Joachim Von Ribbentrop
Previously in the novel: A mysterious man in black foils novice mercenary Leon from kidnapping the Archbishop of Canterbury. The man in black turns out to be David, better known as Edward the Prince of Wales. Also in the world of espionage is socialite Wallis Spencer. Wallis, in quick succession, dumps first husband Winfield, kills Uncle Sol and marries Ernest.And throws in an affair with German Von Ribbentrop.
The next few days were quite a whirlwind adventure for Wallis. Joachim von Ribbentrop, besides owning an international champagne enterprise, was a member of a highly prestigious military family. And just for fun he was a great tennis player. When he played Wallis on a Paris court, he found her to be an exhilarating opponent.
“My dear, you play tennis like a man,” Von Ribbentrop complimented her after he won a very close match.
“I’ve been told I do many things like a man.”
They immediately adjourned to the club house for a cold drink.
“And you speak English like you were born in London,” she observed, sipping her champagne and reaching for a basket of crackers. Leaning back, she eyed him over the rim of her glass. “You use your tongue and lips very well.”
“When you sell champagne around the world you have to learn many languages.”
“I’ve learned if you flash enough money around people, they learn to speak English pretty fast.”
“Ah, but you see I am trying to get them to flash their money. That requires a certain amount of finesse.”
“That’s fine for you but I’ve never had to sell anything in my life.”
“But that’s not true, my dear Wallis. You are the most expert salesman I have ever met. In fact, you are trying to sell me on doing something for you right now.”
Wallis waved at the waiter for another glass of champagne, crunched on a cracker and then lit a cigarette, blowing the smoke out of the corner of her slim slit of a mouth.
“If truth be told, I am in pique. My uncle changed his will. Originally the five million was going to be mine but now it will establish a home for indigent dowagers, whatever the hell that is.”
Von Ribbentrop leaned forward. “Do you want your uncle forced to change the will back to you and then have him killed? It can be done. I have access to an elite group of assassins.”
“Oh really?” Wallis stopped puffing on her cigarette and raised a brow.
“My family has a long history of flirting with the dark side of humanity. I had an uncle, Heinrich, who married one of the Romanov cousins. He got a tip from the organization that someone was out to assassinate her. So he moved them to the Bahamas, thinking they would never find them there. Well, they did but instead of taking her out they took him out instead. The newspapers said it was a heart attack but the family knew what happened. My aunt disappeared somewhere out in the American West. Even the organization doesn’t try anything among the cactus and rattlesnakes.”
Wallis fluttered her eyes. “Well, now you have my attention. And who might run this organization?”
“If I tell you I’ll have to kill you.” He reclined in his cushioned chair and smiled.
Wallis grunted a laugh. “You’d be surprised how many times I’ve heard that one before.” She shrugged it off. “No, the old bastard’s dead already. What I need is a good lawyer to contest the will.”
“I can help with that too.” He grinned rakishly and reached for the bud vase on the table. Von Ribbentrop lifted a white carnation from the vase and handed it to Wallis. “White carnations are for remembrance. Now what could you do for me that you could remember fondly by looking at a white carnation?”
Taking the flower, she crumpled it in her right fist. “I can do all sorts of things with my hands.”
Von Ribbentrop stood and extended his arm to her. Wallis took it, and he guided her to his hotel suite. The next morning when she left, he handed her a business card for Virginia State Senator Aubrey Weaver.
“He’s the best man I know in the United States for contesting wills and marriages.” He emphasized the word marriages with a wink.
Good luck with that one, Wallis thought. She had no room for a German on her future husband list. At least he was easily satisfied sexually. Back in the states, she deposited Bessie in Baltimore and stopped over in Richmond to confer with Aubrey Weaver. Wallis went through three cigarettes explaining the situation. After listening to her case against Uncle Sol, the senator shook his head.
“I’m sure I could do something to have the will overturned. It seems his health was declining and an argument could be proffered he made the changes in a state of unsound mind. These things can linger in court for years. Most of the money, I assume, was in stocks and my sources on Wall Street tell me the overheated market is going to pop sometime in the next year.” He shrugged. “What’s left of your Uncle Sol’s money after that may not be worth the bother.”
Wallis crushed out her butt in a dirty tray on the lawyer’s desk. “It’s always worth the bother. I don’t care if it’s fifty dollars, I want it.”
Weaver smiled. “Remind me never to be on your bad side.”
“I’m going to need a divorce soon. I’m told you’re good at those things.”
“Yes, little lady, I am.”
The next morning Wallis was on the train to Warrenton in the Blue Ridge Mountains to resume her active social life among the young wealthy elite. Just a few days later she was playing a round of golf with her buddies when she missed an easy putt. One of the women—whose name Wallis had not caught—laughed merrily.
“Well you know what they say. It always isn’t a win-win situation. Sometimes it’s a lose-win situation.”
Wallis was back in Weaver’s office within a week or two and hoped for better news than he had given about Uncle Sol’s will.
“Now, it is absolutely necessary here in Virginia to prove you and your husband have not been in close physical proximity of each other in three years.”
“We met for a few moments a couple of times so he could give me money,” she replied. “Will that be a problem?”
“I don’t think so if your husband won’t mind making a slightly dishonest statement to the court,” Weaver replied. “Do you think he would risk perjuring himself?”
“My dear Sen. Weaver, I thought I had made it perfectly clear both my husband and I have been blessed with a total absence of scruples.”
Submitted to Fauquier County Court in December of 1928 was this letter from Winfield Spencer:
“I have come to the definite conclusion that I can never live with you again. During the past three years, since I have been away from you, I have been happier than ever before.”
