Gail Godwin

Book Excerpt

Southern FamilyA Southern Family
A Novel

Published 1987


Excerpt from Chapter Eight


The old man bent low over his keyboard and called forth notes of the sublime slow movement of the sonata with such simplicity and repose that Felix could feel all around him the elation of the packed hall. Here was the reassuring spectacle of the born artist who had lived long enough to fill out his art. No need of fancy postures, of those pregnant pauses between that signified egoistic "interpretation." He had known what his purpose was since the age of five, when he played Beethoven, Mozart, and Liszt at a charity concert in his native town, after which the ladies from the audience unhitched his mother's horses and pulled his carriage home themselves. For him life had been one thing. No broken line. Child, man, and artist were the same. Which no doubt accounted for the way childlike absorption the serenity of age mingled in his playing. His use of the word "astonishing" in the program notes touched Felix. A man of eighty-one getting excited by a sonata written by a young man of twenty. And having the understanding to know why it was astonishing, and the supreme humility to be able to say so.

Felix had first heard the F minor when he was eight. His mother, a devoted musician, had taken him to hear Backhaus play at the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna. The large hall had been filled, just as Carnegie Hall was tonight. Backhaus had seemed to him a very old man, yet he was only fifty-two then. Felix was now fifty-six, but listening to the slow movement, which began like a child's lullaby and blossomed into a moonscape of passion and eternal longings, he was eight and eighteen and twenty-two as well. The music consolidated all that was permanent in him, whether it flowed through the boy who sat beside his well-dressed mother, pale with intensity because she wished she could play as well as Backhaus, or through the gray-haired man who sat between the two women in his life.

Several rows of metal folding chairs had been set up onstage Arrau to accommodate extra people. In the front row, directly behind the keyboard, sat a nice-looking young man with a blond mustache. Felix's attention kept returning to him, without his knowing why, until a wistful strain in the music made him aware of how far away Clare was in some private reverie; then her recent family horror was before him afresh. Of course. The young man on the stage resembled, in features, coloring, and build, the dead brother. It was disconcerting. Had Clare noticed him, too? Or was it his illusion? He had seen Theo for those two days only, last summer at the beach. They'd had just one conversation together, a few hours after Theo and the little boy had driven in. His arrival with the child had completed the family circle: all the Quicks were at last under the same roof, with Clare as their hostess. This was the first time she'd been able to capture all of them, which, for complex reasons Felix thought he half-understood, was important to her. To Felix, who had lost his family at ten, the Quicks were a new experience. They made him aware of the things he'd missed. And though they caused him to be grateful that he had missed some of them, he felt it was an adventure to observe these Quicks. He was seldom bored around them. Impatient, yes. Frequently mystified. Occasionally irritated, or incensed (usually with the stepfather) on Clare's behalf. But separately and together as an organism they fascinated him. Lily and he got on. He admired her style and thought he understood some of the reasons for her aloofness and love of forms. Whenever they were together, the two of them made a little pageant out of their mutual esteem. He bowed over her hand planted a Viennese kiss precisely an inch from actual contact and told her how elegant she looked. She in turn told him, often in Clare's presence, that he had made all the difference to her daughter's life. With Rafe, he felt paternal. On the several occasions Clare's younger brother had visited them, he had argued with the boy over politics, corrected his manners, told him he should drink less, and ended up getting hugged. for Ralph Quick, his muleheaded insistence on being right could aggravate a much calmer temper than Felix's; yet he felt, almost against his will, a compassionate interest in the man. Their strange embroiled marriage intrigued him, too. Why did they make each other so unhappy? What had their marriage been like at the beginning? And thinking about the troubling family unit of Quicks, Felix asked himself how each of them might have been different if, as had happened to himself, fate had untied the knot of family earlier in life?

