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The Great Topaz

Chapter Text

 

In the summer of nineteen thirty-two, a mansion is about to be auctioned at the Long Island estuary in West Egg. I walk through the ruins of this colossal palace, the cracked marble, the empty pool with mud on the walls, the great dusty halls. All the gardens have perished and the grass is so tall that it hits the shins. The stained glass windows are scattered on parapets and the gold doorknobs have been stolen years ago. The rare paintings and sculptures are nothing but useless fossils hung on the walls and rested on brittle furniture. Stunning colors and scents that dyed and stained those corridors disappear completely and everything smells of death and oblivion.

I watch the magnanimous coppery pipe organ in the hall of the central wing and touch one of the keys, sounding only a muffled note, poor, coarse, the perfect symphony of everything around me. Even the beach, once majestic on soft golden sands, is no more than a heap of wood debris, seaweed, broken shells, and almost buried, half of the great silver gate of the main entrance with a rusty "T".

T...

"Fangs?" A soft trembling voice makes me turn on the platform between the stairs to find a beautiful familiar face watching me from below. "Is that really you, Fangs?"

Kevin Keller stares at me with furrowed brows and tears in his eyes and he looks as young as before. He squeezes the boater hat in his hands, the same one I used to wear years ago and ended up leaving in this wonderful damn island, as if he would rip it at any moment. His three-piece suit is white, except for the blue vest, and his oxford shoes are covered with sand. He certainly aged, of course, it's been ten years since the last time we saw each other, and he seems tired and more robust, but it's something about his countenance, though still cold and shrewd, that makes him still look like a young gentleman, handsome and vivacious, laughing at me in those golden days as if it told me a thousand secrets.

"Kevin Keller." I smile at him because I'm still a fool.

"It is been a while." He looks at the filthy floor where before anyone could see they own reflection like a mirror. "Where have you been?"

"You know...." I sit back on the piano that lets out its rough sound. "Around."

"And what are you doing here?" He stares at me again, seemingly frustrated.

"I could ask you the same thing."

"There you are!" A hoarse voice echoes in the hall and a brute in golf gear approaches, grabbing him by the waist. "I've been looking all over for you. My dad is impatient, but he thinks it's worth a shot at this dump. I'm not convinced, but for you, Kevin Mason, I'll make any sacrifice, even buy a damn rotting property on this side of the estuary."

Kevin Mason.

"Moose." Kevin clears his throat. "Moose, this is Fangs Fogarty, an old friend of the last decade. Fangs, this is Marmaduke Mason, my husband."

The brute looks at me with his dead fish eyes and I waved unwillingly, still absorbing what I just heard. It is no surprise that Kevin married a cave man in a pretty suit and fur coat, but those sad eyes on him make me suddenly furious, as if he is not happy and I have some plot of guilt.

Maybe I have, after all.

"Fangs." The brute repeats and smiles like a tickling pig. "Funny name."

"Some say it's chinese." I smile at him with the same disregard.

"You don't look Chinese." He measures me like an idiot, because of course a rich white man has to offer his share of imbecility.

Except for Kevin. I ignore the brute spouse and look back at him because he is the most beautiful thing in these ruins right now. He was always different. A wealthy heir, of course, a little white boy from England, but there was always something intriguing about him, perhaps the way he always knew about people's secrets and how he could manipulate them with it, but at the same time he was always giving favors and hearing what everyone had to say. A strange crossing of altruism and dissimulation.

"Come on, honey." The brute pulls the subject of my lost dreams by the arm like a child in trouble. "My father is waiting. We'll be back on the day of the auction."

Kevin looks at me as if he's desperate and I want to rip him out of the thick, strong fingers of the brute and kiss him until he smiles again. But I've never been a fighter. I've never been brave. I'm still not.

"It was a pleasure to see you again, Fangs." He smiles faintly at me. "Can we schedule tea before you leave? You can find me on the..."

"Phone book." I nod. "I know."