The court fell for it, and Wallis was relieved to receive her divorce decree. She said good-bye to her social circle in Warrenton and moved into her mother’s Washington home where she proceeded to make a spectacle of herself by flirting with as many eligible bachelors as possible. This masked her intentions to marry Ernest as soon as his divorce became finalized.
In the spring of 1929 she read in the social column of a New York newspaper that the popular Simpsons had divorced.
“Quelle domage,” the columnist quipped, “but c’est la vie. We hope Ernest will be in high spirits for the summer social season.”
Ernest was not only in high spirits by July but also celebrating his marriage to Wallis. The only let-down for the New York set was that the nuptials occurred in the Chelsea Registry Office in London early one morning. They hosted a champagne brunch for their English friends, then motored to the coast where they sailed for France. Wallis and Ernest had a swell time dining, drinking and shopping in Paris upon their arrival in the late afternoon.
By the end of the long exhausting celebration, actually about four a.m. the next day, Wallis faced a serious decision. Was she going to drug Ernest for her big reveal or take her chances with him not being under the influence nor chained to the bed. She decided her new husband was of a different temperament than Win. Nothing ever seemed to faze him. She had never witnessed him angry, even on the mildest level.
Ernest, already totally nude, brought two glasses of champagne to bed. Wallis took her drink and slammed it back.
“Do you know what I like best about you, Ernest?”
He chuckled as he drank his champagne. “My father’s money.”
“Your devil may care attitude. Nothing ever shocks you.”
“Oh. Yes. That’s true too.”
Without another word, Wallis removed her nightgown. Ernest barely batted an eye and smiled.
“Well, there are many, many ways to have a good time.”
“I absolutely hate that music.”
“What do you mean, why?”
“Why do you hate that music.”
“I just hate it, that’s all.”
“Is it the style?”
“What do you mean, style?”
“Do you hate fast music?”
“Of course, I don’t hate fast music!”
“But that music is fast.”
“Yes, but that’s not why I hate it.”
“Do you hate the lyrics?”
“What do you mean, lyrics?”
“The words. Don’t you like their meaning?”
“What do you mean, meaning?”
“Sometimes people don’t like the message of a song.”
“I don’t even understand the lyrics so I couldn’t very well hate the message.”
“So you hate it because you couldn’t understand the words?”
“No, I like a lot of songs that don’t make sense to me.”
“But you hate that music.”
“And you don’t know why?”
“Can’t I hate something for no reason?”
“Sure. Do you often hate things for no reason?”
“Now you’re trying to say that I hate things for no reason?”
“But you’re the one who said you wanted to hate something for no reason.”
“I just hate that music, nothing else.”
“You want to know why I don’t hate anything else?”
“No. Why do you hate that music?”
“Why do you care?”
“Why do you think I care if you hated that music?”
“I didn’t think you’d care if I hated that music.”
“Then why did you tell me you hated that music?”
“You’re just mad because I hate a song you like.”
“I don’t care either way about it.”
“Then why are you asking me why I hate it?”
“Because you told me you hated it.”
“I have a right to make a simple statement.”
“I have a right to ask a simple question.”
“I never want to talk about this again!”
“That’s music to my ears.”
Previously in the novel: War Secretary Edwin Stanton holds President and Mrs. Lincoln captive under guard in basement of the White House. Janitor Gabby Zook by accident must stay in the basement too. Guard Adam Christy tells the Lincoln Tad has become ill. Lincoln demands the boy be brought to them.
“Oh, I’m so excited,” Tad said with a bit of a giggle. “I bet Mama’s going to cry.”
“Of course she’ll cry.” Alethia hugged him. “I’m about to cry just thinking about it. Enjoy every minute of it.”
“You can come with me,” Tad offered as he sat up.
“I don’t think that would be a good idea.” Alethia cast a worried glance toward Adam. “You see, um, the fewer people going downstairs, the better. We don’t want a grand parade to the basement, do we?”
“I guess not.” Tad lowered his head in disappointment. He looked up at Adam. “We better go now.”
Bending over to pick up Tad, Adam was surprised by how light the boy was. Hardly any meat on his bones, he thought, just like me when I was that age. He held the child close to him.
“I’ll open the door for you.” Alethia pulled on the knob. “Wait a minute.” She peeked out and looked both ways down the long, dark hallway, barely lit by flickering gas lamps. “Tom Pen makes his rounds soon to put out the lights.” She smiled at Adam. “It’s clear.”
Tad lifted his head, which he had snuggled into Adam’s shoulder, and smiled, waving his hand. “See you later.”
“Yes, see you later, my darling.”
Adam quickly crossed the hall to the service stairs, where he opened the door, looked back to see Alethia smiling through the crack of Tad’s bedroom door, and then shut it and started down the straw-matted steps with the sickly, perspiration-drenched boy, scented by medicines and faint traces of urine, who snuggled and moaned.
“You’re much nicer than I first thought,” Tad murmured, not lifting his face but nuzzling in deeper. “You don’t have to be a lieutenant.”
“Where did Papa find you?”
“Mr. Stanton recommended me,” Adam replied after an awkward pause. “He’s from my hometown.”
“Oh.” Tad wiped his running nose on Adam’s rumpled blue tunic. “I don’t like Mr. Stanton. He’s mean.”
“He’s…” Adam stumbled over his words, trying to find the right one to describe the secretary of war. “He’s professional.”
“I don’t know what that means.” He turned his nose into Adam’s armpit. “You smell like you ain’t had a bath in a week.”
“That’s all right. I hate baths too.”
“Do you want me to tell you what professional means?” Adam stopped at the basement door.
