of bookshelves. In neat, orderly piles set up beside his bed, he had his clothing arranged by color. Through the open bathroom door, I could see a duplicate of the uniform my father required, hanging on a hook. In his kitchen, behind a louvered window that looked down onto the yard, he had a row of Christmas cactuses, each of them a different shade of red.
“Got those in Mexico,” he said, coming up from behind me, seeing that I was captivated by them. “A few years back. Nice, right?”
I touched my finger to a thin point on the cactus nearest me. “When were you in Mexico?” I asked.
He smiled. “A few years ago. ’Forty-seven and ’forty-eight. Good country. Big. Hot as hell.”
“What were you doing there?” I didn’t know how to ask him whether he’d been in Mexico doing what he was doing here, working as another man’s servant, just the way he was for my father, but he seemed to understand this.
“I’m no professional houseboy, Hilly. If that’s what you’re getting at.”
I blushed. “I didn’t say that.”
“You wanted to,” he said. He had on a fresh shirt, white, crisp, the color of a bleached sail, and he buttoned it slowly.
“I did not,” I said.
He grinned. “Fine. You were thinking it, though.”
On the wall beside me was a photograph of two people I assumed were his parents: his elderly mother and father, standing in coveralls against a whitewashed barn, their expressions flat and serious. Tacked above this was a photograph of an older woman, a white woman with white hair, holding a house cat. He pointed at the cat.
“Recognize her?” he asked.
I squinted. And then I put my hand over my mouth. “Is it?”
He nodded. “Name was Ernest,” he said. “Funny name for a girl cat, isn’t it?”
“Funny name for a cat, period.”
“Funny lady,” he said.
“Who is she?”
He buttoned his shirt, then folded the cuffs up above his elbows. “Lady Henckin,” he said. “She’s who lived here before you. I met her in Mexico. And she brought me here. It’s a long story with a sad ending, so I’ll just cut it right there.”
“Why’s it sad?”
He shrugged. “Well, y’all live here now,” he said. “That’s why.”
I laughed. He was always joking and laughing, and I had simply expected this to be another one of his jokes. But he had begun to lift my father’s box of documents off the ground and had turned to the door when I called him back.
“Wait,” I said.
“What now, Hilly? I got things to do. Your daddy probably wants me to go change the oil in his car or something.”
“Why were you in Mexico? What were you doing there?”
“I was trying it out,” he said.
“What do you mean, trying it out? Trying what out? What does that mean?”
“Trying it out. Seeing if I liked it.”
“Liked it for what?”
“For living there. For being someplace else. Other than where I was from.”
“Which is where?”
He paused, put the box down. I was exhausting him.
“Georgia,” he said, slowly. “Macon, Georgia. You heard of it?”
“Of course,” I said. I pointed at the photograph of the elderly couple. “These your parents?”
He shook his head. “Grandparents.” I thought he might say something about them, but he wouldn’t even look at their picture.
“So you were thinking of just moving to Mexico?” I asked. The concept seemed ridiculous.
“For a minute,” he said, and then he seemed to laugh quietly to himself. “It didn’t last long. Believe it or not, I actually prefer it up here.”
“Here here?” I asked.
“Up until a few months ago,” he said, “yes.”
“Up until a few months ago,” I repeated. “Until we moved here?”
“What were you really doing in Mexico?” Now that I was in his apartment, I wanted to know more about him. We’d been here a month, and I’d watched him run up and down the beach and do countless errands for my mom and dad. But there was more to him. I knew it. I’d seen it in him when Savannah and Charles Ewing had come by that day, and I saw it now.
He pointed beyond the bookshelf, to a space on the floor where a large leather portfolio and a smaller black box lay against the wall. They were unmarked, and, like everything in Lem’s apartment, they were immaculately clean.
“What are they?”
“My paintings and drawings are inside. Paintings in the portfolio. Drawings in the box.”
I laughed mockingly. “You paint and draw? That’s what you were doing in Mexico?”
“Do you ask so many questions because your father’s a lawyer? Or is that just something you do on your own?”
I went to open it and he stopped me.
“No,” he said. “You can’t open it.”
“The work’s not finished.”
“A real artist doesn’t show work that’s not finished.”
“Oh,” I said, laughing. “So you’re a real artist?”
“Are you being smart?”
“I just didn’t expect it from you, that’s all.”
He leered at me. “What’s that’s supposed to mean? I don’t look like a real artist?”