It was this last question that was foremost in his mind every time his eyes returned to Theo's look-alike on the stage behind Arrau. Although the face and form were remarkably similar, the young man with the blond mustache was more certain of himself, less haunted. He was also probably less interesting. From the way he was watching Arrau's hands, he might have music training himself. Just as Lizzie used to walk around on her toes for several days after they'd been to the ballet, this young man with his neat mustache and haircut and junior-executive's clothes might go home and get out his music again and attempt the beautiful slow movement of the F minor, the way Felix's mother had done after the Backhaus recital. The young man who looked like Theo Quick would sit down at the bench, flex his hands, take a deep breath, and if he was a decent sight-reader, carry himself through those rapturous passages with a lift of the spirits. Life would seem a finer, mysterious thing because of the Music. He would not be Arrau, who actually appeared to draw strength from the notes he was playing so softly, now at the midpoint of the andante espressivo, but he would be partaking of the same art and be sustained by his participation.

"Not everyone can be a Künstler," Felix's uncle Hermann used to say, "but many of us, fortunately, can be Teilnehmer in Kunst. We can be partners in art." Felix's mother's twin brothers, Hermann and Siegfried, had sniffed the wind earlier and left Austria in 1936, taking all their money with them to New York. Hermann had set up a carbon factory across the river in Newark similar to his carbon factory in Schwechat, in the suburbs of Vienna. With the money from the carbon products, he bought brother, Siegfried, who had been a writer and singer of political cabaret, a furniture warehouse in the Village which Siegfried turned into a theater. When Felix arrived to live with the uncles they were happily producing musical skits and plays in German for émigrés homesick for their culture and their language. He had grown up in partnership with them: after school, he would hurry to The Old World Theater and construct scenery, or collect programs from the printer and bring coffee for the actors in rehearsal. When he got older, he did some acting and singing himself. But unlike his mother, or his uncle Siegfried, or the woman he was later to marry, he never aspired to be a Künstler. Teilnehmer, for him, was occupation enough.

Could art have saved Clare's poor brother? If he had been given the power of expression in some imaginative form, if he had been able to impose unity and coherence on his life through creative enterprise, would he have been alive today? During the seven and a half years Felix had been together with Clare, he had been struck repeatedly by the way her mental health corresponded to how well she was succeeding in transforming the material of experience into unifying shapes. When she was not being successful, she was the unhappiest of creatures; close as they were, he could provide little comfort other than to listen. She hated herself at such times and couldn't understand how anyone could love her. She picked fights with him for not sharing her low opinion of herself. When she lost, even temporarily, the power to sustain an imaginative world, it was as if the real world had no meaning. He had once heard her tell an audience of aspiring writers, "If I hadn't been able to be a writer, I would probably be in jail -- or worse." There had been a roar of appreciative laughter. But she means it, he, had thought at the time. He couldn't quite picture her behind bars, she who couldn't even kill a mouse or swipe a piece of candy from the open bins at the supermarket, but he had no difficulty accepting the spirit of her remark. If she had not been able to do what she did, she would have done damage. If not to others, then to herself. It was conceivable that by this time her remains might be lying in the same cemetery as her half brother's; she might even have preceded him there through a dramatic burst of violence, nurtured by years of frustration, similar to his. But dismissing these disastrous extremes, he could also imagine . . . No, he didn't wish to imagine; it would make him sad. He did not want to picture too clearly the negative doppelgängers of his Clare. What if the gods had given the boy Arrau a tin ear, or placed him in a family who thought music was for sissies? Or, conversely -- though the speculation was becoming cliché by now -- the Vienna Academy had raved over the landscapes of young Adolf and welcomed him with open arms into the community of Art?

And yet, thought Felix, it is because the artistic fates of these three people followed exactly the paths they did that I find myself here tonight, in the center of row E, Orchestra, sitting between Lizzie and Clare, and listening to this gorgeous sonata. Claudio, I share your attraction for this English word "astonishing." I am astonished by my own good fortune, despite everything.

"We're too much for you, all of us at once. You've come out here to escape."

