Monday, March 22, 2010

The Salesman's Son

Chapter One

      Zim was born on October 12, 1893 in an empty house with no one but his mother to mark the date and time. It’s unclear whether he was named immediately, or if he remained somewhat nameless in the eight days between his birth and brit milah.
      The mohel came to the still empty house on October 20 to perform the circumcision ritual with only Zim’s mother as a witness. There was no gathering of family, no joyous celebration, just a somber, bearded man, a crying infant and a lovely, dark-haired woman with a seemingly permanent crease between her thin eyebrows.
      And so it was done.
      It was almost two weeks after that before Zim’s father appeared at the house, surprised to find he had a son.
      “Why didn’t you tell me?” he demanded of the woman, but she shrugged.
      “You had gone away. How was I to know where or how to reach you?”
      “My mother could have –”
      “Your mother would have told me nothing, even if I had asked. And so I didn’t ask.”
      That night, Thomas Montjoy rode to his mother’s house, the old antebellum structure that had withstood war and poverty, almost by her will alone. She kept it spotless, the lawns still maintained by the dark-skinned children of the men and women who had once been nothing more than another of the family’s possessions. When he approached the door, it was opened by one such individual – the butler, Roland.
      “Did my footsteps give me away, Roland?” Thomas asked, taking off his riding gloves and tossing them on the table near the door.
      “Yessuh, they always do,” the man replied. “Yo’ mama’s upstairs in her sitting room. I’ll announce ya if ya like.”
      “No, that’s all right. She’s probably heard my voice by now. I’ll just go up and see her.”
      Thomas tried to smile at the butler, but the butler’s own frown said what was on both of their minds: that the woman would be none too pleased by the visitor.
      “Thomas?” She called his name before he had even reached the top of the stairs. Although she raised her voice to do it, it still sounded, even down the hallway, like a whisper. There was something still in the quality of her voice that reminded everyone she was gently bred.
      “It’s me, Mama,” Thomas confirmed, opening the door to her private sitting room slowly.
      She was sitting in a chair near the windows, which were opened to the piazza and the evening air. She was turned to face him and smiled with a deceiving softness.
      “To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit? And at such a late hour? I didn’t even know you were returned.”
      “I returned today,” Thomas said, leaning down to kiss his mother’s upturned cheek.
      “And yet you waited all these hours to come and greet me? You’re a poor excuse for a son.”
      Her voice was still gentle, but there was no less sting in the words. Experience had long ago taught him how much she meant them.
      “Where’s Gerald?” he asked, changing the subject to his stepfather.
      “Lying down. He’s afraid he has gout again.” There was a pause as Thomas sat down, but then his mother got straight to the point. “So why have you come? Don’t pretend you would have anyway. You never come to see me when you deign to show your face in Charleston.”
      “I have news,” he admitted, staring at his hands, suddenly cowardly.
      “Well. Out with it, if it’s news you have.” The woman pursed her lips and stared at the top of her son’s bowed head. She waited to feel a moment of genuine pity for his obvious discomfort, but none came and so she sighed impatiently.
      “I came to tell you you’ve another grandchild.”
      Thomas was one of seven children. How a woman so disinterested in children in general had managed to bear seven of them – and all to adulthood – was a lingering mystery. She had though, and four were older than Thomas, two younger, from her second marriage. His older siblings had all wed and provided the beginnings of a solid Montjoy clan with numerous grandchildren.
      “So.” That was the only word she could think to say at first and another pause stretched between them. “So you’ve finally put a child inside that woman. Although I gather from your choice of words and your obvious remorse that the child is outside of her at this point.”
      “Yes. He was born almost a month ago.”
      “And you waited this long to tell me?” Thomas could hear the subtle rise in his mother’s voice and he debated whether to tell her the truth.
      “I only just learned of it myself, today. You know I’ve been gone these past eight months.”
      “Yes, of course I know. Selling your soul to Yankees.” Anyone could tell how the word “Yankee” left a bad taste in her mouth. She almost spat it out.
      “I sell my soul no more nor less than my brothers do,” he dared to counter.
      “So you say.”
      “Let’s not talk about business, Mama. I know how it upsets you.”
      “You’re right,” she agreed, her tone still sour. “The only thing that upsets me more is this disastrous news you’ve come to share. That a child should come out of your foolhardy match to that –” She cut herself off, pursing her lips again. “You said ‘he.’ Does this child have a name?”
