Constance didn’t like taking the van with the other Park Hill residents, all females. Eve Gagne. Lisbeth Fields. Sunny Coulter. Lucy Kemp. Dot Plank. Audrey Widman. Side by side, hip against hip. Freddy the patronizing driver telling them, “You’re going to enjoy this, ladies.” Who was Freddie Marchetti to tell them what they would or would not enjoy? Ah, men. Men flaked away like dandruff, bits of skin. Husbands, boyfriends, short-timers, and what were they called? One-nighters. Constance hated women giggling about one-nighters.
She irritated people herself. She was born in Southern Rhodesia long before it became Zimbabwe. Was that so complicated? Yet no one knew either country existed. Grew up in London, a London awash in brown fog, brown cigarette tobacco and brown beer, everything brown, but delicious, racy. Decided never to visit the Tower of London, confounding everyone then and now. Hadn’t seen the crown jewels? No, I had better things to do, didn’t you? Afterward Michigan, Massachusetts, the divorce, Florida, the second divorce, then fellows who couldn’t zip their pants or find their glasses and what about the left slipper? Where was the goddamn left slipper? She remembered Pete limping pat it twice, driven by his obsession with not walking barefoot, even inside, certainly not onto the balcony for his coffee.
All the hens had these stories. Constance didn’t want to hear them. Eve Gagne lectured her after only two days: “You don’t listen, Constance. You say something, a person responds, and there is this ‘no reply necessary’ look on your face, as if we’re all stupid. We’re not all stupid. Remember that.”
“I shall,” Constance replied, the “shall” a perfect example of what galled the others. She’d gone to boarding school in England, learned proper English, and been on the stage by the time she was fifteen. So she said “shall.” No one said “shall” but Constance.
They climbed a cedar-lined drive. Freddie parked under the portico. Constance had entered the van first and exited last, her movements synchronized with neither rushing nor dawdling but with the requirements of endless self-castigation. She’d done this to herself, no one else to blame. Sold out in Miami and followed poor Jerry to Park Hill so he could be near his daughters, who despised Constance. What a terrible death, the purple blemishing of his limbs gradually deprived of oxygen gave his bones a friable quality, one dissolving after another as if he were a large biscotti being dipped into coffee, a foot falling to the bottom of the cup, a hand, a whole arm. She wanted out, but the terms of entry had required almost everything she had. She couldn’t afford withdrawal. Meanwhile Jerry’s girls blamed her that an 87-year old man was crumbling. Hah. Hadn’t touched him in years. The idea of loyal friendship seemed beyond them, but that’s what put Constance in his will, infuriating them still further. If he wouldn’t change it, they wouldn’t visit him, or thought they wouldn’t, but they did. He would lie in bed fantasizing he was talking to one of them, and Constance would reply, playing a daughter’s role just as she would as an actress. Old men on their deathbeds have such sweet, watery defenseless looks. If he bleated, “Lorna?” Constance answered, “Yes, Daddy,” and it brought a smidgeon of peace to his troubled brow, the furrows inflamed, red as jellyfish stings. If he said, “I’d like to go to the beach, Karen, okay?” she told him okay. That soothed him, too. There was no going to the beach, but what did it matter? He was out of his mind. No lawyer would allow him to change his will even if he wanted to, which he didn’t, so at least now Constance had a little money. He loved her, was among her best beaux, and she missed him.
The women sat on seven of the forty folding chairs in the multipurpose room. Four pubescent boys came out, led by a man with a dashing, if thinning, widow’s peak and the rest of his hairline deeply receded. We are so glad you’re here, ladies. All that. A brief performance for you. All that. But he had a sincerely enthusiastic look about him and when he pivoted and raised his arms, his whole body trembled with excitement like a leashed dog that has just seen a squirrel. Three of the boys were white, one black. Naturally Constance looked at the black one. Black people had been her ground since infancy, her nannies and playmates, effectively the human horizon arrayed around the garden, the city, the countryside. They were in Africa after all, and there weren’t any indigenous white Africans. Even as a child Constance knew that. The sun washed them out. What remained was the deep authenticity and substance of glorious black skin.