“No. It probably means he’s mean but got a good reason to be.”
Adam opened the door and searched the vaulted basement hall. Finding no one around, he quickly entered, closed the door, and hastened his pace to the billiards room. Suddenly Phebe stepped from her room, fixed Adam in her gaze, and crossed her arms. Like a deer trapped by a poised hunter, he said nothing, did nothing, except to let his chin droop.
“Hello, Phebe,” Tad said, with a chirp as he lifted his head and smiled. “I gotta go puke.”
“You don’t get sick in your room?” Her eyes widened.
“Stinks up the place, Mama says,” he replied. “’Course, sometimes I don’t know it’s comin’ up until it’s too late. One time I got vomit over one of Mama’s fancy dresses. Boy, did she get mad.”
“I can imagine,” Phebe said.
“Vomit won’t hurt a uniform much,” Tad informed her.
“So, Private Christy. You’ve been given puke patrol.”
“Puke patrol.” Tad laughed. “That’s funny.”
“Yes,” Adam replied with a tight smile, “so if you’ll excuse us, we’ve serious regurgitation business to tend to.”
Phebe shook her head and waved them on, as she went back to her room.
“Reach down in my pocket and get the keys.”
“All right.” Tad retrieved them. “Here they are.”
As Adam opened the door and carried Tad through, he noticed Phebe’s door across the hall. It was slightly ajar. That might be a point of concern, but Adam dismissed it as he presented the boy to his parents.
“Oh, my Taddie! Oh, my baby! Oh, my baby!” Mrs. Lincoln grabbed her son from Adam, and immediately dropped to the floor, sobbing and clutching him to her bosom.
“See, I told you she’d cry,” Tad said, his voice muffled.
“Thank you.” Lincoln walked up and put a large hand on Adam’s shoulder.
“You’re welcome, Mr. President.”
“I’m sorry I grabbed you. I should have never lost control.”
“I understand, Mr. President.”
“Have you had subnitrate of bismuth?” Mrs. Lincoln held Tad’s face in her hands.
“It tastes awful.”
“But it made you feel better, didn’t it?”
“I suppose that woman isn’t completely incompetent.” Mrs. Lincoln held his head close to her breast.
“Oh no. She’s a nice lady,” Tad said, pulling away to look at his mother. “She looks just like you.” He smiled. “’Course, I knew the very first day.”
“You did? How bright of you,” Lincoln said, kneeling down to his wife and son. “And how did you figure that out so fast?”
“She doesn’t get mad like you do, Mama.”
“Tad!” Mrs. Lincoln’s mouth flew open. She looked at her husband. “Mr. Lincoln!”
Lincoln tried to be serious, but began to smile, which gave way to a chuckle. Mrs. Lincoln slapped at him, but could not help but join him. Tad, happy he had made his parents happy, giggled.
Adam smiled until he glanced over at the boxes and crates to see Gabby with his homemade quilt clutched tightly around his shoulders, and remembered this was not a happy ending, but merely a respite in their ordeal.
(Previously in the book: For his fifth birthday Herman received a home-made bear, which magically came to life when Herman’s tear fell on him. Herman asked his parents to make burlap bears for his brother and sister for Christmas. As Herman grew up, life was happy–he liked school, Tad was nicer and the tent show was coming to town. Herman liked it, but didn’t know why black people had to sit behind a rope.)
Burly Senior’s questions—were bears and people much different why black people were not treated honestly–bothered Herman all that summer as he worked in the cotton field alongside his father, Tad and Callie. He didn’t dare mention black people to papa for fear he would look like he smelled rotten eggs again. One day, as they hoed weeds around from the leafy green plants, Herman gathered his courage and asked Tad.
“What do you mean, why do black people have to sit in the back behind a rope?” Tad snapped. “You don’t want to sit next to some big fat old colored woman, would you? She might touch you.”
Herman’s eyes widened. “Does it rub off?
Tad spat and hoed faster. “Don’t be stupid.”
Callie, who was in the next row, glared at Tad. “Don’t call Herman stupid.”
“I’ll call him anything I want!” Tad yelled.
“You’re the stupid one!” Callie retorted.
Papa walked up with his hoe, and the argument stopped. A few minutes went by and then Callie looked round and whispered to Herman.
“What was all that about anyway?”
“Aww, I asked if the black rubs off on you if a colored person touched you.”
Callie stifled a giggle. “Of course not. That is stupid.” She paused and added quickly. “But it was wrong for Tad to call you stupid.”
They hoed side by side for about an hour before Herman had the courage to ask her the main question. “Callie, just why do black people have to sit in the back behind a rope?”
“We sat as far back as they did,” she replied without looking at her brother.
“But we came late and we didn’t have to sit behind a rope, like we were different.” When she didn’t say anything, Herman added in a whisper, “Are they different?”
Again Callie studiously kept her eyes to the ground. “Papa says they are.”
“Is—is papa right?”
First giving a quick glance to her father, Callie answered, “I don’t think so. But don’t say that to papa. He might get mad.”
Herman was confused. “Why? Doesn’t he want us to be honest? Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if we were honest?”
“Yes.” She hoed hard and fast. “But papa doesn’t think so. Maybe someday things will change.”
“But if papa thinks they’re different, maybe they are,” Herman thought aloud.
“Less talk! More work!” papa barked.
Herman didn’t ask any more questions, but he was terribly confused. He didn’t understand why Callie would believe different than papa or Tad. Maybe it was mama who believed differently, and Callie got it from her. That evening, after the hoeing was done, and Tad had gone swimming in the creek and Callie took Pearly Bear to play dolls with her friends, Herman went into the house and walked up to his mother who was chopping vegetables for a stew.