Theo had sauntered out, hands in pockets, to join Felix at the end of the cottage's long windwalk. He sat down deferentially on the bench and grinned shyly at the older man beside him. He had driven in earlier the same afternoon with his little boy, and after unloading a great deal of beach paraphernalia, most of it belonging to the child, had taken the boy for his first wild romp in the surf. Hysterical with excitement, the exhausted Jason had to be dragged screaming from the beach and was now taking a nap with his grandmother. Ralph Quick was off on some errand of his own, and Clare and Rafe had gone to the new Harris Teeter, or Teeter Harris -- Felix always forgot which - to buy more tonic and crackers.

"Not at all," said Felix. "I like seeing Clare with her family. She was so pleased you were able to come this time. No, I sit out here every afternoon about this hour, when the sun is not so brutal, and I count the pelicans flying back from wherever they flew off to at six this morning, and I watch Southerners. They're even more fascinating than the pelicans."

"In what way?"

Felix saw that he had aroused Theo's interest. "Watching them and listening to them, I get the impression that they're living inside a country of their own, no matter who happens to be president in Washington. They fly Confederate flags instead of American ones from their decks. The teenagers sunbathe on Confederate towels and the little children splash about on their tiny Confederate rafts. That war is still their most significant political fact. It defines their personal style. The way they walk and move -- the very cordial way they greet you on the beach, and that special ruminative slouch the men have when they wander down to the surf carrying their drinks in the evening -- it's as if they're heavy with history, wearing it like a sort of romantic robe that other Americans aren't entitled to. They're still carrying a grievance, but it makes them feel separate and proud. Clare makes me park the car sideways in front of the cottage, so our New York license plates won't be visible from the road. No use rubbing it in their faces, she says, especially when she's one of them. Not that they would do anything. Southerners are the politest people in America."

"Their politeness is a very effective form of aggression," said Theo Quick, gazing sternly over the railing at the incoming tide.

Surprised by the remark, Felix looked more closely at the young man beside him on the bench. In face and build, he was of finer proportions than his younger brother. Actually handsomer, in the classical sense. Yet something in his attitude had caused Felix to miss this beauty on first meeting. After the swim with his child, he had dressed again in the same rumpled khaki pants and cotton shirt and loafers he had arrived in. His glasses case and a pencil stuck out of his breast pocket, and he wore his watch and belt. Unlike the gleaming Rafe, who went around all day attired only in oil and the briefest of shorts, he was obviously not ready to strip and relax, even in the presence of his own family.

"Why do you say 'their' asked Felix. "Don't you count yourself as a Southerner?"

Theo narrowed his eyes at the horizon and appeared to be giving the matter intense consideration. Like an actor, Felix thought. Then, with a slow grin, he turned to Felix. "I don't guess I do," he said, as if it were news to him, too. "At least, not the way you were describing them. I'm glad they lost the war. They deserved to. I don't feel heavy with anybody's history except my own twenty-seven years. Twenty-eight this August. The only thing that weighs me down is their hypocrisy and the way they use 'graciousness' to cover their viciousness. South Carolinians are among the worst, probably. Columbia was burned to the ground and they're still mad. But they enjoy being mad." He waved his hand at the Confederate flags flying from cottages on either side of them. "That way they can keep manufacturing old false memories of having their 'aristocracy' smashed."

"Ah," murmured Felix compatibly. He was enjoying the turn their conversation was taking. He liked to analyze why people, or groups of people, behaved the way they did. It was one of his and Clare's favorite pastimes. He found himself wondering why Clare hadn't spoken more of this brother. In temperament he seemed closer to her than Rafe.

"They still treat black people like half-wits . . . or their personal property," Theo went on. "I know Clare likes coming down here to this particular island because they drive around with their 'Arrogantly Shabby' bumper stickers and condescend to anybody whose grandparents didn't vacation here as children. She loves that kind of thing; it gives her more to write about. And down here she's tracked it to its most pure and virulent strain. But she's not one of them, either. Nobody in our family is or ever was. My mother may think she was once, and what's the point in disillusioning her? What's sad about our family, and why we're probably doomed, is that we haven't been able to be ourselves. Every one of us has wasted too much time being ashamed of the wrong things." He folded his arms and stuck out his chin at the sea, with the air of someone who has delivered an unpopular opinion long on his mind. Then he turned coyly to Felix to assess the effects of his remarks. "I've probably shocked you, talking about my own family like this. I've spoiled your idea of nice Southerners."

