Fiction — From the February 2013 issue

The Bloodline of the Alkanas

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Cyrus Alkana was my father, and if you can recognize this name, you belong to an inconspicuous substratum of humanity — a coterie, if such things can still be said to exist. He had his little following, cranks and fanatics like himself, including an out-of-favor critic who once dubbed him the “American Keats.” If this was launched as a compliment, it landed as a disparagement. Keats was exactly the trouble, the reason for my father’s obscurity — and not only Keats, but Shelley and Wordsworth and Coleridge and Tennyson and Swinburne, all those denizens of a fading antiquity. It wasn’t that my father worshipped these old poets who had crowded the back pages of his grade-school spelling book. He regarded himself as one of their company, a colleague and companion.

It was presumed by his enemies (he had many more of these than readers) that his formal literary education had stopped with those spellers. At sixteen he left Thrace High School for a job as a copyboy at the Beacon-Herald, the local newspaper, snatching stories fresh from the typewriter to speed them to the big clattering Linotype machines. He wasn’t so much running away from school as he was running away from home — there was something at home he didn’t like, some influence or threat that repelled him. It couldn’t have been his parents, because my father always behaved like a man who had been lavishly nurtured, and in marrying my mother he had lucked into the same cushioned indulgence. Still, some element of family there was that he wanted never again to be close to: a raving sister in an attic, or a herd of brutish cousins who habitually beat him up? He never hinted at anything of the kind; I never heard him speak of family at all. The little that came drifting down to me was only that he lived by himself in a rooming house until he could stiffen his spine for the move to New York.

It was this cramped beginning that led him to the harvesting of enemies. The American Keats, they mocked, was no more than a small-town autodidact. Modernism had left him behind, or else he had never been aware of its arrival, dizzied as he was by groves and rivulets and dawns and goddesses and nymphs. His mind was afloat with cosmic visions — infinity, and transcendence, and the sublime. Which was the least of it: born into the wrong century, he sometimes spattered his lines with ’tis and o’er and e’en. These, my mother said in my father’s defense, were conscious grace notes, not, as his accusers claimed, outlandish bad habits.

My mother regularly defended my father. It was he alone who was taking a stand for Beauty, lately driven from the world by the conspiracy of a self-styled avant-garde who despised not merely the cradlings of iambic pentameter but the very skein and pith of magic and mystery. This was how my mother spoke. She had long ago learned to be a copy of my father. She even copied his distaste for me.

At nine I had begun to dismantle all the clocks in our apartment, and soon discovered how to reassemble their parts. Out of waxed paper, school paste, and bits of wood pried from the backs of picture frames, I built fragile model airplanes, with the thinnest of wing struts. At twelve, on purpose to provoke, I announced that I had seen God, and that His name was Geometry. (My father dismissed God; he cared only for the gods.) I was absorbed by shapes and their measurements, the height and width of tables and bureaus and doors, everything hard to the touch and substantially there. I determined early on that I would shun the vapor of words my parents exhaled as from some mist-producing internal fungus — my mother’s, being imitative, somehow more egregious than my father’s. These enveloping clouds of words, and the rapture they induced, my father called the “Bestowal.” It was a term I heard often, especially in relation to its absence in me.

“The child lacks it,” he would say.

“She is wanting in it,” my mother would agree.

They had named me Sidney after a pair of my father’s favored poets: Sir Philip Sidney and Sidney Lanier, both of whom, my mother frequently reminded me, “were known to work in your father’s vein.” She spoke as if they had long ago publicly acknowledged their debt to Cyrus Alkana. I had never cared enough to look up either one.

The Bestowal had come, according to my father, through an ancestral line leading back as far as the poet-prophets Micah and Isaiah, but more immediately through one Rafael Alkana, who was said to have set down torrents of God-praises, in rhyming Ladino couplets, in the margins of his prayer book. In the Inquisitional trauma of that distant departure from a myth-clad Iberia to an equally shrouded Anatolia, the sacred volume was lost — in shipwreck or conflagration, whichever version one preferred.

“Lost yet not lost,” my father said. “Whence, even in the latter-day idiom of the New World, the power of language suffuses the bloodline of the Alkanas.” And recited:

Frigate or trireme,
Oarsmen or steam,
Onward they ploughed,
Spirits unbowed,
Unto the invincible dream.

Though whence and unto were recognizably also among his grace notes, it was unclear whether these lines were his own, or a fragment of some admired minor lyrical Victorian. I did not understand my father’s talk. I sensed only that there was some undeniable connection between these enigmatic outbursts and the mundane truth that we were always worrying about money. I was by then a demanding fifteen, shamed by the way we lived in a three-room flat on the fifth floor of a Bronx walk-up. The kitchen window looked out on a narrow shaft that plummeted down into a bleak courtyard mobbed by rows of metal barrels. I slept on a pullout bed abutting a steam radiator, on top of which were heaped the books my father periodically fetched home from the public library at the end of our street, a redbrick Carnegie whose coal furnace shook the building with its winter roar. On the coldest nights I was assaulted by the peculiar odor of heated binding glue.