His mother sighed but answered sweetly, “Yes, dear?”
“Are black people different?”
She stopped and looked down at him, her slender hands going to the nape of her neck to massage it. “What makes you ask a thing like that?”
Herman looked down. “I was just wondering.”
“Yes. Don’t worry about it,” she answered and went back to her chopping.
“But—why?” He was about to say Callie thought differently but stopped because he didn’t want to get her in trouble.
Mama laughed. “You think more than any one child I’ve ever seen.”
Interrupting him firmly she said, “Go to the loft and play.”
Herman did as he was told, climbed the ladder and crawled into the bed to snuggle with Burly.
“Of course Callie is right,” Bear Senior announced. “People are people, no matter what color they are. Just like bears are bears, whether they’re made of burlap or some fancy material from Sears and Roebuck.”
“I even think bears and people are alike,” Burly offered.
“That’s right, son,” his Burly Senior agreed.
“But how could Callie know this and not papa, mama or Tad?” The more they talked, the more confused Herman became.
“Why do you know it?” Burly asked.
“I don’t know if I know it or not.” Herman hung his head.
“Of course you do,” Burly Senior told him.
Herman pulled them into his arms. “I guess I know because of all you.”
“No,” Burly said. “You knew before you even talked to us. You knew because it bothered you to see the black people roped off.”
“But you helped,” Herman offered.
“Of course,” Burly quipped with a smile. “That’s what we’re here for.”
Herman sighed. The whole situation was too much for him to understand. “I’m glad you talk to me.” He looked at Burly Senior. “Don’t you talk to Tad?”
“I would if he wanted me to,” the papa bear replied.
The summer continued, and Herman kept his thoughts about honesty to himself. Even though it was hard work, keeping the cotton rows clear of weeds and nice and soft for the plants to grow big and strong, he rather enjoyed it. This was the first year papa decided he was old enough to help, and Herman could feel himself grow taller every time Papa walked by, patted him on the back and said, “Good work.”
Eventually the hot, clear skies gave way to the clouds of fall, and school came back. This time Herman was not as scared. For one thing, the session had hardly begun when all the farm children were allowed to leave so they could pick cotton before bolls rotted on the branches. To pick them quickly was so important that papa actually paid a family to help pick the cotton.
The Johnsons were black, and Herman was happy papa had given them work for they looked very poor. Mr. Johnson was gray and stoop-shouldered. Mrs. Johnston was short and very stout, but also very talkative and friendly. They had three children, all boys and all older than Herman. They were distant and brooding. Herman liked to sit next to Mrs. Johnson when they stopped for lunch. She sang songs and told stories. Sometimes she would take his fingers and sing a little tune while wriggling each one.
“Don’t let her do that,” Tad scolded him as they went back to work in the rows of cotton.
“Do what?” Herman was puzzled.
“Touch you like that,” Tad replied in a hissing, whispery voice, glancing over his shoulder at the black family.
Herman laughed a little. “All she did was wiggle my fingers.”
“All she wants is to be able to touch a white person.
“Why should she want to do that?”
Tad looked at Herman with scorn. “Stupid. Don’t you know that’s what all blacks want to do?”
“Touch white people?” Herman couldn’t believe what Tad was saying.
“You just watch it.” Tad skulked away.
That night mother asked Herman to find his father quickly. She was sitting in one of the straight-backed wooden chairs with her head between her knees. That scared Herman, so he ran out to the barn, where he usually found his father. Instead he found the Johnsons bedding down in an empty stall.
“Well, hello, little fellow!” Mrs. Johnson said cheerfully.
“Have you seen my papa?” Herman’s voice was all tight from fear.
Mrs. Johnson frowned with concern. “What’s the matter, baby?”
Herman,” papa said from the barn door. “Come here.”
Herman ran to his father to tell him that mama wanted him, but before he could say anything, his father pulled him away.
“I thought I told you to stay out of the barn while we have them sleeping in there,” he lectured harshly. He emphasized the word “them” with a nastiness that made Herman uncomfortable.
“But mama, she’s not feeling good,” Herman whined. “She wanted me to find you.”
Papa straightened and stared at the house.
He walked quickly to the door. Inside mama was already back at the kitchen peeling potatoes.
“Opal, are you all right?” Papa asked so sweetly than Herman didn’t feel uncomfortable anymore.
“Oh, I was just a little dizzy, that’s all.” She laughed, but it soon turned into a cough.” She turned to smile at Herman. “Thank you for getting your father so fast, Herman.”
Papa put his long, wormy arms around her. “Are you sure?”
She leaned against him. “No, I was just being silly.”
“I think I ought to take you to the doctor,” he said softly.
Mama turned to her work at the sink. “What would we pay him with?”
“We’ll have money when the cotton is sold,” papa replied.
“We need that money for more important things.” Mama was always practical.
You may remember the news reports surrounding the death of best-selling novelist Irving Stone in 1989. He was found slumped over his desk, dead from an apparent heart attack, with his hand still holding a pen as though he were in the middle of a letter. On the paper he had scrawled, “My Dear Friend”.
Literary authorities debated for months who this dear friend was and why had Stone had only one other word written on the page before he died and what was the meaning behind it. Irving has been gone several years now and I myself am an old man, so I think it is safe to reveal that I was his dear friend.
It was late 1978, and I was flying to Virginia to join my wife and son at my in-laws’ house for Christmas. I looked forward neither to the flight nor the visit. I didn’t know to be afraid I might die in a plane crash, or to fear surviving the flight and have to endure my wife’s parents for two long, cold weeks. The last thing I needed was a grumpy old man plopping in the seat next to me and start mumbling to himself. His comments became louder and unfortunately more distinct. When he got to the part about how it was intolerable that first class was filled to capacity, I could no longer contain myself.