I feel more comfortable alone in the mansion. I've come to detest everyone who went in there one day and I realize that I tend to detest everyone who still may come. No one was or will be worthy of stepping in this refuge, the wreckage of a sacred hope swallowed by time and devastation. Only me. And that's why I'm going to cast off this place at that auction, even if I have to poison the whiskeys of all the disgraceful snobs of New York. They probably want to buy it and turn it into some garbage bin or something, and I will never let that happen. I will never let them stain the graveyard and sanctuary of the beauty and the virtue in a mundane and insignificant thing.

After discovering that Mr. Andrews had recently passed away, but that his son, Archibald, had embraced his legacy and kept the builder company, expanding it into a large furniture network, I decided to rent for the next few days the same small house of my most intense and tragic summer ten years ago, right next to the mansion, where I could see its towering walls deteriorating. At nightfall, still with the smile of Kevin K... Kevin Mason in my thoughts, I steer my way to the unstable pier, I sit on the edge and I light a cigarette, watching, through the deep fog, blinking across the estuary, a reddish light from which I shall never forget.

Red is not the color of hope, but this is what that distant light used to represent to someone.

Someone whose hope changed my life forever.

 

It was the summer of nineteen twenty-two, and I had just arrived in New York, following on the train to Long Island with just a briefcase, a pile of books and sweat-baths dripping under my boater hat and soaking my shabby shoes. Through the windows I could see the feverish world around me, the Queensboro Bridge, the valley of ashes and the coal factories, huge boats crossing the canal, gigantic buildings, countless hats, bright dresses and speedy convertibles, the absolute agitation of two incompatible equidistant coexisting, East Egg and its mansions and lights and luxury and secret conspiracies; and West Egg and its simplicity and dirt and stink of hard work and violent conflicts. Only the sound was similar between the extremities: Armstrong, Gershwin, Williams, Crumit, Meroff, Dixieland, an unprecedented musical orgy.

I always wanted to be an author of musical pieces. Mom thought I had the gift when I was a little boy, but dad immediately tried to dissuade her from this perspective, insisting that I would become a prosperous business man like him. I do not know why I remembered it at the time, in the heat of a train to Long Island, but I think it was the Broadway posters that filled my eyes with magic on the platform in New York. I don't know why I remembered it at the time, in the heat of a train to Long Island, but I think it was the Broadway posters that filled my eyes with magic on the platform in New York. In any case, I came with my degree, my scars from the last war, my books and my empty pockets to work with bond business in Wall Street, determined to spend the summer studying and honing my knowledge.

It is fair to admit, however, that it was not an easy task. I decided to rent a small house in West Egg, far from the luxurious mansions of the new rich, or rather, I was compelled to do so with the lack of money on my count. The owner, Mr. Frederick Andrews, offered it all summer for eighty dollars per month. It was nothing more than a cold wooden floor cubicle with a ruined garden, but at least it was quiet. And of course, the difficulty of the task was to observe every day, on the beach just ahead, the handsome young men and women in swimming suits and sunglasses, laughing and gesticulating at me as if inviting me to I join them. But the most important thing about the place I was in was, in fact, the colossal castle next door to my miserable hut, a fortress out of the fairy-tale books, unbelievable and monumental, where every night, arriving exhausted from work, I could glimpse the mysterious neighbor I had not yet met. A distinguished Lady named Topaz.

The true story of that summer began with my cordial visit to my dear cousin Cheryl across the bay at one of the most magnificent and sumptuous properties of East Egg. Miles of fresh grass and exotic gardens, tamed steeds running around the field, dozens of servants like statues on each door, a vast expanse of trees and huge columns supporting the grand red stone mansion, fifty windows, four long chimneys and a hall of five large glass doors.

Her wife was Veronica Lodge. We went to the same university and since those times she was the richest and most popular among all the students, a rising star, heir to her father's empire in Chicago. No one really knew what the Lodge business was all about and what Hiram Lodge was supposed to do as a supposed emperor, but no one had the guts to ask, and all who dared simply disappeared, until no one else asked anymore. But Veronica was too charming and insightful, a born conqueror, both in business and in love, and what truly made her empress into her own merit was her absolute talent, her dealings with horses, an equestrian athlete, unbeatable champion , prestigious throughout the country.

"Ronnie!" I put on my best smile when the butler took me to her in the field and she jumped elegantly from the horse in her blue riding clothes, throwing the reins to the stall and her helmet to the fumbling assistant.