These books were never the same for long. They changed their colors and thicknesses — some were squat, some tall and lean, and most had slips of paper, my father’s scribbles, stuck between the leaves. The library was as far into the outer world as my father was willing to go. “He lives in his head,” my mother insisted, and by this she meant me to grasp that my father’s cerebrations were the equivalent of what other fathers had: a regular job. And more. In that labyrinthine space, she implied, were museums and galleries and opera houses and lecture halls and cathedrals and landscapes and monuments: the whole of civilization. If his mind was a kind of Parthenon, then what need had he of the common street?

For herself, though, it was different, and for a brief period during my childhood (it didn’t long outlast my father’s contempt), she ran off to the trolley stop on weekend evenings to begin a rattling journey to the city’s buzz and hum. There were free excitements everywhere, in cafés and parks and lofts and barrooms so dark you could scarcely see the faces around you, where readers stood at ill-lit lecterns and shot out ugly staccato syllables, the women in shawls and sandals, the half-bald men dangling mournful gray hanks of hair from behind their ears. Sometimes, to rid my father of what he scorned as my prattle, she took me with her. I disliked these forced excursions and their puffed-up dronings. Once, as a bribe, she bought for me from a street vendor a mechanical toy with many moving parts — by shifting them cleverly, you could construct a tunnel or a tower or a bridge. But mostly she went alone, returning breathless and exhilarated and smelling foully of cigarettes. “Barbarians!” she called out to my father. “Nothing down there but ranting pygmies, rotten as rat’s hair, no music in it, no sense, no vision, not one in the bunch worth Cyrus Alkana’s fingernail clippings —”

Still, whatever supernal faculty the Bestowal may have conferred on my father, it was she who paid the rent.

“He hadn’t planned on it, not in the least,” she told me when, embarrassed, I went on pressing her: Why, unlike other men, was my father content to remain unemployed? “Upstate was a desert for a mind like that, so when he came down to New York he thought he’d find work in a publishing house, even if he hadn’t a shred of ordinary credentials. They all wanted a college degree. It didn’t impress those fools that he’d read absolutely everything. In fact,” she reminded me — it was an anecdote I knew by heart — “when I first set eyes on your father, it was in the cellar of a used-book store on Fourth Avenue, and he had his nose in Pindar, of all things!”

I never troubled to discover who or what this Pindar was; it was enough to know that if not for my mother’s enchantment in that damp Fourth Avenue cellar twenty years before, I might have been spared the Alkana bloodline. Instead, three months short of what was to have been her graduation from Vassar, my mother took a job as a receptionist in a small law firm not far from the Bronx Zoo, where she could occasionally hear the barks of the sea lions in their outdoor pool. And then began her life as Cyrus Alkana’s shield and support. It was a blessing, she said, that he had been forcibly exempted from the tedious world of offices. Her credo — on behalf of my father — was, she informed me, Solitude and Time, those faithful begetters of the muses. Cyrus Alkana’s exaltations were not to be distracted by the shabby incursions of the everyday. Most evenings, when she was too tired or impatient to cook, she would bring us dinner in paper cartons from a local eatery, and would soon sit down to the secondhand Remington that occupied the farther end of the kitchen table, a kind of shrine dedicated to my father’s papers, many of them accumulated in overflowing folders. Here she would transcribe Solitude and Time’s daily yield, emitting joyful little chirps while tapping away until past midnight.

But my father’s exertions were not always the melodious lines of those squarish sonnets and spreading odes that so excited my mother. Often they were raging letters flung out at his enemies and detractors, and though my mother might plead and remonstrate, she trusted finally in the sacral might of his every outcry, and in the respectful eye of a just posterity. It fell to me to witness the composition of these diatribes, how he splashed them out ferociously with every dip into the ink bottle (my father despised fountain pens), and how he exulted in wickedly ingenious imprecations, oblivious to my watchfulness. My mother regularly missed these afternoon thunderings. She would depart early in the morning for the sea lions’ chorus and be gone until evening, while my school day ended at three; I had all the advantage of seeing Cyrus Alkana actually at work. I had been given my own key, with instructions not to disturb my father’s labors.

And sometimes there were no labors. I would find my father in my parents’ bedroom, lying down, shoeless, with his pale naked feet dangling like animal parts and his dusty socks curled at one elbow. This pleased me. It meant I would have the kitchen to myself and could slam the icebox door if I liked, or crackle cookie wrappers without being reprimanded. I was tempted to slip back into the bedroom to stare down at him — it was my only chance to look at my father without having him look back at me. He had a way of twisting his lower lip to show his disappointment. I felt he always saw in me the work of some jealous spirit (he pretended to believe in such things), his bad luck in having spawned an Alkana perversely passed over by the whims of the Bestowal. He had small close-set very black eyes rimmed by short sparse reddish lashes, placed not quite horizontally (the left one seemed to list toward an ear) in a big head made bigger by a bulky bush of red hair. His eyebrows too were red. Adam, he liked to say, was made of red clay, but his own ruddiness was inherited from King David; I think he was burdened by the inescapable notice it commanded. A tiny tic or tremor went on pulsing through the shut lids. He was sleeping deeply, snoring with drumlike monotony. It was somehow understood between us that I was not to disclose these instances of idleness to my mother. She was confident that his ambition, like her belief in him, was indefatigable.

