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s p e c i a l ly when he was alone Alec Malone had the habit of slipping into reverie, a semiconscious state not to be confused with dreams. Dreams were commonplace while his reveries presented a kind of abstract grandeur, expressionist canvases in close focus, untitled. That was how he thought of them, and not only because of the score in the background, German music, voices, trumpets, metronomic bass drums, and now and again the suggestion of a tango or a march. The reveries had been with him since childhood and he treated them like old friends paying a visit. The friends aged as he did, becoming increasingly abstract now that he had begun to lose sight in his right eye, a hole in the macula that began as a pinprick but was now the size of an o. That eye saw only the periphery of things with any clarity. The condition was annoying, not disabling, since sight was a function not of one eye but of two and Alec’s left eye was sound. However, driving at night was an adventure. He did not permit himself to drive in fog because objects had a way of vanishing 3
altogether. And there was some amusement — when he closed his left eye and looked at a human face with his right, that face appeared as an expressionist’s death’s-head, an image very like Munch’s The Scream. Alec had the usual habits of one who lived alone: a fixed diet, a weekly visit to the bookstore, a scrupulously balanced checkbook, and a devotion to major league baseball and the PGA Tour. He worked when he felt like it. He described himself to himself as leading a chamber-music sort of life except for the Wagnerian reveries. They were neutral fantasies, meaning they had nothing to do with the life he wished he had led — Alec was quite content with the one he had — or might lead in the future. He did not count himself a prophet. He returned often to his childhood but rarely lingered there. His childhood was so long ago that the events he remembered most vividly seemed to him to have happened to someone else and were incomplete in any case, washedout colors side by side with ink-black holes, a half-remembered country governed by a grim-faced man with a long nose, a figure from antiquity, perhaps a bildnis from Dürer’s sketchbook. Alec considered the long-nosed man a family heirloom, grandmother’s silver or the pendulum clock on the mantel, the one whose ticks and tocks sounded like pistol reports. He lost his footing in those early years in which the domestic life of his own family was usurped by the civic life of the nation. That was the life that counted. The Malone dinner table, his father presiding, was a combination quiz show and news conference. Quick now, Alec. How many congressional districts in Iowa? Which nations were signatories to the Locarno Pact? Who wrote “Fear of serious injury cannot alone justify suppression of free speech and assembly. Men feared witches and burned women. It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears”? What was Glass-Steagall? Who was Colonel House?
Where is Yalta? Question: What’s the difference between ignorance and indifference? Answer: I don’t know and I don’t care. Hush, Alec. Don’t disturb your father when he’s talking to Mr. Roosevelt. Don’t you know there’s a war on? À la recherche du temps Roosevelt. The president inhabited the house in Chevy Chase like a member of the family or a living god, present everywhere and visible nowhere. Alec’s father called him the Boss. The Boss wants this, the Boss wants that. The Boss sounded a little tired today but he’s leaving for Warm Springs tomorrow. In his reveries Alec conjured the president in his White House office, talking into the telephone in his marbled Hudson River voice, commanding an entire nation — its armies, its factories and farms, all its citizens great and small. Yet Alec had no sense of him as a man — not then, not later — and when he tentatively asked his father, the reply was bromidic. He was great. He was the greatest man his father had ever met, and he had met many, many of the highest men in the land, shaken their hands, spoken tête-à-tête, worked with them, worked against them. The Boss was different. The Boss lived on a different level, deriving his strength and his courage from — and here his father faltered, uncomfortable always in the realm of the mystical. Finally he said, His legs are useless, you know. He can hardly walk. But he likes a martini at the end of the day just like the rest of us, and there the comparison ends. Alec, I’d say he’s Shakespearean. That’s the best I can do. Alec nodded, wondering all the while which of Shakespeare’s kings his father had in mind — Macbeth, Richard III, Coriolanus? Henry V, no doubt, though that comparison did not seem apt. Shakespeare’s kings suffered the consequences of their will to power. The will to power was the evil in them, not that they did not have ample assistance from others — wives, false friends, ri-
vals, the Fates. When the president died Alec’s father was inconsolable. Washington was suddenly a darker, lesser place. Then he was summoned by Harry Truman — they had never gotten along — who extended his hand and asked for help, not an easy thing for him to do. Mr. Truman was a prideful man, often vindictive. Of course Senator Malone agreed to do whatever Mr. Truman wanted done. There was a war on. Each man did his part willingly. But it wasn’t the same. For years Franklin D. Roosevelt figured in Alec’s reveries but eventually faded as Alec drifted upward, forward to his young manhood and early middle age and beyond, what he considered his meridian years — when he was out of his father’s house, out of his orbit, out from under, married to Lucia Duran and working in what his father dismissively called “snapshots” but which everyone else called photography. His father wanted his boy to follow him into politics, commencing a dynasty; state attorney general, his father thought, then governor, and after that anything was possible. The Boss had been a governor. No, Alec told his father. But — why ever not? I don’t believe in dynasties, Alec said, which was the truth but not the salient truth. The salient truth was that the civic life of the nation held no attraction. He preferred Shakespeare’s life to the life of any one of his kings or pretenders, tormented men always grasping for that thing just out of reach. Deluded men. Men adrift on a sea of troubles, some of their own making, some not. In any case, the Fates were in charge, part of the human equation along with ambition and restlessness. Alec was satisfied with his photography and his reveries, including the mundane, the look of ordinary things and the time of day, what the weather was like outside and who was present at the occasion, a cat slumbering in a splash of bright sunlight, red and yellow roses proliferating. Life’s excitement lay just outside the
frame of reference, grandeur felt but not seen yet grandeur all the same. Alec’s reveries were his way of bringing life down to earth, so to speak. It is reliably reported that the people of Milan, where Verdi lay dying in the winter of 1901, put sheaves of straw in the street outside his hotel to deaden the sound of horses’ hooves so that the great composer might have peace in his last days. Alec liked to believe that Verdi was composing a melody up to the end, another opera or requiem, surprised that his street was so quiet; annoyed, perhaps, because he was accustomed to commotion, shouts, arguments, even a burst of song. Alec imagined the residents of the neighborhood laying straw before dawn, even the children. Verdi honored the Milanese by choosing the hotel and they would repay the honor. If God granted him another month he would give them one last opera, but if that was not God’s plan, then at least the maestro would have silence. That was the least they could do. Verdi had given them much pleasure, many occasions for laughter and tears, cries of Bravo! And his own life had been marked by terrible tragedy, his wife and young children dying within a few years of one another. Verdi found happiness and repose in his music. The Requiem alone was sufficient for any man’s creative life on this earth. Alec was thinking of the musician Verdi because his thoughts had turned once again to his father, slipping away at last at a private hospital in the Virginia countryside. His father was a composer of sorts, a maestro in his own way. He would describe himself as a composer of laws. A law needed allegro here, adagio there; no crescendo if it could be avoided. Legislation was ensemble work. Soloists had their place, but the ensemble came first. The ensemble enabled the soloist. He had been a senator for nine terms, fifty-four years, retired now for a decade and still alert on good days. The old man was well content at Briarwoods,