"Reconstruction" a short story, by Mark Helpringreenspun.com : LUSENET : Unk's Wild Wild West : One Thread
A short story.
BY MARK HELPRIN
Wednesday, December 27, 2000 12:01 a.m. EST
The most difficult of the dinner parties I ruin are usually around Christmas, and always those of the younger members of the firm, who, no matter how well they have done, have yet to find their place because they have yet to fall from grace and restore themselves. They know I have built and rebuilt, that, quite apart from my military history, I have, in corporate terms, come back from the dead. That very thing, though I did not ask for it, is what they fear the most to get and fear the most in me.
It is why, while I sit still and merely smile, they hold forth in a volume of words that would blow up a tire. You would think that because they talk as enthusiastically as talking dogs, they would win. While they say everything, I say nothing. I am shown the second-tier paintings, and harried children who can play Mendelssohn, and from the corner of my eye I see the ineluctable Range Rovers, the Viking stoves, and the flower boxes perfectly tended by silent Peruvians with broken hearts.
Still, I win, they lose, and I couldn't throw the game even if I tried. They just don't know. They're younger than my sons and daughter. I find their claims embarrassing: I don't care where they went to college; I don't even care where I went to college. I want only to spy the youthful graces they cannot see in themselves, and encourage them to do well and spend more time with their children than I spent with mine. They won't. I didn't. They can't. I couldn't.
"We've just come back from Venice," said the lady of the house, the wife of one of our foremost earners. He is less than 30 years old, and she is stunningly beautiful and looks 18.
"He knows," her husband said, "he sent me."
Her answer to this cruelty was "oh." But that was not the end of it. Thinking that something was sure to follow, I sat there like the Sphinx. Unlike the Sphinx, however, I acknowledged with my eyes that she was alive.
"Do you know Venice?" she asked. I saw that I was now a strategical point in her troubled marriage. "What with the dollar so high, it's like Disneyland. There are more Americans than in New Jersey."
"Americans don't live in New Jersey anymore," her husband added, "and they actually wear mouse ears. I saw them."
"Sometimes," she qualified. "Sometimes they wear mouse ears, some of them. Have you been there?" she pressed, turning toward me as slowly as the aft turret on the Missouri.
"Yes, I have."
"When?" she inquired, as insistently as the Bronx District Attorney.
Thinking of the bayonet that had once been at the end of my rifle, I picked up my butter knife, and then returned it to the damasked table cloth. "Right after the war."
"The Gulf War?" she asked.
I must have looked incredulous that she would not understand which war "the war" was.
"I don't think so."
"Alicia," her husband said severely, because she had had three glasses of champagne, and because, of the long list of names by which the world knows our firm, mine is the only one that belongs to someone living.
"I want to know, Jared." When she pronounced his name she did so as if she didn't care for it, and then she looked up at me like a woman with whom you have been arguing and whom you are about to kiss, and she said, "Which one, babycakes?"
"The Second World War," I answered. "World War Two." I did want to kiss her.
"Well you can't possibly remember the Second World War," she said. "How old are you?"
"I was born in nineteen forty-two," I told her. Here I was, talking, I who am famous for sitting through social engagements like a ghost. "I was in Venice in forty-six, when I was four, and I remember everything. I remember the weave of the towels in the bathroom of the hotel. I remember the color of the paint on the iron chair on which I sat one day in the Piazza San Marco--it was green--and the shape of the dish in which I had yogurt and sugar. I remember the pigeon that lit upon the balcony, the slate gray and iridescent purple of his neck feathers. His eyes jumped when an ocean liner just outside the Grand Canal blew its whistle and scattered every bird in Venice but him. He stayed put, strutting like a pigeon. I wore a compass on a lanyard, and carried a rubber hunting knife in a cardboard sheath, in case there were any wild animals."
Just as I realized that I was really building up to something--and I really was--my wife broke in with her accustomed diplomatic skill and turned the conversation to the reconstruction of Venice, to the floods in Florence, and to the restoration of wetted works of art in general. To make the break invisible she informed them of my ability to pull from the past the most extraordinary details of memory, saying with no apparent bitterness, "That's the part of his life that is most vivid. If you lose him in your conferences, look for him there." Now these people had become strategical points in our marriage, and though I cared, I drifted. I lost them, they lost me, voices faded, and the room became pale.