"Dear Fangs!" She hugged me with extraordinary strength, taking me by surprise, because she was never very affectionate. Maybe Cheryl had changed that in her. That's what love does, is not it? It changes you.

"You look flawless and beautiful as ever, ma'am." I greeted her sincerely, because there was no denying how vigorous she was, not even if I wanted to.

"And you're glowing, my friend!" She squeezed my cheeks like a child. "How are your musical projects going?"

"Now I'm in the bond business, Ronnie." I explained shyly.

"Well, I know a lot of important people, you know." She danced her shoulders with extreme grace. "If you need anything, just a word. Now come!"

She grabbed me by the arm and guided me like a foolish tourist through the immense corridors trodden with trophies and glittering medals from her competitions and oil paintings depicting her, Cheryl and a little girl, the daughter they adopted, Josephine, who I still I was about to meet. I couldn't help noticing at the moment how Cheryl seemed distant and melancholic in the paintings, but it was probably only the painter's vision, very unworthy to portray my precious cousin. We passed many doors where I imagined what was inside, rare treasures, ivory furnishings, indian and asian ornaments that Veronica brought from her travels, until we reached a large double mahogany door, where she smiled at me very proudly and opened as if we were about to enjoy a spectacle.

To my astonishment, it was. A real spectacle indeed.

It was a huge side salon surrounded by wide glass doors as in the main entrance, all open, the wind invading and raising the white curtains like delicate veils, rising and falling in a ritual of grace and purity. Right in the middle, around bright furnishings and comfortable little armchairs, a divan of red upholstery and gold edges, where it rested the one I most wanted to see, a crystal chandelier gleaming over her.

"I am paralyzed with joy!" The melodious voice gripped my heart. "Dear cousin, my baby, is it truly you?"

Cheryl Marjorie Blossom.

Or, at that precise moment, the other Mrs. Lodge.

Her face came up slowly, her chin landing on the head of the divan, her eyes narrow, her lips opening in a warm smile, painted red, her autumnal twilight hair like waves on her right shoulder, and deep in those brown eyes of her, the promise that when she sees you, you are the most important person in the whole world and nothing else matters but you, some kind of excitement and appreciation for your presence exuding from her, even though I knew she could be absolutely sarcastic and chaotic at any moment, unpredictably. I felt glad to see her in that dress of white fluffy feathers, as if she were surrounded by a cloud, it made her look more harmless in that magisterial beauty of her filled with traps and tricks.

We didn't share blood ties, but my father was Clifford Blossom's loyal partner in the maple syrup business and we both grew up together in Louisville. Cheryl always had a strong temper, she was always fierce and proud and irreverent, but at the same time she kept for me and her twin brother, Jason, who was murdered when we turned sixteen, a delicacy that holds all the tenderness and protection of the world. We used to play to wear each other's clothes, steal syrup from the warehouse to bet who would finish faster with a whole bottle, and she always liked to draw me, especially my face, she was very talented in every stroke. I kept them all, they're still somewhere in my old boy's room in Kentucky.

She also always loved red. I never understood why exactly.

"Tell me, my lovely cousin..." She hid half of her face behind the head of the divan, smiling lazily and sassy as a teenager. "Do they miss me in Chicago?"

"They've been devastated since the day you left." I confirmed it.

"Oh, you tiny hideous liar..." Her eyes flashed like a dangerous siren.

"I swear!" I laughed and approached, dramatically gesticulating my hands so that she understood the seriousness of my words. "They come together in the churches every afternoon and mourn, they painted the fences in red and every saturday the bar is full of drunken whiners crying out 'Miss Blossom, Miss Blossom, where is our Miss Blossom?', I swear!" I leaned over her, my best expression of stamped pain.

"Marvelous!" She laughed so refined and beautiful, like an angel in disguise, hugging me by the neck and pulling me toward her, making me roll over the divan and fall to the floor on the carpet. "Ronnie, my dear, let's go back to Chicago immediately!"

We both laughed at everything, but Veronica rolled her eyes and poured herself a glass of wine, moving away to speak to the servants at the door. Only then I notice the fourth presence in the room, a young man lying on the divan beside my cousin, reading an art magazine. He was undeniably very handsome and, judging by his argentine suit, he was definitely as rich as Cheryl and Veronica. But I couldn't see his face immediately and he didn't seem so interested in seeing mine.

