The Abora of the Coast
The War was over, Lee had surrendered, and in the North people were happy and people were celebrating and so it was time to build hotels on the beach, and three years later the Ocean House opened in Watch Hill and everyone said it had the best views of the Atlantic in all of Rhode Island, Newport be damned, and in August there were two hundred people on the terrace and in the lobby and in the rooms and on the beach, and fountains of champagne fell into overflowing glasses and John Alexander Cody was pouring in the ballroom.
The summer finale. In the morning edition, The Newport Daily Sun had listed notable society figures who would appear that evening at The Ocean House. The round, jutting portico with revivalist Greek columns, the bay windows in moonlit shadows on the second-floor terrace, the small, white framed dormer windows of the third and fourth floors, and the high, black hipped roof above with two chimneys poking from each side, the northern chimney leading down to a massive stone fireplace in the marble lobby, and all vibrated with the thunder of feet and laughter.
In the ballroom, a six-piece band and dancing. The dresses were mostly white and blue with low necklines and lace on the sleeves, and the skirts were long and fell over themselves in waterfalls of fabric and tailed behind the ladies as they spun and touched short white gloves to their chests. The suits had three pieces, and some had patterns, one even had stripes, and a pile of stovepipe hats sat in the corner and none of the men worried that theirs might get lost. A single chandelier was burning and the flames danced, too, as the gold fixture swayed. Windows fogged from the heat.
John Cody finished pouring and wiped his forehead. He picked up and carried his bucket, his ice, and his champagne onto the slate stone patio and set them on the table. Then he turned and looked east down the coast, feeling the breeze sneak down his back where his shirt stuck to his skin. A chill, the most pleasant chill. He thought about heading west, like his father had eighteen years ago, but not to die, as he did two years later.
A thin, waning moon hung over the ocean. A woman’s distant laugh came from down below the sloped lawn peppered with gray boulders, past the little path where the boulders devolved to pebbles and the briars poked out in front of your face and there were blackberries in the bushes, too, from the sand, which was still warm from the heat of the long, cloudless afternoon, and her laughter carried above the crashing waves.
Cigar smoke soon danced in curlicues from so many little red dots on the patio, followed by the deep exhales of the tired men, pulling watches from their breast pockets in unison, and sighing, because it was close to midnight and the summer was about to end and it would still be hot in Boston and New York and Chicago. The ladies fanned themselves and begged for one last dance. A woman with ashen hair under a blue bonnet leaned against the stone wall at the edge of the patio, looking back into the ballroom, shaking her head.
“The War is over,” she was saying. “It is about time we become a civilized people. Enough with the wine, enough with these drunken sprees.”
A hard hand came down on his shoulder and turned John Cody away from his view of the moon.
“Frankly, young Mr. Cody, I’m graveled,” he said with a raised finger. “I do believe that three hours ago I told you that you were not to move from the spot, except to retrieve another bottle from the cellar.” Crandall, the maître d’hôtel, stood up straight in his black vest, tilting his chin upward, the little hairs, before putting a handkerchief to his bald head. “So why then, if you’ll humor me, are you standing on the patio stargazing?” His eyes narrowed.
“Well, I was just—”
‘“Well, sir,’ you mean.” Crandall affected a French accent seemingly at random, but deep down he was just another Swamp Yankee like John Cody; a sad and angry man from Warwick. Somewhere in the fields of Virginia a dead wife and son. Those dead were the only reason John Cody didn’t throw a sockdologer into Crandall’s thin, tilted nose.
“Yes, well, sir, I was just checking to see if any of the guests out here needed refreshments. As lots of them was heading outside. The band’s breaking for a rest.”
“Mr. Cody, you should be more shy in trusting yourself. Your…instincts.” He pocketed the square of cotton. “Now if you wouldn’t mind bringing an end to your cavorting, Mr. Russell has requested a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon in his room. Would you…?”
He held his arm out into the ballroom and waved his hand. John Cody started toward the stair that led to the caverns in the cellar, musk smells and echoed drips and deep darkness, where the wine lined the shelves in one room and another room filled with ice. “Fix your hair and run right back down,” said Crandall, swatting him on the head as he passed.
On the stairs to Mr. Russell’s room, John Cody paused and leaned against the wall. It would be hot out west, he thought. Hotter than this, even.
Quiet on the top floor. The bright blue carpet shined down the long hall even in the thin light of John Cody’s lamp. His footsteps made no noise. He came to the room at the end of the hall and knocked and listened, but there were no sounds, except for the ocean, whose waves were the metronome of Watch Hill, the crash and the return, the crash and the return. In the absence he noted the clock needed to be wound.
Then the door in front of him flew open and a man with a high forehead, dusty brown hair, a Greek nose, and sleepy eyes grabbed the bottle and examined its label. His face was unshaved. He hadn’t attended the ball. His silk dressing gown reached the floor, and the burgundy red fabric seemed to hold all of the candlelight in the room.
“How rude of me,” Mr. Russell said, looking up from the bottle. “Come in, please, please, please.”