"No, you haven't," Felix assured him. Intriguing as the present subject was to Felix, it would put him in the position of listening to things about the family -- about Clare and Lily, especially -- that they might not want him to hear. The tide had reached the seawall in front of the cottage. Felix gazed down at the active water's swirling patterns and wondered what wrong things the Quicks had been ashamed of. "I couldn't help noticing " he said to Theo, edging them he hoped, into less compromising territory, "how your Jason clings to you. Watching you play together in the surf was a pleasure. He's a beautiful little boy. You are his world."

Theo sighed. "Yes, I'm his world, all right. And he's mine. But the responsibility boggles my mind sometimes. She signed over complete custody to me. I guess you've heard the sorry tale of my marriage from Clare. It makes a pretty good story, if nothing else."

"She told me a little," admitted Felix. "But, you know, I raised, my daughter, Lizzie. Her mother and I separated when she was only two. I was afraid also, but I knew she'd be better off with me. I had more time for her. Her mother was set on an acting career."

"That's better than Jason's mother," said Theo bitterly. "I think she's set on a vegetating career." Then, remembering his manners, "Did your wife make it as an actress?"

"Not the way she had hoped, but she keeps busy. Lizzie goes and visits her in California and the two of them get on very well. Like sisters more than mother and daughter. But if Lizzie had been raised by her, they would have been at each other's throats. But the point I am making is that you can do it if I did it. Others will help you. Your parents will help you. My two uncles helped me with Lizzie. They were wonderful. Only, having three men fluttering over her, anticipating her every whim, has spoiled her a little. Or some would say it has." He scrupulously avoided mentioning that Clare had been one of the most enlightening critics as to the extent of Lizzie's spoiling. "My advice to you is, enjoy him. It goes by so quickly. Their marvelous little brains growing by the hour, absorbing, interpreting everything. The things they say! You reexperience your childhood through them, remember things buried for years. Then it's over. They go to school, make their own friends find other heroes . . . and before you know it, there is this stranger living in your house, a stranger who reminds you . . . touchingly, at times . . . of your lost child. But this stranger is his own person and you'd better not forget it. He keeps his most interesting thoughts to himself and is capable of regarding you very objectively. Sometimes uncomfortably so. But, for now, there is this bond between you unlike anything else in the world. And if you nurture it, both of you will have the memory of it for the rest of your lives.The memory becomes its own sort of bond. My Lizzie is about your age, almost twenty-six, but however much we may get on each other's nerves, there is that thing between us, forged when she was little, that can never be broken."

"Jason and I have that bond," said Theo, nodding vigorously. He appeared to be drinking in Felix's eulogy to fatherhood. Or, thought Felix, he wants me to believe he's drinking it in. There was a puzzling ambivalence in this boy. One minute, his sharp, antisocial observations. Then the soft gray eyes imploring you like a dog to like him. Ingratiation atoning for aggressiveness. "If it weren't for his sweet little breath and his arms around my neck in the morning, there'd be nothing to get up for."

"But what about your work?" asked Felix, alarmed by this admission. "Doesn't it interest you?"

"Not much, " replied Theo, grinning slyly. He seemed pleased to have startled Felix. "I mean, the part of it where I have to deal with people can be interesting, but the rest is just . . . eyestrain. I've been going out with this woman who's a nurse. A good nurse. She really cares about what she does. We get together in the evenings, and when she starts telling me the things she's had to deal with at the hospital, I'm jealous. She's involved in life and death. What she does matters. In my line of work, you go over the same column of figures until you find the mistake, and that's your reward for the day. That and helping rich people get richer while you can barely meet the minimum payments on your credit cards."

"Would you have liked to be a doctor?"

"Oh, sure. I would have loved it. But my grades weren't good enough for me even to consider it. For a real long time I wanted to be a highway patrolman. But it wasn't socially acceptable to my family."