“Well, I’ll try not to breathe on you.”
One of my worst character flaws was opening my mouth and letting fly words that I wish I could immediately grab and cram back in. Not only was I subjected to a disgruntled aristocrat generally angry at the airline for not accommodating him but also was going to be the personal object of his disdain for the next three hours. Glancing over at him, I watched his face change from shock, anger and incredulity to surprise, humor and relaxation. He laughed out loud for about half a minute, which in a crowded tourist class airplane section was exceptionally long. Several fellow travelers turned to see what was going on.
“This is the first time I’ve laughed in at least three days,” he said. “Thank you.”
Smiling, he stared at me, which made me uncomfortable. I decided I would have preferred to have him angry and ignoring me in excess than have all this attention.
“You don’t know who I am, do you?”
My first impulse was to ask, “And why should I care?” Instead I restrained myself. “I take it you are a person who prefers to fly first class.”
He chuckled again. “And why should you care in the first place?” Settling into his cramped seat, the man looked straight ahead. “I apologize for being an insufferable bore. I assume everyone knows who I am and will try to convince me he has written the next best-selling novel in the world if only he could get a foot in the door.”
I had written a novel and sent the first three chapters to Doubleday. An editor replied he liked them and wanted to see the rest of it. By the time I mailed it, he retired and the next editor didn’t like it at all. Since I didn’t want to add another rejection to my list of achievements, I refrained from telling the author my story.
“You don’t have a novel, do you?”
“Oh, no,” I lied. “Used to work for newspapers though. But that’s not real writing, is it?”
“All writing is real writing. I admire how you people can write a full story, zip like that and have it published the next day. I could never do that.”
“It’s called a deadline. And the necessity of being paid.”
He laughed again. “None of the reporters I’ve talked to have ever made me laugh. Why is that?”
“The deadline.” I paused. “I interviewed a famous author once. One of the Haileys. Not the one who wrote Roots but the other one. You know. Hotel. Airport.”
“Yes, I do know him.”
“He acted like he was a character in one of his own novels.”
The man giggled.
“And he looks like he has a personal tanning bed in his house and uses it daily.”
“He does, he does.”
Three hours passed quickly as I tossed out random comments about writing and writers while the man laughed all through it. I never felt so clever in my life. By the time we were circling the airport, he pulled out a note pad and pen.
“Please put your initials and address on this,” he said. “I would like to hear from you. But I think it would be better if we kept our identities to initials. It would ruin it, don’t you think, if you knew exactly who I was.”
It was just as well. I didn’t think I wanted to be on first name basis when anyone that eccentric anyway. By the first week of the new year I received a handsome letter on personalized stationary. At the top of the paper were the initials “IRS”. He apologized again for his rudeness on the plane and reiterated how much he had enjoyed our conversation.
“By the way, I was at Hailey’s house for New Year’s Eve and giggled at him the entire evening. He was quite put out by it and asked what the matter was. I couldn’t tell him that he was acting like a character in one of his novels, so I just said I had had too much wine. Please keep me informed about what you are reading. I don’t get honest opinions often.”
This put me in a rather odd situation because I was going through a period when I wasn’t reading much of anything. The last novel I had picked up I hadn’t even finished.
“I tried to read Irving Stone’s book about Sigmund Freund, Passions of the Mind, but couldn’t finish it. I supposed it was over my head. I can’t read William Faulkner either.”
In the return mail I received this note from IRS:
“I agree about William Faulkner. He tried to be the American William Shakespeare. Stone was just lucky. He needs to remember to be appreciative of what he has been given.”
At the time I thought he was bit rough on Stone, but since he knew all these people personally I didn’t want to dispute his opinion. Through the years we corresponded, and I resisted the temptation to talk about my own writing. I wrote a few more novels, some plays and screenplays, none of them getting past the standard rejection slip. Every now and then I did pump him for gossip. For example, I asked if he thought Ernest Hemingway actually committed suicide or was it murder.
“Hemingway was crazy,” IRS wrote. “He could have been a great writer if he wasn’t always trying to prove he was a real man, whatever a real man is.”
By the middle of 1989 I had a huge stack of handwritten letters from the anonymous novelist. In September not one single letter came in the mail. Perhaps he had grown tired of connecting with a common man. On October first, however, I received this:
“My dear friend, I am sorry I have not written lately. My health is beginning to fail. Not to bore you with details but I’ve been hospitalized for the last month. I fear I have written my last novel, which is a shame since it’s all I’ve done for the last fifty years. Once again I feel remorse over our relationship. I regret having taken advantage of your good nature and humor. In the ten years we have corresponded I should have dropped my self-defense mechanism to reach out to help you with whatever dreams you have. To make up for it, I want you to feel free to ask me for one favor. No matter what it is, I will do everything within my power to grant it.”
This put me in a particular bind. While my heart raced a bit with the prospect of finally being published by a real publisher, I didn’t want to ruin the good feelings of our ten-year relationship by having him try to sell my books and fail. However, I’ve always felt it was bad manners to reject someone’s offer to do me a favor, so I wrote back this:
“My dear friend, Corresponding with you for ten years has been an honor and a pleasure, I think, made even more special by the anonymity. Therefore, my only request is that you share with me what your middle name is. That way you can keep your privacy and I can have the joy of knowing a private fact about a public person.”