"Kevin, s'il vous plait, don't be rude..." Cheryl crouched on the divan and threw herself at him, ripping the magazine off and pulling on his tie." Fangs, I introduce you Kevin Keller, the formidable Broadway choreographer. Kevin, this is my beloved cousin, Fangs Fogarty." She turned to me again, a lovely wink presented to me. "He's a businessman."

I finally saw his face and I was terrified. He was a handsome creature, but at the same time he seemed so petulant and vain that it made me feel like I was in absolute danger around him. He had soft brown hair, which aroused the urge to touch, flattened lips, a bored expression and a dark scar on the knuckles of his right hand. Right there I knew that it pleased me to look at him exactly for what he showed me in the contempt of his beautiful green eyes. I could've stayed the rest of that odd afternoon watching him.

"Come on, Fangs, tell me." Veronica cut off the contact of my eyes with his. "Where are you living? You can stay with us if you want."

"Brilliant." Cheryl smiled and nudged Kevin's waist in a mischievous tone. "Kevin will stay with us for the rest of the summer and I will not let you two leave without identical rings on your fingers..."

Veronica rolled her eyes again and I couldn't help adjusting my own tie to disguise my discomfort and desire to ask if my cousin was displeasing her for some reason.

"I'm ignoring your existence from now on." Kevin laughed at her and left the divan, walking around the room like a model on french catwalks.

"So, my boy?" Veronica snorted. "We don't have all day."

"I appreciate the hospitality, old friend." I softened her impatience. "But I already rented a house across the bay for a bargain price and I'm fine."

"West Egg, you mean?" Veronica winced in horror.

"That's what I can afford." I defended myself.

"I think it's splendid and lovely, my dear." Cheryl winked at me again.

"West Egg?" Kevin shivered, looking suddenly interested. "You must know Lady Topaz..."

"She's my neighbor, but I still don't know her." I confessed.

"Topaz...?" Cheryl's voice sounded stunned and melancholy, attracting a suspicious look on Kevin, a bitter on Veronica and a confused on me. "What Topaz..?"

Before Kevin could risk an answer, the raucous bell sounded in the butler's gloved hand and the feast was announced. We all followed in silence to the dining room, where the fire flickered in the candlesticks, and the setting sun made everything turn orange, even Cheryl's hair like undulating flames on her right side. Veronica also looked more beautiful in that light, I could not help noticing, but the renowned choreographer on the other side of the table was the one who caught my attention, even as the dishes were served and the conversations slipped from subject to subject, me as a mere spectator of those powerful individuals around me.

Suddenly the ringing of the telephone echoed throughout the mansion, and absolutely everyone at the table, also the servants, fell into a silence filled with tension and disgust. Cheryl pressed her fork in her hand as if she was about to pry someone, then she dropped it on the table in a raucous noise when her knuckles reddened. Kevin drummed his fingers on his chin and stared at her with concern. Veronica was the only one to make a sound, snorting disgruntledly, ripping the napkin from her lap, throwing it on the plate and striding to the butler's signal with the phone off the hook.

"Excuse me, gentlemen." Cheryl smiled falsely and followed her wife into the other room.

"You know..." I tried to take advantage of the privacy to reach the man who captivated me. "The lady you talked about, Topaz, she's my neighbor and I..."

"Shhh." He shook his hands, discreetly scandalized. "I want to listen..."

"What's there to listen?"

"You don't know?" He craned his neck, looking through the glass doors. "I thought by now everyone would know..."

"What's there to know?" I insisted impatiently.

"Veronica has a woman." He whispered darkly. "I mean, another woman, back in New York. She should have the decency not to call at dinner time, don't you think?"

I didn't mind answering. I was in the world war and after surviving a war you can't be impressed by many things, but that managed to reach and beat me. Not only by the stained nature of an old friend like Veronica, it was mostly about Cheryl and how she probably felt about it. When Jason was murdered, I promised myself that I would look after her, but I couldn't be part of her life the same way as when we were kids. I judged she would find happiness sooner or later and I had this confirmation when I received a letter from my mother, when I was in the third artillery division in Paris, telling about Cheryl's marriage to none other than the illustrious heiress Lodge and my old companion of Yale.