      “Zachariah,” Thomas whispered.
      “Zachariah? Zachariah what?”
      “Zachariah Ishmael Montjoy,” Thomas whispered.
      “What kind of name is that supposed to be?” his mother demanded, leaning forward, horror reflected in her face as much as in her words.
      “It’s a fine name.”
      “It’s hardly Christian!”
      “Zachariah and Ishmael are as much biblical as Luke or John. From the Old Testament, but from the Bible nonetheless. You can hardly call them unchristian.”
      “And this was her idea, of course.”
      Thomas didn’t respond. His mother had purposely not phrased the sentence as a question. She leaned back in her chair.
      “Is there no hope of baptizing him otherwise? You will baptize him, won’t you?” A new dread colored her words.
      “Of course, if you’ll take charge of planning it. But I think we’ll baptize him Zachariah all the same.”
      His mother smiled at the idea of “taking charge” of the christening. This was something she was accustomed to doing, and Thomas feared he could already see the images whirling in her head. She would have every Montjoy from miles around come into Charleston. It would be an occasion. It would be an ordeal. Rebecca would be marginalized in every way, her rights to the child she’d birthed almost completely erased by his mother’s management. But it was the only way. It was the only way to keep the peace in the family and to make sure the boy would be properly provided for.
      At least he could insist that the child keep his name.
      “Fine, if you're going to be stubborn. Bring him to me tomorrow, but if you expect me to call him that, you had best get the thought from your head this instant. Zachary will do, I suppose, and if you’d any sense at all, you’d tell that wife of yours he’d be better baptized that way, too.”
      “I’ll tell her,” he said, but knew he would not.
      His mother waved her hand dismissively, her gaze already drifting back out the window.
      “It’s after dark, you’d better go,” she said. “You’ll come at ten tomorrow morning. Babies do nothing but sleep and cry anyway. That woman isn’t –?” Again, his mother cut herself off. “Well, never mind. Just bring the baby at ten.”
      Thomas rose and offered a slight bow to his mother before leaving the room and closing the door behind him. He went quietly, but quickly down the stairs, barely stopping for his gloves before sailing into the black night, the door held open by a possibly sympathetic, but otherwise smooth-faced Roland.

      Zim was baptized on November 5, 1893 and all of his official documents reflected this as his date of birth, effectively erasing the first 24 days of his life. As he was dressed in a white gown in the rectory of the church by his grandmother – his mother nowhere in sight – his naked body was greeted with shock by the church’s minister and the others present.
      “It’s barbaric,” his grandmother accused, pointing her finger at her son.
      “It’s the tradition of her family,” Thomas defended.
      “To…to mutilate a child this way?” It was unlike the woman to be unsteady with her words. “How could you allow this to happen?”
      “It happened before I even knew he existed,” Thomas was ashamed to admit, though he did so anyway – shifting the blame unconsciously away from himself. He wondered, if he had known, if he would have done anything to stop his wife anyway. He highly doubted it.
      “What good you ever thought would come of this union, I’ll never know. And now we see what unholy practice…!” His mother’s voice rose, but she hushed herself, turning to the minister. “You can take this away, can’t you? By baptizing him in the true Lord?”
      The man put his hands calmly on the matron Montjoy, who, though remarried, still styled herself as Mrs. Franklin Montjoy.
      “The waters of Christ wash away all sin, my dear lady. You’ve no need to fear for this small child’s soul, so long as he is raised, from this point forward in the light of our Lord, Jesus.”
      Thomas looked away from his mother’s still accusatory but now also beseeching gaze, murmuring half-heartedly that “of course” the child would. He had no way of enforcing such a vow though, had no way of even knowing if his wife would follow such a command if he left it with her.
      “I’ll see to it to myself,” his mother said suddenly, a gleam in her eye.
      And so Zim was baptized Zachariah I. Montjoy – the “I” standing peculiarly and incompletely in the place of the name “Ishmael” his mother had originally put there. It was the best compromise Thomas could hope for between his mother and his wife.
      The baby boy screamed as he was submerged under water once, twice, and three times, his cries filling the sanctuary and lingering in the wooden beams of the ceiling. The faces of those present were impassive, accustomed to this reaction, and only Thomas Montjoy shifted his weigh, uncomfortable until the moment the minister dried the baby's still protesting face and put him back safely in his father's arms. Afterward, family and local gentry generally referred to as "friends" made their way to the Montjoy family home to continue to celebrate the occasion, though no one quite new what to call the boy.