Another month passed without a letter. Again I assumed I had presumed too much and lost this special relationship. The next morning I read the local newspaper. Irving Stone, author of bestsellers Lust for Life, Agony and the Ecstasy and Passions of the Mind, died at his home, leaving an enigma—an unfinished letter to “my dear friend.” I smiled when I read the only word on the letter.
(Author’s note: I don’t know why I feel compelled to add this clarification since as a short story it’s obviously fiction and therefore not true. Anyway, for the record, Irving Stone’s middle initial was I and not Rebecca. I don’t know what it was but I’m sure it was something serious and dignified, like Irene.)
Previously in the novel: A mysterious man in black foils novice mercenary Leon from kidnapping the Archbishop of Canterbury. The man in black turns out to be David, better known as Edward the Prince of Wales. Also in the world of espionage is socialite Wallis Spencer.
By the summer of 1928 Wallis was planning another trip to Europe with Aunt Bessie. She loved traveling with her mother’s spinster sister. Bessie wasn’t pretty, witty or judgmental. She had her head in the clouds. What better companion could a young woman want? Before the departure, she told her aunt she had to return to Warrenton to maintain her Virginia residency so she could finally escape the horrors of marriage to aviator Winfield Spencer.
Her actual destination was the old homestead in Baltimore where Uncle Sol, according to rumor, was on his death bed. This was her last chance to exact revenge for the horrible deeds he had inflicted upon her when she was a little girl.
Wallis lingered out on the street until she saw the nurse leave Sol’s house. Looking around the empty neighborhood she picked the lock to the front door and slipped inside. She crept upstairs to her uncle’s bedroom. When she entered she saw him swallowed up by sheets and blankets.
“Uncle Sollie, so glad to see you’re alive.”
Sol’s eyes fluttered open. When they focused on his visitor and he recognized his niece, they widened in fear. He quickly moved a pillow to his crotch.
“Bessiewallis, no. Please, no.”
She sat on the edge of the bed. “Besides hearing you were dying, I also heard the nasty gossip that you had changed your will. Instead of leaving your millions to me, you decided to create a home for destitute ladies in memory of that wicked mother of yours.”
Sol’s lips quivered. “But you have so much money now. I didn’t think you would mind.” He stopped short when he saw Wallis pull a long hat pin from her stylish black lacquered straw hat with a white satin ribbon around the crown.
“That wicked woman did not approve of my father. She didn’t even attend his funeral. Of course, I hadn’t even been born then but Aunt Bessie told me.”
“Bessie was wrong. Mother was there.”
“Now, now, that’s no way to talk about Aunt Bessie. She may be as dumb as a cow, but she does pay attention when it comes to who attends a funeral and who doesn’t.” Wallis removed the pillow from between his legs and leaned in with the hat pin.
“Oh God, no, Bessiewallis.”
She leaned back. “Just kidding. You always look so funny when you think you’re getting the pin.” Wallis stuck it back in her hat and stood to walk to the night table. Holding up her hands, she began to remove her gloves, revealing a large opal ring. “You don’t mind if I take my gloves off, do you?” Not waiting for a reply she added, “Have you had your morning coffee?”
“Oh my. Let me pour it for you.” With her back to Sol, Wallis opened the top of her opal ring, emptied a white substance into the coffee cup and stirred. “Here, you must drink it all.” She lifted it to his lips.
With apprehension he emptied the cup and fell back on the bed.
“I told you of my adventures in China, didn’t I? I loved exploring all the shops in the Shanghai marketplace. It was so sinful. I found an old woman who sold all sorts of fascinating potions. I bought a powder ground from some herb with such a long name I can’t even begin to remember how to pronounce it. Do you know how long it takes for that poison, once ingested, to work its way through the body and kill you? A week! That gives me time to go to Europe. Before you die.”
Tears filled his eyes. “I’ll tell. You won’t get away with it.”
“I forgot to mention the first symptom is immediate paralysis of the vocal cords. You won’t be able to tell about anything.”
Sol opened his mouth to speak. No sound came out. The potion had already taken effect.
“Good-bye, Uncle Sollie,” Wallis said, walking to the door. “You be a good boy. And, by the way, burn in hell.”
A week later, Wallis and Bessie strolled along the Champs-Elysees when they stopped at a news stand to buy a paper. Actually, Wallis was the one who wanted something to read because Aunt Bessie was prattling on about the upcoming debutante season in Baltimore. Wallis had grown beyond her aunt’s interests. The world of espionage was much more fascinating.
She tapped her foot as the man in front of her took too long buying a magazine. Wallis imagined he was more concerned with flirting with the newsstand girl. He was a tall man in a vanilla ice cream colored suit. His black hair was slicked-back. When he finally paid, he turned, smiled and gave a smart bow. Wallis found it impossible to remain miffed because he had a pencil-thin moustache and an appallingly deep dimple in his chin.
After he moved on, one particular headline on the front page caught her attention.
“Baltimore Inventor Dies.”
Wallis pulled coins from her purse to pay for the newspaper and scanned the story to see if it speculated on cause of death. She smiled when she read the words “natural causes.” Then she handed it to Aunt Bessie who looked at the headline.
Without any emotion she commented, “I never much cared for Sol.”
“Oh, he was all right, as long as he was going to leave everything to me.”
“Does the story say anything about the will?” Bessie asked.
In a few moments they were seated at an open air café along the Seine. Before Wallis could continue reading Sol’s obituary she was distracted by the sight of the man in the vanilla ice cream colored suit sitting at a table across from them. He lifted his champagne glass as though in a toast. Doing her best to ignore him, Wallis slammed back her own glass of champagne before returning her attention to the story about Uncle Sol.
“Finally,” she announced. “Here it is. Mr. Warfield’s will left his entire fortune of five million dollars to build a home for destitute dowagers.”