And it was because of her relentless advocacy that my father began at last to see his things in print. “His things” — this was how my mother, who rarely spoke simply, spoke of Cyrus Alkana’s elevated verse. It was the simplicity of humbled gratitude: she knew herself to be the privileged guardian of a fabled cache of royal jewels about to be put out for public display. Each a peerless emerald or pearl, they had all, one by one, been denied publication by this or that obtuse periodical. But my mother had been too shy. Her newest idea was that a volume of these resplendent strophes, strung together like some priceless Oriental necklace, must irresistibly dazzle even the dullest editorial eye — in pursuit of which she typed, she admired, she inspired, she burnished, and you could almost say she influenced. And certainly she wrapped the finished product in carefully smoothed-out brown paper cut from grocery bags, wrote down the publisher’s address in her best Palmer script, and carried the precious package to the post office to be weighed and stamped and sent off to its fate. In our family, it was my mother who was in charge of outgoing mail.

But because one’s fate is what one must create (her favorite homily), she had already set in motion something else. On a rainy Saturday afternoon when my father had gone out, hatless as always, his hair jutting floridly over his ears, on one of his impulsive rambles to the public library, I heard my mother at the Remington, typing more slowly than usual, stopping and then starting again, with long silences in between. It was not her ordinary pace, that rapid and even cadence of a practiced amanuensis.

She looked up when she felt me watching from the doorway.

“Don’t dare ask me what I’m doing,” she ordered. “I have to think — can’t you see I’m thinking?”

“About what?”

“Getting them to pay attention. Publishers. Editors. You have to have a hook.”

It wasn’t, I knew, that she thought me worthy of being her confidante. But since a conspirator must have an accomplice, even if an inferior one, she earnestly pumped out the rest: “A celebratory imprimatur. An introduction, a kind of preamble. Or call it a preface. That’s what I’m doing.”

Whatever she was finally willing to name it, it described the poet’s circumstances from his birth in backward Thrace to the present flowering of his genius, citing his resemblance to the grandest bards of Albion — and it went off together with each brown-paper packet. Whether or not the tone of these glorifications was persuasive, I could not judge; it was out of my ken and over my head. And my father, it seemed, was kept out of it from the start. Yet what came of it all was three startlingly immediate offers of publication, one from a respected old press (this she quickly dismissed), and the others from two large commercial houses known for their popular successes.

My mother was elated. “We’ll go with the biggest fish,” she told me. “A reward for swallowing the bait.”

The biggest fish, she admitted, had proposed a minnow of an advance while stipulating a single indispensable condition: that the bait be included in the body of the book itself as an enticing illumination of Cyrus Alkana’s lines. I saw her hesitate; she had to think it over, she said. She had schemed it only as a worm on a hook, she hadn’t expected to go public with it. In the end she had to agree: why lose the big fish for the sake of withholding the inconsequential worm? With a quick little turn of her lip I could almost take for smugness, she confessed a covert devising: the sole signatory to the gushing endorsement she had quietly fabricated was Alexander Alcott.

She had made me her reluctant confederate; it was a name even I could recognize. You couldn’t speak, in those years, of an Eliot or a Pound without, for fairness, adding an Alcott. Alexander Alcott was chief among my father’s enemies, routinely reviled together with those graven grand luminaries, the acknowledged titans of modernism. That such rarefied figures could be so readily familiar to me, I owed to my father’s raucous and tireless hatreds.

“But does he know you’ve done that?” I asked.

My mother let out an impatiently innocent grunt. “Does who know what?”

“Alexander Alcott. That you used his name that way.”

“Oh, I don’t need that fool’s permission for anything. Besides, I told them over there that I had it — publishers make such fusses over nonsense.”

“But what if he finds out and sues?”

“Lawyer talk at your age? Sidney dear, you’re a bit of a fool yourself. He’s bound to find out — think of the publicity that’s coming! It won’t make a bit of difference to him, he’s got fame enough to spare, and he’s worthless anyhow. The fellow’s nothing but a pestilence, and these days it’s pestilence that wins the prizes and the prestige. He’s listened to, more’s the pity, his rubbish gets taught in the schools, he’s in all the anthologies, and Lord knows your father isn’t, not yet —”

She went on in this way, and though I resented being called a fool, I was more frightened than hurt. I thought her horribly reckless.

A good-sized volume of Cyrus Alkana’s verses, under the unwieldy title Thou Shouldst Be Living at This Hour, was brought out the following spring. It was reviewed here and there and could be glimpsed, spottily, in the bookstores, but soon disappeared. My mother blamed this short shelf life on the miscalculation of a long-winded title; she took the trouble to inform me, with an uneasy sigh, that my father, who relied on her for much else, had insisted on it. When I dared to ask him what it meant, he rolled his eyes and puckered his bottom lip and said only that it was something out of Wordsworth anyone with a brain in her head ought to know.

I had intended this mostly innocuous question as a preliminary breach into more dangerous territory: what I really hoped to hear was what my father thought of Alexander Alcott’s incursion into Cyrus Alkana’s inviolate precincts. I opened my mouth and nothing came out. I hadn’t the courage to put it to him.