In its stead, reconstituted before my eyes as if it actually existed, was a glass of amber-colored scotch, what I now know to be a double, on a white tablecloth next to my father's dinner plate. We were in Venice, in a restaurant where everyone had to shout. In October 1946, my chin just cleared the table. I looked up like a cat at the glasses and plates, at the dishes and bowls and bottles that arrived or were taken away with surprising speed and a musical clinking. The room was bright, hot, and full of smoke, and women at other tables wore shoulderless gowns in what seemed to be a cloth of gold.
I can put the scene in order now from what my father told me long after and from what I have come to know myself. Although he was relatively young and worked for someone else, he and his friends were bankers and money men, American, English, and French, not long separated from their wartime units, investing in broken enterprises that they chanced would revive. My father put everything we had, which wasn't a lot, and much more of other people's money that, were it lost, would have dragged him down for the rest of his life, into businesses that had suffered the destruction of their plant, the death and dislocation of their workers, and the disappearance of their markets. "They have no factory," he would say. "The railroad was destroyed. The roads were bombed. And the canals are full of explosives. But what is important is their habit of mind. What is important is the high probability that civilization, having come undone, will repair itself." Though at the time it hardly seemed possible, he believed that Europe must be restored.
We had driven to Venice through Germany, Austria, and the Veneto. Because of that drive I thought that Paris, where we lived, was an island in a world of rubble. Whole cities were represented merely by blackened chimneys standing like fired trees on a savannah of brick and broken stone. And the few buildings that remained were like wounded animals, pockmarked and cracked, their balconies hanging by what seemed like threads. Refugees choked the roads, and military convoys passed with precedence.
My father and I were alone and had left my mother at home, the object of this being that I would by knowing my father gravitate less toward protecting my mother from him after, having invaded Europe, he had invaded our household. I met him only when I was three and had grown quite comfortable with the idea that he was a symbolic figure. This was our first time alone, and though I liked him I was convinced neither of his value nor his legitimacy. When he kissed me his beard was like sharkskin and his mustache like thorns. Although my mother may have been, I was not impressed that he looked like Ronald Colman. That my parents had had their difficulties was not surprising: they had not been able to touch or speak from February of 1942 to December of 1945, just short of four years. Without knowing it, I was the reason for the continuance of their marriage, and had become its strategical point. Evidently, a marriage without a strategical point is like a rhinoceros without a horn.
Late for me, perhaps at ten or so, the end of the dinner ended a torrent of words about business and politics that I could not fathom even though they were English, and my father and I broke out into the night air. The sky in Venice is too often the color of the Financial Times, but that night it was laden with stars. A wind blew steadily over the Adriatic, lifting it, swelling the cloudy melon-green waters until they lapped at the doorsteps. In the Piazza San Marco hundreds of people were walking about or had gathered around a little orchestra of the kind that plays concert waltzes on the terraces of expensive hotels. Sheltered beneath a canopy while the water rose in the piazza, the musicians were playing as if they were the orchestra of the Titanic. I was amazed by the river that was upwelling on the north side, with starlight broken in reflection on its streaming wind-blown waves. I wanted to go to an island, between ranks of abandoned cafe chairs, that it had not yet covered, but I did not think that possible. My father asked why.
"Because of the water," I said.
"Why would that stop us."
"Our feet would get wet." Children are mystically upset by water out of place.
The island seemed ideal, and I yearned for it. God knows what I would have given to stand on its dry surface, surrounded by the rough and rising sea. This must have shown in my face, so, just as the orchestra had finished a song, he picked me up and, holding me in the crook of his left arm with his right hand pressing lightly against me to keep me in balance, he began to walk toward the ribbon of water.
I bent my head upward, blinking in the wind. More exciting than the island itself was the casual, unhesitating way my father walked into the water. Soon it covered his English shoes. The pants of his pinstriped suit disappeared almost to the knees. Although it was October and the water must have been cold, he seemed to enjoy it. He had crossed many rivers and streams in the four years that had just passed, in conditions that made this a blessing. He waded through without wincing or betraying concern. He wanted to show me who he was, and what I could be.