His room was a mess. Teapots lined the armoire and rumpled clothes were tossed all over the divan. A pile of books had avalanched off the chest at the foot of the unmade bed and spilled onto the floor. A silk tapestry hung over the room’s picture window. Swinging with the breeze from the open window, the fabric showed some oriental arcadia with cranes on lime green grass in the foreground and twisted, melting willows falling backward into a river, and in the distance there was a gray fortress on a hill. Another tapestry, flung over the standing mirror next to the bed, showed orange and pink flowers bleeding into one another on the surface of light blue water, soft white lines showing waves. The wallpaper—innumerable roses, pink like lips, with ocean-blue leaves and vines all interconnected—peeled at the edge of the plaster molding near the top of all four walls. Tiny candles burned on the each nightstand and the desk, and their light played on the walls and set everything pulsing.
Mr. Russell sat in a chair at the desk next to the breathing bottle. He lit a long black pipe and let smoke whisper from his mouth, and the breeze carried it to John Cody. It was an unfamiliar sort of tobacco. Mr. Russell stared at the tapestry dancing in the window for a few long seconds.
“Sir?” John Cody ventured.
“Yes. I am here.” Mr. Russell spoke facing the window.
“Is there anything else I may do for you, sir?”
“What is your name, young man?”
“John Cody, sir.”
“You have a strong chin. And cannonball eyes.” He paused and then poured the wine into a dirty coupe glass.
“What do you dream of, John?” He sighed. “Call me Samuel.”
He laughed. “Are you familiar with Coleridge?”
“Are you a reader, Mr. John?”
“I read some.”
“Whom do you read?”
“I like Thoreau best. And Homer.”
Mr. Russell waved a hand in front of him, still facing the tapestry. “‘The shadow of the dome of pleasure floated midway on the waves; where was heard the mingled measure from the fountain and the caves. It was a miracle of rare device, a sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice! A damsel with a dulcimer in a vision once I saw; it was an Abyssinian maid, and on her dulcimer she played, singing of Mount Abora.’ Do I hear a guitar down there? A harp?”
“I am not so sure. But I know, I am sure, that she is dead.”
“Beg, beg your pardon, sir?”
“Four years ago, I collapsed at my mother’s funeral. But, there I was, hovering in the church looking down at myself. And a woman, she whispered into my ears, through a kiss, that she missed me. But that also, I was too late, she was already gone, and my mother spoke well of me, she said. I have never seen her in all my waking life, this woman.”
“I’m terribly sorry to hear that, Mr. Russell. May I bring you anything else?”
“Did you know the foundation here,” he waved his wand, “is all ash?”
He turned and looked at John Cody in the doorway for a moment. “That’s the truth. Twenty some years ago the village burned down. All these mansions and houses are a vision from Chief Ninigret’s apocalypse.” He finished the glass and poured another. “I dream of harsh winds and fire. The wind comes up from the ground like a reckoning. And the fire falls like rain, but it doesn’t burn. And colors. All the colors bleed. I spend years in that landscape and sometimes I wonder if I haven’t woken up. It’s wide and flat there. These hills outside my window set me to worrying. What do you dream of, John?”
“Going west, mostly.”
Mr. Russell perked up. “You’re going west?”
“Next spring. Hopefully. Been planning for a long time. I’ve been in the same place for so long.”
“The gold’s all gone, you know.”
“I know. But I imagine all the living’s better out there. I gotta get some distance on me.”
He stood and faced John Cody. There was a long pause and the ocean filled the room. His mouth twisted as if to speak, but then it got caught on something and the words didn’t come for a long second. “That’s your dream, Mr. Cody. And a noble one. And when the railroad is finished you’ll ride out there easy, right on the back of the chinaman. But that is not what I am interested in. Tell me, what are your dreams? As when you wake up clutching your throat or where you wish you’d never wake up at all.”
John Cody switched the lamp from his right hand to his left hand. “Sometimes, I dream of the War. I’ve always been good with a rifle. Hunting and the like. I wanted to fight but it was finished before I got a chance. I tried telling the officer I was eighteen but he didn’t believe me. Anyway, he knew my mother. I dream of being in the battles sometimes.”
“Who taught you how to shoot?”
“Taught myself. My father was gone before I was walking. My mother said he was a good shot.”
“Would you like a glass of wine?” He went back to the desk and then seemed to forget what he was doing there and spun around. “Where is your father now?”
“He died out West.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, John. Do you think of him often?”
“I suppose I do. I think he intended that I join him out there when I was old enough. He never made it himself. He died in the desert. I dream of the desert sometimes, too. The sand is hard in my dreams, not like the beach at all.”