      "Zachary," his grandmother insisted firmly. "Pay no mind to any other formality."
      The day after the christening, Thomas Montjoy once again left infant and mother in an empty house, and it was two years before Zim would see his father again.

      In the years between his second and his eighth year, Zim would only see his father a handful of times, although this is information about his childhood not generally known. As it was, as he grew up, his mother consistently rebuffed his attempts to learn more about his father and the unusual circumstances of his upbringing.
      "Ask your Grandmother Montjoy," his mother would say stiffly. "If you're so curious."
      But of course, even as a small boy, nothing could make him so curious as to ask his Mamaw a question she might think was impertinent, which happened to be most questions.
      Every summer he was taken from his mother's home and sent to stay with his Mamaw until the weather cooled again, and then he would only see her again at Christmas before the return of another summer. His mother would only accompany him at Christmas, when all the Montjoy kin -- and technically she was a Montjoy -- would gather in the ancestral home and pretend to be a family, something more than a group of people accidentally joined by blood and surname. In the summer, his grandmother's carriage would arrive with one of the black-faced servants to take him away. The last he would see of his mother's face would be her standing in the doorway as the carriage took him away, and he would not be allowed to see her again until the end of summer. He would cry when he was a child, protesting when his grandmother would hush him, but he soon learned that no amount of fuss would bring his mother into the strange, cavernous room that he was told belonged to him. There were many things at that house that were alleged to belong to him, but he always knew, somewhere inside of him, that none of it belonged to him. Even as a child, there was a sense that it was all borrowed and temporary and to be treated as such.
      Zim was not alone in the summer. He was joined by his Montjoy and Mason and Ralston cousins, his Aunt Katherine having married a Ralston and lost her Montjoy name, but not her sense of family obligation. There were two Mason cousins, the results of Mamaw's remarriage to Gerald Mason, whom none of the children dared called Papaw, though when he'd been drinking he insisted that they should. Even against this obvious inferiority though, Zim still retained a sense of being the "least" of the cousins, the "last." This sense was as uncertain in origin as the sense that nothing belonged to him, but he felt both so distinctly that he could do nothing but respect both. He was "other," of that he was sure.
      This was only exacerbated by the painful knowledge that, unlike his cousins, mostly boys like him, he was strangely fatherless. He watched his uncles come and go in his Mamaw's house, sometimes sitting down to dinner with them in the summer -- sometimes with their wives, and sometimes without them. He watched these things silently, not knowing what to make of them, and always grateful to return to his own home and his own mother. She'd be waiting in the doorway on the last day of September, as though perhaps she hadn't moved from the moment he'd left. She'd step aside as he came up the walk and would wordlessly close the the door behind him when he entered the house, never asking how his summer had been, nor what he had done. And of course, there was no question as to whether he would go back.

      Zim's first memory of his father was in October 1899. He was sitting at the foot of the stairs, playing with a wooden top that must have sounded like thunder to his mother's ears as it spun across the planks of the floor, but she wisely chose to pick her battles with her son, and the top was not one of them. It must have been a particularly fine day because the front door was propped open, which is what alerted Zim to the presence on the steps of the porch. He looked up to see a tall, blond-haired man in a trim suit. He had a thin moustache and was carrying a suitcase in one hand. It wouldn't have been difficult to recognize the man -- the same man whose face adorned not just the mantle in that house, but in Mamaw's house as well. Even more than that though, the man possessed a kind of ease on the porch that comes only from ownership. He acted, even if he didn't quite look, like he belonged there. Spotting Zim, the man set aside his suitcase and crouched down, pulling up the legs of his trousers as he did so, bringing his face nearly level to Zim's height.
      "How you've grown, Zachariah!" he exclaimed, studying the boy closely. "How old are you now?"
      "Almost six, sir," Zim had answered automatically, mesmerized by the man's blue eyes, so much like his own, and yet also startled by the use of his full name. He was accustomed only to having his mother use his given name. Everyone else called him Zachary.
      "Is it your birthday, Zachariah?" his father asked.
      Confused by the fact that it was not his birthday, Zim shook his head fervently, while still grinning stoically as if to prove to his father that he was pleased to see him. "No, sir. Not 'til next month."