Instead I appealed to my mother.

“He still doesn’t know it was you. Shouldn’t he know who wrote that stuff?”

“If you tell him, my dear Sidney, I’ll poison your cocoa,” she said mildly. “And don’t call it stuff, it’s an appreciation. He understands it was the publisher who wanted it — the sales people over there, for the noise it would make. Well, we’ve been having a bit of noise, haven’t we? People are noticing.”

“But how can he like it? He can’t like it, can he?”

“The idea of your father liking the likes of an Alexander Alcott — what a joke! He despises him, you’ve heard it yourself, those blistering letters, look how he keeps me up every night typing whatever’s got stuck in his craw. Not that the ones to Alcott ever get into the mailbox.”

“They don’t?”

“And why should they? It wouldn’t be politic, not when he’s been so gracious and helped us out and done us a service. Listen, dearie,” she said, “this Alcott’s a rascal like the rest of them, and it gives your father no end of pleasure to see some fool of a charlatan come crawling on his knees, flattering and fawning away in that nice little preface of his.”

Your nice little preface —”

“That’s only a quibble. Your father, wonderful man, takes it as a vindication and a surrender, and so do I. Imagine, here’s the venerated Alexander Alcott practically admitting that in the war between the Pure and the Sham, it’s the Pure that carries the day.”

She had flown into the Alkana sublime once again, and I could almost see the capital letters in the shine of her eyes.

There was no review, meanwhile, that did not remark on the seeming anomaly of Alexander Alcott’s exuberant praise for a sensibility so radically different from his own. The disparity was so glaring, The Nation admonished, that it could hardly have been inspired by collegial generosity: Alkana and Alcott were no more colleagues than they were brothers in arms, and it was an exceedingly strange pod that could contain two such unlike peas. This, it turned out, was to become the general theme among Alkana’s small sect of reviewers. Why had a sophisticated artist imbued with the subtlest vibrations of the Zeitgeist lent his influence to the grotesque delusions of an archaist? The wonderment was so intense, and so confounding, that it brought on a second edition. The impetus for this miracle bubbled up, to start with, at those notorious dinner parties run by the literary set, a pack of up-to-date gossips (this was my mother’s view) who followed the critics solely in order to tear into their arguments. From this narrowest of sanctums a wildfire of curiosity began to spread into the larger arena of the magazines: Why had Alcott done it? And then: But had he done it? It was impossible, it made no sense, so vast a reputation stooping to crown with such extravagant laurels a negligible versifier — a mere mimic of the outmoded.

Outmoded? Cyrus Alkana spat out his grievance in phalanxes of rancor rushed off to the journals that spurned him. Did his assailants suppose they owned the language from the root up, and could do with it, by seigneurial right, whatever they wished? And what they wished to do with it, my father declaimed, was to pull off their shallow showy tricks — they said it themselves, straight out! These jabbering fakers mooing away at their slogans: Make it new, break it down, chop it up, thin it out! And all of it morose, and ugly, and desolating, a wasteland! It wasn’t only the language they were after, it was the tongue and the teeth and the eyeballs and the optic nerve itself, until they got all the way back into the human brain, to modernize even that.

Yet Cyrus Alkana was acquiring a faction of his own: he had his loyal little junta, the hot-blooded coven of his fans. The critic who had named him the American Keats now compared him with the school of Rembrandt — those ingenious disciples whose paintings, far from being imitations, “quaffed from the selfsame celestial spring.” How these accolades animated my mother! Praise for my father might be too sparse, or too bizarre, or too strenuously infatuated, but it satisfied her that after so many years in exile he had attained the recognition he had always deserved. It appeared not to trouble her that we still lived as thinly as we had before.

My father may have arrived at a kind of fame, but even I could see that it came not so much from his devotees as from his detractors. The ongoing flood of those assaults on his enemies (you couldn’t class it as correspondence, since there were never any answers) brought him, it developed, more notice from the reigning literati than whatever fading rumble was left of the shock of publication. There was no third edition. No one turned up to interview him. Occasionally the odd essay or two, like shards churned out of the dry soil of an abandoned dig, would crop up in this or that marginal journal. It might be a zealous study of the titular “Thou” — did it address the poet’s soul, or the solitary reader, or the spirit of Wordsworth himself? Or else it would happen that Cyrus Alkana was cited in some university panel on forgotten minor figures.

In the two quiet years following what my mother happily went on calling my father’s “apotheosis,” the deepest and most perplexing silence was the terrible muteness of Alexander Alcott. I had been wildly apprehensive all along. He had been the object of the minutest inquisitiveness; his repute had been usurped, even molested; some hinted at blackmail. And still he held his tongue. He made no mention of the abuse of his name. He wrote and spoke nothing in public or, as far as anyone could tell, in private. He raised no accusation or threat of anything remotely punitive. Week after week, month after month, I had been fearing a thunderclap: a dangerous letter, or the door bursting open, with police in pursuit. Again and again I badgered my mother. Why was she so indifferent, how could she be so certain that there wouldn’t be some sudden repercussion, a disgrace that might fall on us at any moment, and what would she do then?