“Destitute dowagers?” Bessie repeated. “I don’t think I know what that means.”
Wallis wadded the newspaper up and threw it in a nearby trash can. She motioned to the waiter to bring her another champagne. She was in the process of slamming it back when she heard a deep male voice.
“You mustn’t toss back champagne like it were a lager in a beer garden.”
“And who appointed you queen of etiquette?” Wallis looked up to see the man in the vanilla ice cream colored suit standing over her. She blew smoke in his direction.
“I’m in the champagne business. I sell wholesale to all the best restaurants in Europe.”
“In that case, sit down and point out the best champagne on the menu.”
“Only if you promise not to guzzle but sip.”
Wallis appraised him and smiled. “You’ve got a deal.” She refused to acknowledge Aunt Bessie’s profound sigh of resignation.
Every time I hear an ambulance go by I think, “There goes another person who saw “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
This odd mental phenomenon goes back to 1971 when I was the area editor for the Kingsport, Tn., Times-News. A bunch of part-time reporters and I were responsible for filling up a page about news from the surrounding counties everyday. Some days that could be quite a chore.
Back then the politicians had a habit of deciding to hold a meeting an hour earlier than announced so that when the reporter showed up they said, “Sorry, you missed it.”
One time I had a school superintendent on the phone asking him why a certain mountain school was being closed. He stammered a moment and then the phone went dead. The guy just didn’t want to talk to me about why the school was being closed. It was tough reporting the news back then.
However, I did get a call from a proud parent in a nearby town that her son had the lead in a touring company of “Jesus Christ, Superstar” which was going to perform at the Kingsport high school gymnasium. This was right after the record album had come out but before the Broadway production. Basically it was a concert version with performers on risers and stools. I told the editor and he immediately assigned the story to the entertainment editor. I never got to write about anything interesting.
Somehow, however, I became the person in charge of getting free tickets for everyone in the newsroom. Since the story ran front page, that was easy enough to do.
Even though it was bare bones, the production was great. A good time was had by all. The gymnasium was packed. When the movie came out, I felt it was a pale comparison to what I saw in Kingsport.
A few weeks later the religion editor—for a small town newspaper, this operation had a lot of editors—wrote a story about one of the local ministers who took the town to task for taking “Jesus Christ Superstar” to heart. For one thing, one of the young male leads had his picture taken in a close hug with June Lockhart and it was in the National Inquirer. Older woman takes young lover. That sort of thing.
Of course, that was nothing compared to the vitriol against the musical itself. Rock music and the gospel? Never! The idea that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ girlfriend. Outrageous! Who knows what he would have thought about the “DaVinci Code” and its assertion that Jesus and Mary were married. Herod portrayed as a homosexual? The list of infamies went on and on.
He concluded with the statement, “Every time I hear an ambulance, I think there goes another person who saw ‘Jesus Christ, Superstar.’”
Over the years my wife and I had a good laugh over it, repeating that assertion whenever we heard an ambulance siren. In the last few years, we saw the road show production starring Ted Neely, who had the title role in the movie back in 1976. For an old man he looked pretty good in a loin cloth, except it went all the way up to his rib cage. If he kept doing this show much longer, his loin cloth would be up to his arm pits.
Nevertheless, I might even go back to see him in it again. The music is the music of my youth and brings back fun memories. And when I’m walking into the theater, I know I will see other old, paunchy gray haired people, some of them pushing walkers, with big smiles on their faces.
Maybe that guy was right. Considering the popularity of the musical and the age of the generation that made it popular, the person in the ambulance passing by probably has seen “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
Previously in the novel: War Secretary Edwin Stanton holds President and Mrs. Lincoln captive under guard in basement of the White House. Janitor Gabby Zook by accident must stay in the basement too. Guard Adam Christy tells the Lincoln Tad has become ill. Lincoln demands the boy be brought to them.
Adam collapsed into the omnibus seat, exhausted physically and emotionally, and watched the street signs appear. Avenue H, Avenue I…his mind stopped noticing for a moment as it tried to comprehend the explosion he had just witnessed. Never had he thought the soft-spoken, gently witty Lincoln would, could muster such rage so quickly. And what if Stanton said no? he fretted as Avenue K arrived. He waved at the driver to stop and stepped off the omnibus, which clanged its way up Fifteenth Street. Adam ran down the avenue several blocks until he reached Stanton’s brick home. Coming down the steps as he leaped up, two at a time, was a strange, swarthy woman wearing dangling earrings and a peculiar scarf over her black curls. She nodded and smiled mysteriously at him and evaporated in to the night. He stood at the door, gathering courage to knock and fighting his doubts about Stanton’s intentions.
Some nights, after cleaning and returning chamber pots to the billiards room, Adam sneaked out and wandered over to one of the taverns, where he was developing a taste for ale. Soldiers returning from battle swapped tall tales, but Adam stayed to himself, preferring not to explain why he had no wounds. He had learned quite a bit about the political scene in the capital and much of the gossip, including where the best whorehouses were, and who was taking graft in the government. For instance, he learned Edwin Stanton had become secretary of war by exposing the corruption of former secretary Simon Cameron, who was said to be willing to steal anything but a red-hot stove. Then one night, as Adam was nursing his second glass of ale, he overheard something disconcerting. During the summer of 1862, when Stanton was formulating his plan to move Lincoln to the basement, he had been the target of nasty rumors of failure to supply medical aid and armaments for the soldiers. There was even talk of forcing the president to remove him.
So, as Adam stood on the front step of Stanton’s house, he could not help but wonder if Stanton’s self-preservation was the actual reason for the grand scheme to save the republic, of which the private was an integral part. He finally knocked.