This black boy began to sing, couldn’t be other than the soloist, seizing his moment the way a twisting river follows the path of a deep gorge and finally plunges into the free fall of the cataract. His three accompanying cherubim formed a kind of aural cape, spreading out behind him. They sang little things, perhaps reflecting the music master’s judgment about what old ladies could take, not too much about death but yes a little about love, the kind of love he perhaps imagined they had experienced decades ago and still cherished: “Down by the Salley Gardens,” “Robin Hood and Allen-a-Dale,” “John Henry,” “Die Zufriedenheit.” A few others. The harmonies were delicious, likewise the tenderness of the boys’ voices, their unblemished belief in the eternal companionship of music and life, never one without the other, always together, forever and ever.
How loudly can seven old women clap? Not loudly, but they can croon and sigh, and one, Constance, could leap to her feet and shout, “Bravo!” as if she were at the Met, irritating all the others who did not want to get up until it was time to go, which eventually it was.
“Oh, no,” Constance said, “let’s stay a bit and talk to the boys.”
“I really have to get back,” Sunny Coulter said.
Eve Gagne said, “The boys do, too, I imagine. We’ve taken up quite a bit of their time.”
“No, no,” the music master Charles Feveral said, “it’s been their delight, hasn’t it boys?”
The boys said nothing. Their smiles were very small and abashed.
“Here now,” Charles Feveral said, “let’s pull up chairs and chat a bit. Let’s do exactly that.”
The boys arranged some folding chairs so that everyone sat in a kind of circle. The white boys were named Tom Malinowski, Richard Locke, and Allen Weymouth. The black boy was named Algernon Custade.
“That’s an Italian name, isn’t it?” Lucy Kemp asked Agnes Gagne in an indiscrete whisper.
“I have no earthly idea,” Agnes replied.
“It could be, you know…a kitchen thing, the dessert,” Lisbeth Fields said.
“Why on earth would it be a ‘kitchen thing’?” Constance snapped.
She couldn’t take her eyes off him and couldn’t care less about his name. Visually she touched his nose and ran her fingers–thumb and forefinger, actually–down its bridge to its nostrils; she traced his ears, again with her eyes’ fingertips; she recalled that surprising, somewhat disturbing voice. Well, it had descended heavily, hadn’t it? He’d been making an effort. In fact, this could be the very last afternoon he sang before its change grew irrevocable. Every boy’s voice changed. She knew that. As a young actress, she’d lived with it, the unpredictable crack and screech generating unwelcome, unintentional laughter as those ghostly English lads blushed, almost died, of embarrassment. They wanted to hold onto the success of their boyhood, but they were plummeting into manhood, every one of them.
The music master had a plan, and the women, all experienced in what was coming, grew reserved, even severe, as he sketched it out. From the Warner Boys’ Choir School every boy would be going somewhere else. Tom, Richard, and Allen already knew where–schools up the East Coast. The issue was where would Algernon go, and how could it be financed? Year after year the school faced the same problem. Mr. Feveral cooperated with a number of choirs in South Carolina to get just the right boy and bring him to New Jersey for sixth, seventh and eighth grade, but then?
Agnes asked, “Why couldn’t he simply go back to South Carolina when his replacement arrives?”
“Where in South Carolina?” Dot Plank asked.
“Saluda,” Mr. Feveral said, “which isn’t much of a place, to tell you the truth.”
“Who were you singing with in Saluda?” Sunny asked Algernon directly.
“The church choir, ma’am,” Algernon answered.
The three white boys looked at Algernon with a mixture of envy and pity. They were embarrassed for him, but Feveral kept going.
“When I first heard him it was just in the nick of time. He had a voice beyond belief. Already they were making him sing too much and too often. The congregation loved him and passed him to other churches. He’d sometimes perform four times in a weekend!”
“Who paid for him to come here?” Lisbeth asked.