“Oh, we’re just fleas as far as he’s concerned,” she said, waving me off. “He doesn’t take any notice, we’re nothing to him, it would only be a comedown for the high-and-mighty Alexander Alcott to be bothered with us.”

“Is that why you took the risk? When you really don’t know anything about him, the way he thinks, how he might take it —”

“How he might take it? You can see how he’s taken it. He doesn’t care. There never was a risk.”

But another time she had a more deliberate argument.

“Did it ever occur to you,” she began, “that the fellow might actually admire your father?”

“How could he? You’re always saying they have nothing in common, they’re opposites.”

“And out of opposition affinity grows. Suppose he’s finally allowed himself a good look at what he said about your father —”

“What you said.”

“ — and recognized the truth of it.”

“The truth of what?”

“The truth of falling in love. A sort of conversion,” she said, and here her voice, which was ordinarily excitedly soprano, darkened into a clairvoyant hush. “He has nothing to complain of, he doesn’t make a fuss, he leaves us alone. Because he’s satisfied, because he sees. Because he knows.

I could only stare; there was nothing more to say. I was by now in my last year of high school, and had absorbed enough of her willfulness to recognize that this newest theory was as capricious as it was preposterous. The modernist Alcott suddenly smitten by the antiquarian Alkana! And all of it resting on (what else could it be called?) a forgery. She had robbed him of his name; now she stood ready to concoct his inmost sentiments. There was more at stake than my childhood notions had been able to swallow, when I was repeatedly told that my father was genuine and noble and that his enemies weren’t. And if proof was wanted, only see: his lines rhymed, and theirs didn’t.

The next afternoon, when my father was again napping — his naps were becoming longer and more frequent — I put on my galoshes and walked through rapidly thickening snow to the public library. My arms were heavy with pretext: my mother, frugal as always, frowning on overdue fines, had instructed me that morning to return my father’s latest batch of borrowed books, still piled on the radiator next to my bed. I was used to their hot smell, but had scarcely noticed their titles — the same hoary bards, the same sunsets and rivers and dryads, the same blurry infinities of a gods-infested cosmos. Except for the preoccupied librarian at the desk, who appeared to be sorting through a file drawer of index cards, the reading room was deserted and nearly silent; there was only the distant subterranean growl of the ancient furnace under our feet. The storm had done its work — I had the place to myself, and uninterrupted hours before me. And in this fortuitously secret space, below high windows palely lit and snow-muffled, I found the man I had come to look for: my father’s enemy, my mother’s dupe.

Or almost found him. The more I followed his tracings — he seemed to be everywhere — the more elusive he grew. Even so, you couldn’t escape him. He took up whole chapters in one academic study after another, he proliferated in the bibliographies, and in the dictionaries he turned up between alcohol and alcove. Two or three essays in the serious journals attempted to uncover a venerable literary connection: Was he a descendant of those estimable New England idealists, the Brook Farm Alcotts? Could he claim a cousinship, however distant, with the admirable Louisa May? There was no conclusive proof favoring a yes or a no; the genealogical paths were murky.

None of this mattered to me, none of it counted. It was the living man I was after, so I burrowed into the glossy weeklies, into those “human interest” articles that confirm renown by adding to it. His name and his fame were titillating enough to land him there, among the politicians and movie stars. But Alexander Alcott disdained the public. He declined to be photographed. As I leafed through mounds of mostly stale magazines I came upon plenty of photos — all of them, disappointingly, of the poet’s house, taken from different angles. A modest stucco, set back from a countrified road. Rosebushes on either side of a door painted red.

Here and there, speculations seeped through — a marriage to an older widow who died; a speech hindrance, slight, intermittent, the cause of a raw self-consciousness. But these were only stories sprinkled among other stories. He lived alone. He disliked leaving his house, though some could remember how, long ago, when he was still in his twenties, he had gone roaming with other would-be young poets, scions of the new movement, to recite in parks and cafés. He was the only one to have lasted. The rest ended mainly as stockbrokers or insurance men; and two drank themselves to death. Of his childhood, I could discover nothing at all. It was as if he had been born out of a crater in the moon, and it gave me a chill to read that he was known to be irascible, a man with a heavy temper and a hidden grudge. Or was it that the librarian, closing for the day, had already shut down the heat?

It struck me as odd (I thought of my mother’s cryptic affinity of opposites) that Alexander Alcott, exactly like my father, was unwilling to step past his own threshold; and that he, too, was easily roused to rage. A hollow equation: despite these echoing traits, Alcott was everywhere revered — he was in all the magazines! — while my father was more and more falling into eclipse.

By the time I got home, the snow had crept up to my ankles, and my mother was standing at the stove, stirring a pot. It was an unfamiliar scene. Her office had been dismissed earlier than usual. Even the neighboring sea lions had been herded indoors to avoid the rough weather.

She was quick to confront me. “Sidney!” The name itself was accusation; peevishly, she tugged at my wet sleeve. “Look at you, your hair all soaked through. What in the world have you been up to, what kept you so long?”

I had prepared a covering lie. When I told it, it sounded true. What need had my mother of the actual Alcott, when she so relished her moist inventions? And I hated the hobbling weight of my hair; she had forced me to let it grow to below my waist (“pre-Raphaelite tresses,” she said) to please my father.