It struck me that she didn't look happy at that very moment.

They went back to the table in silence and my heart ached as I saw the trail of dry tears on my cousin's face. Veronica looked exhausted, angry, demanding whiskey and a cigar as she sat on the opposite end of her wife's. Kevin decided to involve everyone talking about art and Broaday's plans, and for a moment I congratulated him and thought we were appeased at night, until the ringing of the phone echoed again and Cheryl's sigh cut the air like a razor, this time she leaving the room before anyone else, plunging into the gardens as if the nightly cold could barely touch her.

Kevin followed Veronica to the phone like a gossipy old woman and I followed Cheryl into the gardens, putting my own coat over her shoulders. She smiled at me and I thought it was genuine, but there was some immeasurable pain lost in her smile that I had never seen, a pain that came after the last time we saw each other personally, six years before I went to war.

I should have asked if she was good.

Maybe she had given me the truth.

"I still need to meet your little girl." I remembered the fact. "How is she? Is she already talking and breaking crystals around the house?"

"She likes to hum and sing." Her satisfied tone almost overwhelmed her sadness. "My Josephine will be a nightingale, I'm sure of it."

"If she becomes half the woman you are, my cousin, I know she will be someone of great worth..." The compliment came naturally because it was true to me.

But... I don't know if that was enough for her. She closed in on herself again, curling into my coat and staring at the starry sky for a minute, new tears trickling down, almost crystallized, on her pale face. Since we were children she had sporadic times of immense sadness, her parents were always harder and unfair to her, as if they loved Jason and just stunted her, and everything got worse after his death. I always knew when she was hurt with them and with anything else, but not that time. That night, watching the bay under the starry infinity, there was an absolute overwhelming sorrow in her cry that I couldn't identify the reason.

"I didn't adopt my Josephine at the orphanage in New York as Veronica likes to say to everyone. A great friend of mumsy, Sierra McCoy, died in childbirth and begged our family to take care of the child. I knew Veronica wouldn't oppose. When mumsy arrived with that lovely little package, I asked if it was a boy or a girl and she replied with regret that she was a girl." She began to speak as if she were confessing a severe sin.

"Cousin..." I whispered.

"And I said to myself..." She cried and looked so deep into my eyes that I thought she would plunge into my soul. "I'm glad she's a girl, but I expect her to become an insensitive cold bastard like her other mother, so she will never become a romantic like me and she'll never have dreams that yearn for love. Because love vanish so fast, like all the precious things we know... And they never come back..."

There she was, the real her, Cheryl Marjorie Blossom. A young aristocrat, traumatized and solitary, who always craved for love, love that was almost always denied to her. I thought she'd found love in the arms of my friend Veronica Lodge, but there I was not sure anymore. What an accursed irony, my cousin, the epitome of beauty and etiquette, the lady who travelled the world and portrayed it in her perfect sketches, married to an illustrious empress, living with her and their little daughter in an unparalleled mansion and yet...

She was still a ruin of sorrow and mourn.

I drove back to West Egg that night with a broken heart, as if her pain had touched me as I had never before been touched, as if she possessed all the pain in the universe and offered a handful for me, a handful I accepted and absorbed and would carry with me forever.

Before entering the house and throwing myself in any corner to fall asleep with Veronica's betrayal, Cheryl's melancholy and Kevin's petulance in my thoughts, I glimpse from my poor garden a figure at the end of the pier, the night too dark to see perfectly, but somehow I knew it was her, the mysterious woman, my neighbor, Lady Topaz. All I could distinguish was a yellow suit and long curly hair fluttering in the darkness, and suddenly one of her hands raising like a dying man crying to the heavens for absolution, right toward the reddish light that blinked incessantly across the bay. My whole body shivered at that gesture, it was so ceremonial and subtle in her movements, as if she were truly trying to reach something and could feel everything, as if her fingers could actually touch the red light, it was powerful, it was intriguing, it shook all my bones and I almost started walking lostly on the sand.

I wished I had gone there to talk to her.

Despondent and overwhelmed, I simply decided not to go.