An hour later, when Cheryl came down for dinner, she had redone her hair and makeup and slipped into a sleeveless black Marc Jacobs number she had worn only once before, at an Alpha Kappa Alpha cotillion the previous fall. The dress, with its shirred silk and its low scooped back, was a touch too couture for the room, which was, to Cheryl’s mind, precisely the point.
“Whoa,” Frank said when he met her at the foot of the stairs. “You look…”
“Like a girl who had a weak moment at Bergdorf’s,” she said. “But thank you. I’m not late for dinner, am I?”
Frank, she noted, had cleaned up well, too, looking slim as a popsicle in slacks and a slate gray sport coat. It was shallow of her, she knew, but it mattered to her that she could see the man she was dating all trussed up in a coat and tie and still want to jump his bones.
He led Cheryl to a side room where a small crowd, most of them older and dressed for dinner, had gathered around Shelby Watkins who was speaking in hushed tones about the painting of his mother on the wall. The temperature in the room cooled a few palpable degrees when Frank and Cheryl entered, but aside from one much older man, who ran his eyes over her from head to toe like a horse dealer inspecting a prize filly, no one gave them a second glance.
“We don’t know much about the artist,” Shelby was saying, “except that he had a studio in Washington and was active in the forties and fifties. We do know that he painted two portraits of Eleanor Roosevelt, one of which I believe is still in the White House collection.”
In the portrait, hung with a gilt frame and a museum-style over lamp, a thirtyish Rebecca Watkins sat in three-quarters profile, wearing a flowing lilac-blue dress and a flirtatious smile. She was striking a pose, smiling prettily for a man, yet there was a quiet ferocity in the downward gaze she directed at the viewer. Oh yes, Cheryl thought. This was a woman who never took shit off anybody.
“Your mother wasn’t directly related to the Bufords, was she?” asked an elderly matron.
“There’s talk of a distant Buford cousin, but I have my doubts,” Shelby said. “Mother was a Lee on her mother’s side—and then, of course, her father was a Randolph.”
The elderly woman studied the portrait on the wall. “There is something aristocratic in her bearing, isn’t there?” she said.
“You never would’ve known it if you’d met her,” Shelby said. “Mother was raised in the humblest of backgrounds. Her parents were missionaries and she was born in the Philippines. But I saw a genealogy she had done once, and sure enough, her mother’s family went right back to a first cousin of General Lee himself.”
His gaze alighted on Cheryl, then darted away, suddenly unsure of the wisdom of claiming kinship with a defeated Confederate general. Feeling the eyes of the room fall on her one by one, Cheryl realized she needed to speak up.
“It certainly does fit with the ambiance of the rest of the house,” she said.
Frank snorted softly, but any secondary meaning sailed over his uncle’s head.
“Indeed,” Shelby said. “And to think, if it had been left up to Daddy, this would still be in storage.”
A silver-haired black man in the long white coat of a wait captain appeared in the doorway and nodded to Shelby.
“Yes, one moment,” Shelby said. The wait captain left as soundlessly as he’d appeared, and Shelby turned back to the room. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m needed in the kitchen.”
He bowed, making his exit, and after a few more murmuring glances at the painting, the crowd melted away, leaving Cheryl and Frank alone under his grandmother’s steely gaze.
“Did she really look like that?” she asked.
“Oh yeah,” Frank said. “And that was when she was in a good mood.”
Cheryl flashed on a memory of a story Frank had told her that winter about his grandmother and a girl named Annie Johns who had worked for his family. When she looked at Frank, she realized he was recalling the story now, too.
“When I was a kid, this painting was on the wall of the dining room, right behind her place at the head of the table,” he said. “It was so weird, like there was always two of her. So, even if my real grandma took her eyes off me, my other grandma was up there on the wall making sure I said ‘please’ and never put my elbows on the table.”
Cheryl tightened her grip on his hand, her memory of his story about Annie Johns mingling with her own memories of the photograph of Eustace Crawford in her father’s study. It was always there, wasn’t it, the bond they shared in their sense of family and their need to live up to it?
Just then, from the back of the house, an ancient dinner bell clanged.
“Thank God,” Frank said, laughing at himself. “Let’s get out of here.”
To accommodate the crowd of more than a hundred Bufords and Watkinses, the staff had thrown open the French doors that lined the rear wall of the house to connect the dining room to the back porch. When she and Frank found their place cards, Cheryl realized they had been seated in a far corner of the porch with a noisy group of teenage Buford cousins. The kids’ table, in other words. Cheryl felt sure the slight was intended, but at least for the next hour, she could eat in peace without having to endure the stares of Mrs. Buford’s assembled guests. Cheryl never did get used to the red-vested waiters, but the antics of the kids at their table, their lightning spats and loopy efforts to get the waiters to serve them wine, cracked her up, and before long, she had forgotten her long, nauseating afternoon, and, suddenly famished, she polished off her own dinner and half of Frank’s.
As the dessert plates were being cleared, a red-faced man in a spotless white planter’s suit rose from his place at the head table and tapped his water glass with a spoon, quieting the room.
“Let’s get a little closer,” Frank whispered in Cheryl’s ear. “I think my granddad’s going to say something,”
She had been half-hoping she could slip unnoticed onto the lawn where the younger children were out chasing fireflies, but she let Frank lead her to a side porch where a second door opened onto the dining room. Just as they reached the doorway, the room burst into applause and Nelson Watkins pulled himself to his feet, clutching his brass-handled cane.