      The handsome man frowned for a moment, but then smiled, revealing even white teeth. He pulled a small pouch out of his pocket. "Then what am I going to do with these?"
      Thomas Montoy held the bag from its drawstring and Zim took it cautiously, overwhelmed and almost suspicious.
      "For me?" Zim asked, even as he opened it to look inside.
      The man didn't answer, instead smiling more broadly as he got to his feet, the floorboards creaking as he did so. He set his hand on Zim's head for a moment, mussing his hair gently before going further into the house. For his part, Zim couldn't remember whether his father had gone upstairs or if he'd proceeded to the kitchen where his mother was no doubt preparing some meal, whether lunch or dinner. She probably would have been as surprised and suspicious as her son to see the stranger who was technically husband and father and master of the house.
      And of course the man would not stay long. A week. Perhaps a little longer. And then he'd be gone again.
      While his father was an errant figure, Zim's mother was quite the opposite. With the exception of their summers apart, she was an ever-present part of his day. She was the singing, dancing, cooking, cleaning angel of his youth. She was the one who read to him, in a voice much more convincing than his Mamaw, who clearly found reading to the children a chore equal to cleaning out the stables. She was also the one who interested him in learning. His summers with his Montjoy cousins were spent at books with a private tutor, an Englishman who disliked the clammy weather of his homeland, was strict almost to a fault, and painfully dull to boot. Arithmetic and Latin were drilled into the boys over long and unforgiving hours, but Zim found he could demonstrate his lessons with ease when his mother requested, without any of the effort he was constantly mustering in the upstairs rooms of his grandmother's house.
      That was not to say his mother was anywhere near an angel. In fact, for the most part she was an unsmiling woman, having known too much disappointment in life to waste her time in smiles. He overheard her say this once when his maternal grandmother came to visit. It was a strange and secretive event, one not repeated, but it left a hazy impression on him as a boy. It was part of the mystery, part of the puzzle that was his mother.
      She had been sixteen when she'd met his father. Poor, but not destitute. She'd been driving her family's cart back into Charleston when a rut in the road had knocked the wheel out of alignment. Fate had somehow brought Thomas Montjoy along the same road that day, and he had put her on his horse and walked with her back into town. He had been twenty-two and not difficult to mistake for a knight in shining armor, especially in that moment. What was unclear is how exactly their romance unfolded. How he managed to see her again. Certainly he had never said a word to his mother or stepfather until the day he'd revealed that they'd been wed. In some ways, that was the day that he had ceased to be a Montjoy, or so he had originally hoped. What he learned was that there was no escaping his family name, and instead he had dragged the poor, unsuspecting girl -- then his wife -- into the worst kind of situation. She was shunned by his relatives, treated as invisible, barely more worthy of recognition than a former slave, and possibly less worthy if the slave had been hard-working.
      And Thomas Montjoy was hardly more welcome in his bride's family. They had, in their marriage, broken a kind of trust that existed between their two communities, two of the many communities that dominated slivers of Charleston, one on top of the other. It wasn't bumping into and against one another that these communities minded, it was attempts to erase the lines of division, to redraw the boundaries that rankled the leaders in any given group. It was the idea of mixing that horrified them, and consequently, the unlikely union of Thomas Montjoy and Rebecca Rosenfeld was shunned by all.
      It can hardly be told what effect this had on the early days of their marriage, though by all accounts, they had been happy newlyweds.
      He brought her to a small house in town. It wasn't lavish, but it was proper enough for their situation, and near enough to her family that he'd hoped she could be happy. Perhaps he'd even hoped that she might continue to worship with them, though he had no desire of doing so himself, having forsaken all the trappings of religion at a young age, disillusioned by the state of the former Confederacy for which his own father had given his life. He didn't purposely mean to keep her from what made her happy, which is why neighbors and family alike were confused when he started traveling great distances for long periods. They started as weekly trips, a few days here and there, but they lengthened quickly. Soon it was a month at a time a few times a year, until eventually it was a whole year that he was gone from the house. He was a merchant of sorts. A purveyor of goods and services between the North and the reconstruction of the South. It made him more despised by his family than his marriage to a Jew had. It was around this time that silence began to greet him when he arrived home, no longer the warm homecomings that had marked his early traveling days when his still very young and very pretty wife would run out to throw her arms around him enthusiastically. They withdrew from each other. Gradually. Until both of their parents were certain that at least no ill-begotten child would arise from the unhappy situation.
      And then there was Zim.