“I got to looking through a bunch of college catalogues,” I threw out, “and I think I’ve found just the place I want.”

“And what place is that?”

On the spot I hatched a name. “Kansas Polytech. For engineering.”

“Girls can’t be engineers,” my mother said. “They won’t let you, it’s not any sort of normal occupation for a girl. Besides, who’s going to pay for your room and board way off in some godforsaken nowhere? Not to mention the tuition, when right here you’ve got a perfectly fine city college that won’t cost a penny —”

“You know my grades are good. I’ll get a scholarship.”

From his customary chair, his elbows lost in a surf of papers, my father growled, “Ah, let her go. The Bestowal’s skipped her anyhow.”

The Bestowal? I was past seventeen, sick of all such illusions, and more than ready to flee our moonbeam lives. It was math, it was physics, it was logic and dirt I was after, and brick and steel and concrete — solid everyday things — and how a bridge can curve in the air like an arrow in flight, with seemingly nothing to keep it there. Some months afterward, I did in fact win a scholarship, not to some mythically faraway Kansas but to an even more distant yet beckoning Texas: a full scholarship, along with a gratifyingly ample stipend. My mother in her melancholy letters never stopped insisting that I had been invited to study structural engineering at Texas A&M solely because of someone’s mistaken impression that Sidney was a boy.

Until my father died nearly four years later, at the start of my last semester, I never went home; I was glad to put half a continent between us. And then, as it happened, I was compelled to miss the funeral. A freak autumn blizzard followed by massive flooding had drowned Texan highways and railroad tracks, thwarting travel. My mother sadly reported that there were only three at the graveside: herself, the librarian from down the street, and the man who had named my father the American Keats; it was he who recited (“by heart,” my mother wrote) Cyrus Alkana’s fourteen-stanza “Ode to the Aegean Cybele.” She had been lamenting my father’s decline all along, week after week, year after year: how the afternoon naps were now beginning in the mornings, and how, little by little, he had given up castigating his enemies — because finally there were no more enemies. No one took any notice, good or bad, of Cyrus Alkana: it had come to that. There were no new verses. The Remington was silent. The books languishing on the radiator, browning at their margins, had become shockingly overdue, until the librarian herself came to collect them. The heap of folders on the farther end of the kitchen table remained stagnant. “From the peak of Darien,” my mother summed up, “to the Slough of Despond.” She had retired to care for my father; she had a small pension.

There was no mention of Alexander Alcott. The name and the incident had receded into worse than oblivion — into a kind of caricature, an ephemeral embarrassment in the long march of my mother’s besotted loyalty to Cyrus Alkana. Even the troubled shame her deceit had once caused me, and my own childish terror of retribution, had faded away. I was preoccupied now with weight-bearing walls, I had begun designing simple beams and columns, I was learning to calculate the load capacity of steel. In thrall to my slide rule and gravity’s recalcitrance, I was, finally, freed from the lying romance of my father’s house.

To celebrate, I cut my hair very short, close to the scalp. In the mirror I saw the head of a boy. It pleased me to have acquired the look of a proper engineer. I tossed away my dresses and skirts, and took to wearing pants and rough shirts that buttoned the wrong way. In the campus cafeteria, crammed into a twenty-five-cent automatic photo booth, I sat for my portrait. With a mechanical click, a long row of boys’ heads emerged from a slot. The most cheerful of the bunch I mailed to my mother. She never acknowledged it.

But when the floods had dried up and the rails were cleared, and my father had been in his grave for nearly a month, my mother wrote urgently again, begging me to come: What was to be done with his precious papers, his treasure trove, his golden egg, his soul’s lantern, was it all to be condemned to perpetual night? Whom could she turn to for advice? She was helpless: the lone votary who had likened my father to Keats was useless for practical matters, not a thread or shred of any other literary connection remained, and only she and I were witnesses to the glory that lay in the scores of bulging folders she was daily uncovering in neglected corners and closets.

I dreaded those papers, and suspected her intent. Surely she didn’t suppose that I would gaze, admire, and at last be swept away — what was the Aegean Cybele to me? She knew my detachment. Or did she imagine (and what might my mother not imagine?) that I could somehow lead her to certain grandly monumental Texan libraries eager to enshrine Cyrus Alkana’s hallowed archive? I was, despite all, an authentic Alkana — of the bloodline, if not of the Bestowal. She meant to lure me back, to draw me in — to keep me imprisoned in that dank emptiness that was just now invading my lungs as I climbed the stairs to my parents’ old flat.

The grimy fake-marble steps and the iron balustrade with its rusting scrolls were the same as they had always been. The shrunken hallways and dusky stairwells groaned out their old echoes. Even the smell of the place was everything I remembered: a sour fume of changelessness, defeat, aging. Silence and loneliness. Two flights above (I had by now arrived at the third-floor landing) a muddy wash of voices swelled and ebbed — and then I heard the shutting of a door, and downward footsteps.