"Hmm, I see," murmured Felix. He was caught up in the boy's problem; he wanted to help him. "Perhaps you could be a paramedic. Lizzie had a boyfriend who was one. He worked the midnight-to-eight ambulance shift in Harlem. Now he had stories to tell. He was certainly involved in life and death. He became burned out though. Now he's living up in a quiet village in Maine, teaching other people to be paramedics. I was fond of him -- more than my daughter was, unfortunately."

"Paramedics don't make any money," said Theo bluntly, ignoring Felix's attempt at lightness. "I mean, they can probably get to the place where they're making more than I am now -- I think anybody can -- but they don't get anywhere."

"Ah. You want to make money, and get somewhere, and do something that really matters to you. Now that's a big order."

"I'd gladly settle just for something that matters. And I'm not putting in any orders. I'm not in the position to."

Felix felt rebuffed, but determined to continue all the same. "What does your father say? Surely you've discussed it with him."

Theo uttered a short, rueful laugh. "A couple of months ago, when I'd had it up to here with the place I work, I asked Dad if I couldn't maybe go into business with him. He just laughed and said, 'What business?'"

"But what did he mean by that? I had gathered from Clare that he's doing quite well as a contractor."

"He was. But he's lost faith. A few years back, this crook he was building a motel for went back on his word and Dad got stuck for a whole lot of money. The thing that hurt him most was that his old friend and lawyer represented the crook. They put a lien on his bank account and completely wiped out his savings. Mother had wanted him to transfer the money into her account -- that way they couldn't have touched it -- but he wouldn't do it. He's stubborn. He has to be in control. So they took all his money. Since then he's lost interest in building. I've heard him turn down at least four people this spring who phoned the house wanting him to build for them. He doesn't say no, but he just keeps putting them off, and eventually they get sick of chasing after him and call somebody else."

"So how does he make a living?" asked Felix.

"Oh, he still has his crew. They keep busy with additions and renovations. There's a lot of that going on. But he won't let himself think big anymore. I offered to go out and get business for him, so he wouldn't have to deal with personalities; and I could have helped him with his books and his estimates, which he hates, and he could have spent more time outdoors, which is what he's always enjoyed best, anyway. He likes to watch a structure go up, be involved in the physical part. Once, when I was little, he took me out to where they were preparing a site for a house. There was this excavator lifting stumps of hundred-year-old trees out of the earth, then swinging its arm around and dropping them into a pile that reached as high as a two-story building; and at the same time, there was this bulldozer pushing huge piles of dirt around, changing the shape of the land while we watched. It was like these two great big yellow machines were doing some kind of dance together, and he was holding me in his arms -- I couldn't have been much older than Jason is now -- and it was as though an electric current was going from him to me. And his face was so happy. It was full of this power. I said to him, 'Daddy, I like watching this,' and that made him real proud, that I hadn't been scared. And he squeezed me close and said when I grew up I could go into business with him and we could watch stuff like this all the time. When I reminded him of this again a couple of months ago, he got this real sad look on his face and said, 'Well, son, I guess we both kind of forgot about it, didn't we?' 'We could be partners,' I said, 'and then when Jason gets grown, we'll call it Quick, Quick, and Quick. It'll be three generations.' He shook his head and said no, things were different now and we were different people. Then he laughed and reminded me how clumsy I was on construction jobs. Once, when I was eighteen, I fell through the Sheetrock twice in one day and he's never forgotten it."

"But you said you were going to handle the accounting side of things, the personal relations. Not walk around on roofs. So what did falling through Sheetrock have to do with it?"

"Nothing. But Dad's arguments follow their own logic. When he decides no, then it's no." The son reported this with a certain pride, even though his hopes had been crushed on the occasion.