“I don’t know what a real artist looks like, I guess.”
“Probably not a man that looks like me, though, right?”
“Oh, come on. I didn’t say that.”
“Well, you got my life story now.”
“So,” I said, “are you any good?”
“Why are you so interested all the sudden? I’ve been here a month with you, and you barely said hello.”
I could have told him that my father had told me not to have anything to do with him. But I had the sense that Lem already knew this.
“Just because my father’s the way he is,” I said, letting the thought hang for a moment, “doesn’t mean I can’t be friendly. Or friends.”
This made him laugh. “All right. Let’s get going, Hilly.” He waved me to the door.
“No,” I said. “I’d like to see what’s in there. Come on. Please. Show me one. I’m interested.”
He bit his lip. “I can’t,” he said.
“I’ll pay you,” I said.
“You people and your money,” he said.
“Are you nervous about what I’ll say?”
“I just don’t do that,” he said.
“Do what? Show people your paintings?”
He shifted uneasily. “I’m a perfectionist,” he said.
“So nobody’s ever seen it?”
“Lady Henckin did.”
“She was the only person? You’ve only shown one person?”
“That’s crazy! You’re nervous,” I said. “Admit it. Show me. I’ll be nice.”
He shook his head. “Not gonna happen.”
“So. What happened to her?” I asked.
“Cancer. Got her lungs. At least, that’s what I heard.” He touched his hand to his chin. He had the hint of a white beard growing. “One day they left. Changed the locks on me. Then you showed up. That’s basically what happened.”
“Why’d you show her your paintings and nobody else?”
“She was nice,” he said, shrugging.
“I’ll be nice.”
“You’re not as nice as her.”
“How do you know that?”
“You wouldn’t give me a sip of your iced tea.”
I blushed again, but this time, I could tell the effect was more pronounced, an itching redness up from my neck to my brow. Seeing this, Lem cocked his head and winked pitifully at me. “After she died,” he said, “I thought I’d move. Thought I’d go somewhere new. Go to Paris. You ever been there?”
“Paris?” I asked. “As in Paris, France?”
He nodded. I blinked. Lem lit a cigarette. They were hand rolled and smelled hard and crisp. He offered me one, grinning slyly.
“Other people are doing it,” he said. “Going to France. People like me.”
“Is that so?” I asked.
He stood beside me, nodding and looking out toward the window, full of its usual view: the sky, striated with clouds, bruised blue at its edges; the white dunes; daisies near the porch, planted close to each other, like sisters; paint chipping from the house. The light was on his face, the smoke from his cigarette escaping him slowly.
“You think you’ll just move out to Paris, be some fancy French painter?” I asked.
“Sure beats being here, being your father’s carrier pigeon.” He didn’t turn to look at me. “I’d done every sort of job a man can do. Cooked, cleaned, built houses in Atlanta, lugged fruit in California. I shot armadillos for two weeks in Texas. And I like armadillos. But this, Hilly, this is the worst.”
“Then leave,” I said.
“Not that easy,” he said. He shook his head. Every word came out slowly. “Not that easy.”
“He’s gonna get Robert a phone. It’ll get better,” I said.
“I don’t understand why they don’t just work in the same office,” he said.
I smiled. “My father hates having people around. I don’t know if you’ve noticed that.”
He laughed. I looked for a place to ash my cigarette, and he gave me a small dish.
“Really, though,” I said, “I’m sure Robert will get a phone.”
Excerpted from Wise Men by Stuart Nadler Copyright © 2013 by Stuart Nadler. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
Amber Dermont (author of the New York Times bestseller The Starboard Sea)
—Emma Straub, author of Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures and Other People We Married
—Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of BIRDS OF A LESSER PARADISE
—Stewart O'Nan, author of Emily, Alone and The Odds
Vanessa Diffenbaugh (author of the New York Times bestseller The Language of Flowers)
—Hilary Mantel, Booker-winning author of BRING UP THE BODIES and WOLF HALL
Meet the Author
Stuart Nadler is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he was awarded a Truman Capote Fellowship and a Teaching-Writing Fellowship. Recently, he was the Carol Houck Smith Fiction Fellow at the University of Wisconsin. His fiction has appeared in The Atlantic. He is the author of the story collection The Book of Life.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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This book took me quite a while to finish, but I don't think that's to its discredit. It's not a page-turner, but once you finish it stays with you (the ending is a kicker!). Its a thoughtful book, and a carefully written one. I've described it to friends as what To Kill a Mockingbird would be if Atticus was a jerk instead of a hero.