I looked up, and looked again; I stood where I was. Through the gaps in the railings I saw a man descending. One hand slid lightly along the banister, the other gripped a fedora. He was moving easily, firmly, confident of his tread. He wore a long tweed coat with a velvet collar. His shoes were impeccable, the leather unscuffed, the laces orderly. On the fourth-floor landing, glancing down, he hesitated, startled; clearly he had expected the way to be unobstructed. But I stood where I was, taking him in. I recognized the ruddy mass of his hair, the color now much subdued, the wilderness of it tamed and civilized. He had grown a pinkish mustache, overrun by white, that oddly hid his upper lip. As he came nearer, I caught the tilt of his left eye listing toward an ear, like a skiff about to capsize — but his gait was strong, he was robust all over, and he passed me by with a stranger’s nod. My tongue felt frozen in my mouth. How could he know me, with my boy’s head, and my pants and borrowed lumber jacket?

It was my father. I had never before seen him so well dressed.

Ruse! Deceit! Lie! The pretext of his papers? No, the unthinkable, the heinous: my mother the trickster! Had she concocted his decline and his dying, and all of it to snatch me back?

I took the last two flights at a gallop, and faced the door that would open into the life I had repudiated — that enervated life of mist and chimera. Into the scarred lock I thrust the old key my mother had pressed on me long ago. It had taught me to be surreptitious.

She was standing at a window, looking into the street below — watching, I thought, my father go. But where? And in a coat with a velvet collar! When she turned, alerted by the cat’s squeal of the doorknob, I saw how the skin of her jaw hung loose, and how sparse, nearly naked, her eyebrows had become.

But her voice was lively. “Oh, what a pity, such a pity,” she sang out. “Here you are, and you’ve just missed him.” And then: “Sidney! Your hair, what have you done to yourself? Just look at you, what a getup, I couldn’t believe that photo, how your father would be appalled —”

She spoke as if the years of my absence had all at once dissolved, as if my having just then materialized was no more than a daily commonplace.

But I would not allow her to distract me. “You made me come back,” I said: bitterly, coldly. “And all for nothing.”

“For nothing? If only you’d got here on time! He sent a note ahead — it went to the publisher, so it was delayed almost a week, it turned up only the day before yesterday, and by then you’d left, you were on the train for sure, there was no way I could let you know. How I wish you had seen him!”

“Let me know?” I could catch hold only of the tail of this whirlwind. “I did see him,” I said. “On the stairs, coming down, he didn’t recognize me —”

“Condolences, he called it. But Sidney, it was so much more, and imagine, Alexander Alcott right in this very spot! In this very room!”

A rush of shame; the fury drained out of my throat. She was pulling at my sleeve — her old proprietary habit — and I followed where she led. Was she the captive of a delusion? She was ill, her senses were deteriorating, she believed my father was dead, and not five minutes ago I had seen him alive! And hale! And in a coat with a velvet collar! And worse, horrifyingly worse: she had mistaken him for his most hated antagonist.

The kitchen table was littered with remnants of a repast: empty teacups and lavish little colored cakes of a kind that had never before appeared in our household. A sugar bowl where once stood a perpetual bottle of ink. The Remington, too, gone from its place, as if a cavity had been carved out of the air.

“You see,” she said, “he even brought me these pretty petit fours, that’s how gentlemanly he was! And he told me things I never knew, things your father kept to himself.”

It was brutal to listen to. I could think of nothing to say to these muddles, and while she went to find another cup for me (she filled it with weak tea grown cold), I looked all around, searching for evidences of my father: some vagrant sheet with his obsessive scratchings, an ink-stained pamphlet with a note stuck in it, his coddled old dipping pen. There were only the bare plates and their pink and yellow crumbs.

“I always understood it was Cain and Abel between those two,” she went on, “but I never dreamed they’d been so young, boys no more than fifteen or so, hotheads, a falling-out like that, and even now it isn’t clear who was Cain and who was Abel, except that he had that lip all covered up —”

It was unendurable. I broke in headlong: “What boys, for God’s sake? And where was he going just now? He never used to bother about a hat.”

“Oh Sidney, don’t be so dense” — her old tone. “Can’t you see how remarkable it is? That he came? That he was here? He saw the obituary, a tiny little thin thing, no more than six lines, it didn’t at all add up to your father’s proper stature, but still, the blood between them —”

“Blood? What are you saying?”

“The blood of the Alkanas. That’s what brought him.”

She told me then what she admitted she had always known. It was my father’s great secret, she said, he had never once spoken of it, and she had never violated what she perceived to be a sacred ban — a ban rooted in an insatiable rage; or in guilt; or in shame. Or perhaps even in fossilized indifference. But she had known his secret for years and had, in truth, known more of it than he knew himself.

All this I submitted to with a skepticism mixed with fear: What fraud was she brewing now? The purposeful drama of it, her small pale eyes theatrically effulgent, where was she intending to take me?

“I saw him just that one time,” she said, “on Bleecker Street, down a staircase into a smoky cellar, candles set in saucers, a dozen chairs in a circle, that sort of place. A reading along with two others, vile simpleminded stuff, red wheelbarrows and chickens, he didn’t read well at all, and he had that little notch over his mouth. He was already calling himself by that pretentious name he took on, not that it had any shine to it then. But I knew right away.”