"But you ought to have work that you like," Felix insisted. "You spend most of your waking life with your work. It's extremely important for a man." He felt indignant and suddenly sad on Theo's behalf. It was the first time he had heard anyone speak of Ralph Quick with genuine love, with a desire to see him happy, to understand his needs. He imagined, not for the first time, what it would have been like to have a son. If his wife had not insisted on the abortion, he might be sitting here with a son almost Theo's age, dispensing advice. I would have been a good father to a boy, Felix thought, not so indulgent as I've been with Lizzie. And Lizzie would have had a brother only a year younger than herself. Then it wouldn't have been so difficult for her when I met Clare. But of course if Susanne hadn't sneaked off like a guilty housemaid to get our child butchered by a quack, we might still be together. No, we wouldn't be. She was too miserable over her career -- or wanting more of a career than her modest talent could bring her. "Work can be extremely important for some women, too," Felix added, thinking of Susanne and Clare. As yet, Lizzie had shown no sign of being one of these work-driven women. Did that please him or not?

"I hope it's not too important," Theo said, "because the way things are looking lately, I'll be lucky to settle for what I have. It's not so bad, really. I have some clients I like, people who really need me. And it pays Jason's and my bills." He leaned back on the bench beside Felix and stretched out his legs, gazing at his brown loafers. "What you do must be interesting," he said amiably, shifting into the role of polite boy who has been brought up not to talk about himself too long, and especially not about personal problems. "Having your own theater, working with the actors. Putting on plays that help us understand the rest of the world better."

"Not all of them succeed, unfortunately. We have our share of flops. And it's the director who works with the actors. I'm what is called Executive Producer. Most of my time is spent raising money to get us through the next season. At least we own our building. That's a great help, with rents being what they are in New York now. And I have to go abroad often, in order to see new plays and arrange for translations and adaptations. When my uncles started the theater, it was for homesick émigrés like themselves who'd had to leave Europe in a hurry. The plays were mostly in German or French; they did experiment with some in Russian and Polish, but for some reason those never filled the house. We called it The Old World Theater in those days. But times change, and now everybody's learned English, you see, and their children have grown up ignorant of other languages, in the American tradition. So now, although we call it The World Theater -- we dropped the 'Old' in the late fifties -- all the plays are in English. The only way to get audiences to come and watch what the rest of the world is doing is to translate it for them. And often to adapt it to a locale they can identify with. Having to do this often depresses me, though. Every language has its untranslatable flavor. And changing a setting from, say, a rich Japanese's villa to a rich American's country estate, or an apartment in Moscow to an apartment in Chicago, can have its problems, too."

As he listened to himself talk, Felix was aware that he was stressing the shortcomings and disappointments of his job. But he felt it would be unkind to Theo, trapped as he seemed to be, faute de mieux, in his profession, and denied the chance by his father to help rebuild and expand a family business, to exult in his own engrossing work, so compatible with his instincts, which his loving uncles had bequeathed to him -- along with the majority of shares in the Newark carbon factory, which went a long way towards allowing Felix to fly around the world in search of new plays. Not infrequently, Felix found himself in the odd position of feeling embarrassed by his good fortune, by his confident and relatively easy passage through life so far. He and Clare often discussed this: how, despite the fact that both his parents had been killed in a London air raid before they could join him in America, he had managed to retain his exuberance and his optimistic temper. "I don't completely understand it myself," he would say, puzzled, as though contemplating a serious flaw in his character. "Sometimes it seems callous on my part that I wasn't damaged for life. Perhaps it has something to do with my name. Maybe if my parents had named me Ernst or Aloysius or Tristram, it would have been a different story."

"No, I'll tell you what it is," Clare would say. "They set you up for life with more than your happy name. They gave you a happy childhood. You had all the security you needed for those first ten years before your world flew apart. If a person has a secure childhood to build on, he's indestructible. That's my theory. I don't mean he'll never get sick or have a traffic accident, but his inner core will be indestructible, whatever happens afterwards."

"I think your core is pretty indestructible," Felix would say, "even if your childhood wasn't as carefree as mine, and despite your tendency to expect the worst."

"Ah. That's because I have built my rock out of the materials of insecurity," she would reply.

Avon Books | Paperback| 544 pages