I checked out this book from the library after reading the many favorable reviews from well established authors and newspapers. I could spend the next hour writing about how utterly disappointed I am in this book but instead I'll try to sum in up a few paragraphs. "Wise Men" takes place over a fifty-plus year period and weakly studies the race relations between a Nouvea Riche family and their black caretaker's family. Hilly, the narrator of the book is at odds with his racist Jewish father (Arthur) as to how he has acquired their newfound wealth as well as how Arthur treats their caretaker, Lem. The cliches begin with Hilly falling for Lem's lovely sixteen-year-old niece, Savannah. Now this is in Cape Cod in 1952 and all is forbidden. Despite Hilly trying to prove to everyone that he is not like his father, he causes a series of events to unfold that sets into motion tragedy for the African-American family. But since Hilly really is "a good guy" -the writer tries hard to sell us on this-he decides to leave his life of privilege and after college slums for a newspaper, writing about race-relations. Hilly, who has never gotten over Savannah, finally tracks her down and of course more tragedy ensues. I found this part of the plot to be completely unbelievable since Hilly never took responsibility for the the tragedy he caused in his youth. Savannah not holding any kind of grudge upon seeing Hilly for the first time in twenty years, acts like his is just a long-lost friend who reconnected with her via Facebook. Of course their lives are complicated because they both have life partners, but that doesn't stop Hilly from hoping until he is forced to return to the wealth he abandoned when he and his parents learn that his long-suffering girlfriend, Jenny is pregnant. Of course Hilly decides to use his family wealth and become a philanthropist, helping many people throughout his life and raising a family with Jenny. This book is far from the love story it is being billed as. There are so many plot holes and such poor character development that I can't believe it ever got the green light to be published. The plot is preposterous and simply too silly to be believable. The characters feel like caricatures from "Mandingo", "Gone with the Wind" and "Driving Miss Daisy." I won't be reading any of Mr. Nadler's future novels. His debut novel was a telltale sign of the lack of new talent in the publishing world but who still manage to get published for reasons that are beyond me.
The majority of the story is about Hilly Wise, the son of obnoxious nouveau riche Jewish attorney, Arthur Wise. Hilly has a near-stalking obsession with Savannah, a poor local black girl he knew briefly when they were teenagers. His odyssey of trying to contact her through the convening years is two-fold. He wants to rekindle what he perceives as a love interest between them, of which she seems to be indifferent, but also because he feels responsible for sending Savannah's Uncle Lem, Arthur Wise's handyman, to prison for stealing some papers from Arthur's briefcase. These papers play a part in a big family secret that is revealed on the last page of which, I might add, I just assumed during the course of reading the book. The stories I really enjoy are ones that leave me satisfied as I close the book for the last time. Satisfied in that, I'm glad I took the time to read it and also a feeling of sadness that the story is over. I never got that with this book.
I,too kept waiting for this book to get better. The father is not just flawed he's a dyed in the wool bigot who NEVER changes. At the beginning he's just a so so lawyer who "gets lucky" [if you can call it that] By the end the author makes him out to be a genius. I would NOT call this a family saga...not enough detail about any of the other female characters except Savanna. The main lead is Hilly who hates his Dad's money [and how it was made] but takes it in the end and gives some away through philanthropy. I don't have to believe all the books I read but this one didn't even come close. Save your $$$$$$
I adored this book. It reminded me of The Help in that it observes race relations and the struggles of African Americans. I like Stuart Nadler's writing style and found the story compelling. I was quite surprised when I learned it was a first novel. I just bought his collection of short stories and eagerly await Mr. Nadler's future novels. I read a lot of fiction and this was my favorite book in a long while. Highly recommended for readers of serious fiction and family sagas.
I enjoyed reading this novel. The journey of Hilly, the narrator, is compelling. His father, Robert, is an interesting but flawed human being. Hilly's recollections of his father are powerful. I hated the dad at the beginning of the novel and loved him by the end. Perhaps like his son, I forgave him for his many sins. Stuart Nadler has a writing style that is lean and beautiful. Wise Men features complex characters and a memorable plot. I would recommend Wise Men to readers who enjoy love stories and family dramas. I look forward to the author's next novel.
Kept waiting for there to be a purpose to the story and was completely disappointed. Ridiculous how he follows one person around all his life and for what reason. Main character was very boring.