It was as if she was drawing me on with tightening straps, and where was she taking me?

I asked, “What did you know?”

“The hidden thing. That my husband had a brother.”

And again, cautiously: “How could you know that? If you never saw him before?”

“Because of the resemblance. Except for that notch. And when I got home that night, I never told your father any of it.”

The illogic, the waywardness! The fantasy, the delusion!

I surrendered docility and tore into her. “You ran into someone years ago who looked a little like my father and you decided he was my father’s brother —”

“What a fool you are, you have no imagination, you don’t understand, you can’t see! There wasn’t an iota of difference, every cell of him, every grain and pore of him, every hair on his head! Identical! And that’s the one the world adores, not your father, they throw garlands around his neck . . . how your father despised that man, and he had no inkling . . .”

Her face collapsed into its grooves, and it came to me — heavily, grievously, ruinously — that my mother’s trick was not of this moment. It was lifelong. My father and his dithyrambs were dead, obliterated, and the man in the coat with the velvet collar was his enemy, whom the world had wreathed in garlands.

But still she was dogged, and it spiraled out, the maelstrom of it, Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Cyrus and Alexander, all of them twinned in the womb, contending even there. And then the falling-out, the horrid divide, that delta of flesh cut out of a lip, the blood, the outcry. “You can’t really get a good look at it,” she said, “a bit of a slash, like a sewed-up harelip, it was only one of those little pocket knives, an argument between boys, that’s what he was telling me —”

An argument between boys? Prodigious boys, extraordinary boys, boys who were already preserving their verses in packets tied with knotted string, wondrous and singular boys, though doubled by the bloodline of the Alkanas. And it was over the bloodline of the Alkanas that they fought: whether it was destined to course through the cosmos or through a grain of sand, whether it was to be venerable and honored or new-made and radical, whether it was sunk in overgrown ancient scum or alive in the pulse of the modern — even then, even then, in their teens! Not over a skate or a pair of purloined socks, or whatever trivial spats ordinary boys turn into wars. The knife that sliced the lip might easily, by a finger’s length, have pierced eye or throat — his brother’s knife, captured and wielded by your father. One boy owned the knife, the other used it. The intent to maim, mutual. The rage, mutual. How alike they were, striving for supremacy! And then he ran away, your father, who might so easily have blinded his brother, or killed him . . .

My mother recited these passionate claims with a strained breathlessness, while I, disbelieving, shocked into ridicule, went on numbly stirring my pallid tea. “Are you telling me — did he tell you — that it was a fight over . . . style?”

“You stupid engineer!” she cried out. “All you have any feeling for is dust — bricks, concrete, who knows what you’re after, looking like that, and you a born Alkana! It was the Bestowal, it was your father fighting against the tide! Even then, he would never go with the tide, don’t you see? And in spite of it, when it comes to the marrow of things, there’s not a droplet’s difference between them . . . Do you know why that man came today? Do you understand why?”

“No,” I said.

“And just think how worried you once were, how afraid you were that he’d punish us.”

“It was long ago,” I said.

“I knew he’d never harm us. I always knew it.”

“You stole his name, you abused him.”

“Oh, his name! He gave up his name, didn’t he? He got rid of it — not to be tainted by his brother, his derided brother, his brother the . . . archaist.” The word was ruthless: she trickled out a covetous little laugh, half pain, half victory. “It was his fame I stole. For your father’s sake, to catch the world’s eye, to get him into print. But I knew,” she breathed out grandly, “he’d never harm us.”

“My father was harmed. You made him a butt.”

“You’re hard on me, aren’t you? When all my life I’ve been a person of forbearance. I never let on to your father that the man he most detested carried his own blood in his veins.”

“His blood, his veins! How could you not expect some retaliation — at least a protest? How could you not? You gave out a hundred different reasons —”

“There was only one reason.”

Again the tightening straps; the reins were now wholly in her hands.

I asked, “And what was that?”

“He didn’t mind. It’s exactly the thing he came to tell me. That he didn’t mind, he’d never minded. And I always trusted that he wouldn’t. Because,” she persisted, “they were breast to breast even before they were born.”

She stopped and looked me over; her nostrils danced in wary distaste. I saw that she was judging me less by what she took to be my indecency of feeling than by my shorn boy’s head.

When I left her — she didn’t try to keep me, after all — I understood that my guileless mother would go on believing forever in the binding force of the bloodline of the Alkanas. And I made no further move to dispute it.

It was the librarian from down the street who salvaged my father’s papers. They were stored in the library’s cavernous underground — one hundred and twenty-three cardboard boxes of unsorted manuscripts, some typed, many more handwritten in the blue-black ink he favored — “awaiting,” my mother wrote in the last letter I ever had from her, “the unborn critic who will restore him to his rightful peers.” But when some years later a nearby water main burst and inundated the old building’s outmoded electrical and heating systems, the library had to be demolished (no engineer would touch it), washing away what a very few still revere as Cyrus Alkana’s lordly if unsung art.

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is the author of six essay collections and thirteen works of fiction. Her most recent book is a novel, Foreign Bodies.


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  • Jenny L

    A fine parable for writers. Competition in aesthetics is the original sin of literature.

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