“Thank you, thank you, that was very kind,” he said. “You know, when Bill and Sara told me they was having this party and wanted me to say a few words, I wasn’t sure they had the right man for the job. I know you all’re expecting me to stand up here and tell you all the pretty things I remember about this house. You want to hear what a grand lady old Mrs. Buford was, and how Old Man Buford used to have us up here to bob for apples at harvest-time. But I’m too damn old for that. Here’s the truth. Here in Buford, us Watkins was the poor relations. I used come to this house every summer with my daddy, just about this time of year, so he could settle up on the cattle we give Mr. Buford to send to the slaughterhouse. I’d set out on the porch with Daddy, no shoes on my feet, wearing patched-up trousers still stinking from swamping out the stables, until the old man come out with the account book. He’d put on his glasses, and run his big long finger down a set of figures. Then he’d shake his head, looking kind of sorry for us, and he’d say, ‘Well, Watkins, you ain’t gonna like it.’
The doctor paused for breath and a hundred behinds shifted awkwardly in their seats. Diners shot glances at their neighbors, some puzzled, some buzzing with scandal, each in one way or another preparing for a very different after-dinner speech than they’d been led to expect.
“Daddy didn’t say a word,” Watkins said, “just sat there turning his hat round in his hand while the old man told us the weight hadn’t been what we’d hoped, or how three of the cows we’d sent died before they got to the slaughterhouse. Then he’d cut a check for a couple hundred dollars less than it oughta been, and Daddy and him’d shake hands, and we’d walk off. Walked all the way home, five long miles, not saying a blessed word. We’d be clear down to the river almost before Daddy’d say: ‘God damn him, that man thinks I can’t count.’
“Now, I’m sorry if there’s folks here who don’t care for this story. I don’t mean to give offense. I’m just telling you what I remember. How mad I was at my daddy. How much I hated him for letting himself get rooked, knowing the figures wasn’t right and not having the craw to speak up. I promised myself I’d never end up like him, running cattle on some played-out piece of land, working nights in the tannery to pay the feed bill. That’s all I thought about. Leaving this place. Getting enough education so when the time come I could go to college instead of running cattle or going into the mill. The day the letter come from the University of Virginia, I was back of a mule plowing a field of corn. Mama ran out into the field waving that letter over her head, shouting, ‘Boy, you can set down that plow!’ And that’s what I did. Set it right down in the middle of that cornfield. I never planted another acre of corn in my life.”
The old man was starting to fade, the ropes of muscle tightening in his neck, beads of sweat forming on his forehead. From her place on the porch, Cheryl willed him onward, willed him to find the strength to finish telling this room full of smug Buford relations the story he’d come all this way to tell.
“Before I knew it,” he said, “I was a married man with two boys and a house on the smart side of town. I had a big yard and a maid and more damn bathrooms than I knew what to do with. When I sent my boys to school, it wasn’t a one-room schoolhouse where you brung your own chalk. They went to prep school up north. When it was time for college, they went to Harvard, both of them, on my dime.
“I don’t reckon there’s anyplace else on earth a poor boy like me could come up off a farm, barefoot and ragged, and send his boys to Harvard. It could only happen here, in this country, in this place. When Mama and Daddy died, we sold the last of the old Watkins sections. That was in 1956, and I couldn’t tell you the last time I been out here. I don’t expect to live long enough to see it again. But I’m here now, and tomorrow morning, I’m gonna gather up my family and we’re gonna drive out to the old section. I’m gonna walk through the house where I was born, and then I’m gonna go out into that cornfield and touch the soil. Scoop it up in my hands. Don’t get me wrong. I hate that damn place. It killed my daddy and it woulda killed me, too, if I let it. But that land is me. That farm, that house, that sorry little section of land, that’s who I am.”
He turned to Frank and Cheryl on the side porch, and she suddenly wondered if he’d known they were there all along. “That’s an easy thing to forget,” he said. “You can wake up one day like I did, find yourself in a big house, somebody downstairs cooking you breakfast, somebody else ironing your shirts, and think you were born there. Think that good, soft life is yours by right. But it ain’t.” He turned back to the room, his chin high, defiant. “If you’re anything like me, you come a long way to get here. So go out tomorrow and walk your land, touch the earth, get the feel of it under your feet. Because that is you. This land, this country, it’s in you. It’s all you are.”
He broke off as abruptly as he’d begun, and grappling with his cane, he pulled out his chair and sat down. There was a brief, disconcerted round of applause, which he ignored, and nodding to a tablemate to acknowledge a kind word, he took a greedy sip of water.
“Thank you, Dr. Watkins, for those wise and inspiring words,” stammered the elderly Buford at the head table. “Now, before we go on, I’d like to take note of some of our relations who have traveled very long distances to join us tonight.”
“You don’t have to stay for this,” Frank whispered. “You go on. I’ll be up in a few minutes.”
Frank, she saw, had misted up during his grandfather’s speech. Cheryl felt wrung out, too, as if she’d run a five-minute mile. She couldn’t have said precisely what had moved her about Dr. Watkins’ speech, except that she’d heard her father’s voice in it, that ancient, unkillable anger leavened by pride. Only half-knowing what she was doing, she leaned in and kissed Frank once, hard, on the lips. “I love you,” she whispered, and ducked out onto the porch.
About the author:
Michael Bourne’s fiction has appeared in Tin House, December, The Southampton Review, The Common, and The Cortland Review. He is a contributing editor at Poets & Writers Magazine and a staff writer for The Millions.