Mr. Russell was staring at the tapestry in the window. “My father, I didn’t know him well, either. He managed trade in China and in Bombay. He tried to explain the Canton system to me but he became frustrated when I couldn’t follow the logic of finances. He could speak their language. He adapted to their religious sensibilities.” He waved his hands like an actor as he spoke, his audience behind him. “They don’t like American goods, the chinamen. They think that our goods are poisoned with a weakness that is contagious. A weakness of the soul. My father came back home to Connecticut and found he didn’t like it much. But he wasn’t well enough to return to China and so he died. But he brought China back with him. My inheritance. We should all be thankful to have China in our country now. Every time you sip tea. Or take silk between your fingers.” He pulled the edge of the floating arcadia. “When you ride west you should be especially thankful.”
“I will be, sir.”
One of the candles on the nightstand had burned to completion and the wax sat in a semi-liquid pool as it cooled. The band was rousing the crowd for one last song. Clapping rose the four floors to the window.
Mr. Russell sat down in the chair. His head slumped back, and then snapped up and he drank. “This place isn’t Eden. Did you know that? I read in a paper that someone called the Ocean House a paradise.”
His voice weakened and came slowly like raindrops falling from heavy leaves after the shower passes. “It is close.” Smoke drifted up from his head as he relit the pipe. “I think up here, in the North I mean, they have a better sense. With the gold, and the ports, and all this land, why should we need slaves? It’s been taking care of. We’re taken care of. Sweet Providence. The capital of your state.” He laughed to himself. “The fires always return, but by then, you’ll be an old man remembering the battles you never fought.”
“Yes, Mr. Russell, I think I need to be getting on now.”
Mr. Russell took no notice of John Cody. “When the rail is finished we will all be connected. But everyone cannot be happy at once. Balances in the world. Like scales. Clocks. Suns and moons. I dream of the moon some nights. Or maybe I see it truly then, finally, perfectly, as nothing quite is when I am awake.” He ripped the tapestry from the window. There it hung; a disappearing crescent of so many craters up over the ocean, higher than before, drifting away from the wine-black water.
“I don’t think I was born in the right place. This could never be my Eden. Mine is in the East. The moon beckons me that way at the beginning of every night. As does the sun every morning. But what can I do? I become deathly ill if I take a rowboat in a pond. I can’t even stomach the riverboats. God tells me where I must go but won’t allow me to. What do I trust, my flesh or heaven? I feel heaven calling me in my head, but is my head not part of my flesh? The flesh that binds me to the ground and forbids me from the seas.”
“Should I go, Mr. Russell?” John Cody hadn’t entered the room. There was a faint cry down below. He heard his name in the breeze.
“To me, and please don’t be insulted, John. To me it seems like you were born at the wrong time. Born too late. You were not meant for any sort of paradise. Or this thing so close to it. Look at those rocks over there, by the lighthouse.” He leaned far out of the window and pointed to the right, where the lighthouse appeared at the crest of a rocky peninsula. “Like Abora.”
“Sir.” John Cody was certain Mr. Russell would fall from the window but then he fell back into the chair at the desk.
“You were a warrior, Cody. Are a warrior. I can tell from your face. But God placed you on the earth too late, if that is possible. Maybe your parents are to blame. But there’s no doubt that you were meant for times of turmoil.” His head slumped and John Cody took one step backward. “Some men were meant to run head first into walls. They can never rest. I have no trouble resting, but my curse is that the rest never feels quite complete. Something about the water here, maybe.” He finished a glass and poured the wine again. He turned to John Cody and smiled purple. “What do you think about when you fall asleep at night?”
“Nothing much. I look at the wall.” John Cody scratched the back of his neck with his free hand.
“I think about fields of poppies swaying in the glow of dusk, warm burgundy dusk, and I crawl into night, and the stars are early up above, blue stars pushing through purple twilight into my eyes. A different set of stars in that sky, my father told me, the eastern sky. Those are my stars. But I think your stars have burned out altogether. Only recently. They’ve been replaced by these bright houses. We don’t need war with such lovely houses.”
But John Cody couldn’t hear him; he was down the hall then taking the stairs fast.
It was in the fall, three years later, that John Cody climbed aboard a westbound train with a black band around his arm and a duffel that had been his father’s over his shoulder. He had grown a beard over his square chin. He had tired of the coast and found no joy in swimming in the Atlantic waves any longer, and his anchor had been lifted, though he felt guilty to think of her as such, but he moved now—the whistle blew loud like a scream escaping from the earth. John Cody found he couldn’t sleep as he watched rows of pines poke into the premature dark of autumn.
Days passed. At each station he wondered if his money would hold out and he would count it again and then lift his wide brimmed hat and scratch his head. Worrying about money freed him from worrying about other, more troubling things, because after a while on the rails great spaces and forest unrolled like they were nothing. Faces in the window lasted for only a moment, a hand held to the steaming monstrosity crashing through horizons, and he always lifted his hand back, all those little girls, all those rock-throwing boys, and the scale of it all became a faint pressure in the lungs of the lonely Rhode Islander, a suffocating feeling.
He never made it West. When he got to the halfway point the train was greeted by hellfire and the city night glowed deep orange like the devil’s eyes. At the station they were asking for able young men to save Chicago and so John Cody offered his hand.