“A judge in Saluda, but he’s done all he can. In fact…”
“He’s passed away?” Lucy asked.
Feveral looked at Lucy with wry consternation. How did she know?
Algernon sat before them utterly expressionless. His hair was short, he had full lips, and wore a white shirt that was a bit brown at the collar.
Constance asked him, “What do you want to do, Algernon?”
Algernon didn’t answer. He was almost, Constance sensed, the epitome of thousands of youngsters she’d seen in Southern Rhodesia for whom such a question would be meaningless. What did they want to do? What did their wishes matter? Who had wishes? She felt torn, fearing she might add permanently to his embarrassment, but the idea she had in mind required an answer or there would be no point. He had to be able to speak, he had to be able to demonstrate that he could defend himself with more than his pure voice while also enduring its change. He couldn’t be inarticulate and hopeless. She’d never been either. It was how she survived and explained how she could sit there thinking what she was thinking despite the fact that the other women were looking at her with impatience and what might be called dislike.
“You must tell us, Algernon, or there is no way you can be helped,” she said.
“Oh, Constance,” Dot murmured, “don’t push him.”
Feveral seemed to agree, sensing his gambit would bear no fruit. “We’ll work something out. It will just take a little more time.”
“He’d probably rather not have his future discussed in public like this,” Agnes said. “Perfectly understandable.”
“I agree,” Sunny said.
Then surprisingly Algernon spoke. “I’d like to go to Europe, I think.”
This statement roiled the woman, all except Constance. An unstated suspicion arose that perhaps he was saying he wanted to reverse his ancestors’ voyage to America. That thought came first. Next came the financial implications: Europe cost a fortune.
“Do you speak a foreign language?” Audrey Widman asked.
“He can sing in German, Italian and French,” Mr. Feveral said, “but none them speaks a foreign language.”
Constance began talking. She said she’d been sent from Southern Rhodesia to a school right by the Halls of Parliament in London and she was utterly miserable for the better part of a year, but it was a wonderful school then and a wonderful school now with one of the finest music and theater programs anywhere.
“If you like, Algernon, I’ll contact the school and if we can work out admission, I’ll pay for you to attend. It’s a pre-Oxford sort of school. Not just music. Everything.”
Lisbeth Fields didn’t explicitly say what she wanted to say but she conveyed the idea anyway by using the word homogeneity, meaning, Would there be any blacks there?
Constance remembered arriving and finding that no, there weren’t any blacks there, not even the porters and maids and so forth. Lots of brown ingrained in everything, but no black. Consequently she’d felt bereft. She’d cried every day for months. She had written home, begging and then demanding to be allowed to return. Her father said the political situation was such that either she stayed where she was or moved on to America. Africa was out. What would it be?
Eventually it became America. Eventually it became all over America and now this afternoon in New Jersey accompanied by some rough calculations as to whether her share of Jerry’s estate would do the trick, and whether the boy whom, if she’d been thirteen, she’d want to marry, would now find enough black post-colonial companionship to survive being thrown all the way across the Atlantic. What was London like now? It had to be better. The empire had collapsed and so many talented blacks had nowhere to go but there.
“Please, Algernon, will you consider this? I don’t promise they’ll take you, but if they do, I’ll pay your way through.”
Music master Feveral was jiggling in his seat, overjoyed; now he was the joyous squirrel who’d scampered away from the barking dog. The other women pulled their rumps back and straightened up.
Eve whispered, “Constance, do you realize what you saying?”
Constance answered, “I should think so, otherwise I wouldn’t have said it, would I?”
Algernon looked at his schoolmates. Their smiles couldn’t be as beautiful as his simply because they didn’t have such a wonderful contrast between their teeth and their skin.
“Now you all go back in the van with Freddy,” Constance told the other ladies. “I’ll call a cab once Mr. Feveral, Algernon and I have sorted a few things out.”
Thus they departed without her, and the other three boys left the room, too, and Constance begged Mr. Feveral’s and Algernon’s forgiveness because she simply had to take a few moments to cry.
Photo By: timlewisnm