And by this action, he did. When he put me down on the island and I ran and jumped about near the waves we had just crossed, I was shaken by new thoughts I could not put into words. I did not have to, for the music began again. They had begun to play "La Vie en Rose": a beautiful phrase, not quite translatable, the song of the Liberation. I knew it well and was not surprised to hear it. Perhaps because I had lived in France for almost a quarter of my existence, in an ordinary neighborhood in Paris with people who had lived through the occupation, even at four I was deeply moved by it. Or perhaps this was due just to the nature of the song, which, in minors and majors, perfectly expresses both the great joy and unspeakable sadness of having come through the war. No song I have ever heard has its depth and complexity. No song I have ever heard unites strength so great with beauty so shy. And this is what I knew, when I was four, having come to Paris more than two years after it was redeemed. By necessity my father knew much more.
Stepping from a C-47 into a void over Normandy, with rifle, pack, and a heavy load of ammunition strapped to his leg, he felt the rush of breath and blood subside as his parachute opened in magic air, as white as a cotton ball. A major and pathfinder of the 101st, he floated down to what could very well have been his death, and prayed as if his last, thanking God for his full life to that moment, for the blue morning, for his near-silent flight, and for the seconds as they passed.
He landed in a quiet and empty field, completely alone, and lived to become part of the greatest conquering army the world has ever seen, an army that, as it pressed toward Germany, was bent by the massive gravity of Paris, and, contrary to plan, rushed toward this city of light. Because he was French-speaking, he was put in the front of the Fifth Corps, and entered Paris with the French 2nd Armored Division.
"Until that day," he told me when he was old, "I had not seen gratitude, or joy, or grief. If God, in remembering His work, had decided to replicate the glory of the Creation, He might have done so in the liberation of Paris. That's what it was like. That's why I took you and your mother there. Because it was as if the whole world was born on that day. And I thought, we can do the same."
Quite so. History had never been nor would it be so buoyant as in a single day to rise from such darkness to such light. Many of the people who, at the end of August, surged across the Place de l'Etoile, running to follow flags, were in white. When seen from above, they were like the foam of a rising tide, their mass unlike the normal mass of crowds, being as quick as driven cloud. That they could move on that day almost as airborne as angels was because the idea that France would be free was more beautiful even than the idea of France itself.
Just to hear "La Vie en Rose" as we stood amid the windblown water was enough to make my father cry. Seeing this, I embraced his leg, perhaps not so tightly as the bag of ammunition once strapped to it, and when he picked me up I put my arms around his neck. I did not know what he had seen or what he had come through, but my father was moved by the resurrection of a shattered world, and this I understood well enough.
Then came our own rush, a breathtaking run through the darkened streets of Venice, that I will remember for the rest of my life. I don't know why he ran. He was astonishingly strong, but he could have walked. The passages through which we coursed at great speed were in renovation, and half the time scaffolding blocked the sky in alternating segments. We would run through terrific darkness, and then the boarding above us would disappear and we would emerge again to see the stars. I cannot forget that alternation of darkness and light, which is the way it has been ever since.
At the dinner party, because of my silence, they thought I was thinking about them. And so I did begin to think about them, which broke the spell and brought me back. Also, my wife kicked me.
I nodded, as I do when I'm brought back. I said something, I don't know what. You see, they imagine that I have everything I want--cars and pools and appliances and Picassos--only because I have what they want. But what I want I cannot have. I cannot have so much time ahead of me that it is seemingly without limit. I cannot any longer be quite so deeply in love with the world now that I know that my love for it is unrequited. I cannot ride in my father's arms. I cannot know any of the great store of his memories that he did not tell me. And I cannot change the fact, as I am the last one who remembers him, that all he saw, and learned, and loved, will have a second death when they die with me.
That is why, for me, reconstruction is so urgent and its appeal so strong. Floating down, in the last quiet seconds, it is indeed possible, with precise and joyous recollection, to return to life the roseate glow that once it brought to you. This I have tried to do, even at risk of smashing up a dinner party, or two. And when we left that night, I kissed Alicia, and we embraced for a second or two longer than anyone expected.
Mr. Helprin is a novelist and a contributing editor of The Wall Street Journal.
-- eve (email@example.com), December 27, 2000
Oh yes...this was from today's Wall Street Journal, page A12.
-- eve (firstname.lastname@example.org), December 27, 2000.