A maid opened the door, and Adam told her he wanted to see Stanton. He sat on a long bench in the hall while she disappeared through a door to the parlor. In a moment she returned.
“Mr. Stanton will join you in a few minutes.”
She disappeared down the hall, and Adam, despite his better instincts, went to the door and listened.
“Ellen, who was that woman?”
“Mrs. Laury, from Georgetown.”
“The name sounds familiar.”
“She’s a spiritualist.”
“Ah, the one who told Mrs. Lincoln that all her husband’s Cabinet members were his enemies.” Sarcasm tinged his voice.
“It was Mrs. Lincoln who recommended her to me, since we share the sorrow of losing sons.”
“Mrs. Lincoln? When?”
Adam noticed an urgency to the question.
“Last summer. Mrs. Laury’s been ill with influenza until recently. Why do you ask?”
“No reason.” Stanton paused. “Why do you need a spiritualist?”
Adam heard Mrs. Stanton sigh, but not reply.
“Well, I’ve someone waiting for me outside,” Stanton said. “We can talk about this later.” When he came out of the door, his eyes widened. “Oh. I didn’t know it was you.” He looked around nervously. “I told you not to come here.”
“It’s an emergency.”
“Not here. Outside.” Stanton pushed Adam out the front door. “What is it?” They stood on the porch and began to shiver in the November night.
“The boy—Tad—he’s sick.”
“So?” Stanton raised a cynical eyebrow.
“It’s nothing serious, but he wants to see his mother.”
“Isn’t that woman there? She should be there.”
“What do you mean he knows?”
“He thinks his father placed substitutes in the White House as part of a plan to end the war. That’s why he hasn’t told anyone—yet.”
“He says if he doesn’t see his mother tonight, he might forget not to tell.”
“Little brat tries to blackmail me, and he won’t live until morning.”
“Hell.” Stanton spat on the steps and scrunched his shoulders. “Fine. Take him to the basement. Just make sure no one sees you.”
Within thirty minutes, Adam was back at the Executive Mansion and bounding up the service stairs. Entering Tad’s bedroom, he found Alethia and Duff hovering over him.
Beaming brightly, Adam announced, “It’s all right. It’s been approved. Mr. Stanton said yes.”
“Hear that?” Alethia brushed Tad’s hair. “In a few minutes you’ll see them.”
“But only for a few minutes,” Duff said. He looked up at Adam and back at the boy. “You don’t want to endanger your father’s plan.”
“Oh no,” Tad said. “I don’t want to do anything to hurt Papa, but I do want to see Mama. I think it’ll make me well faster.”
“Of course it will.” Alethia smiled.
“You’re a nice lady.” Tad looked up at her and then at Duff. “And you’re a nice man. Papa picked good when he picked you.”
“No one must see us,” Adam said. “What about Nicolay and Hay?”
“They came in from a round of tavern visits while you were gone.” Duff stood. “I think they’re still awake.”
“Oh.” Adam’s face clouded.
“I could go down to their rooms and discuss tomorrow’s agenda,” Duff offered.
“That’s good,” Adam said.
“They’re good boys. Our late-night talks can last an hour, easy.”
“That’ll give us plenty of time,” Adam said.
Duff left to walk down through the glass partition to the office reception area. The bedroom which Hay and Nicolay shared was in the corner across from their office.
(Previously in the book: For his fifth birthday Herman received a home-made bear, which magically came to life when Herman’s tear fell on him. Herman asked his parents to make burlap bears for his brother and sister for Christmas. As Herman grew up, life was happy–he liked school, Tad was nicer and the tent show was coming to town.)
Herman and Tad ran out the front door and scrambled into the back of the pickup. Callie rode in the cab next to her father. They were well on their way down the road when Tad leaned over to Herman. “Can you keep a secret?”
Herman became scared because whenever Tad said something like that he was in trouble and going to get Herman in trouble too. “I guess.”
Tad smiled as he pulled from under his shirt Burly.
“Shush,” Tad whispered. “I said keep it on the QT.”
Tad shrugged. “I thought it wouldn’t hurt anything, and, heck, you’ve been a pretty good kid, making good grades and, well, you pull your weight around the farm.”
“I love you, Tad.”
His brother stiffened. “Aww, don’t get sloppy on me.”
The rest of the ride went in silence, but it was the happiest silence Herman ever shared with Tad. When they arrived at the tent they had to take seats towards the back since it was almost filled. Herman had never seen so many people together in one place, which also made it very hot. The sides of the tent were rolled up so air could move through, and people with the show were giving out hand fans.
“Hi, Herman!” a boy called out.
Herman looked up and smiled. It was one of the nicer boys from school, Gerald Morgan.
“Who’s that?” papa asked.
“Oh, a boy from school.” Herman stopped smiling long enough to make sure Burly wasn’t showing from underneath his shirt and then gave Gerald one last wave.
They hadn’t been there long when a band marched out and sat right in front of the stage. Music began, and the curtain opened. Herman cautiously pulled Burly from under his shirt so he could watch too. Glancing over at his father, he saw a happy grin on his face. The actors came out and began talking. To be honest Herman didn’t really understand much of what they were talking about or who was who. One fellow was definitely a bad guy, who talked nasty to people and threatened all the pretty girls on stage. Another actor was the good guy. Everybody seemed to like him. Finally there was Toby. Harley Sadler didn’t look a thing like he did that afternoon. He had on a silly red wig and had freckles painted on his face, and he wore funny looking wooly chaps. When he came on stage everyone else sort of disappeared because the entire audience laughed at Toby.
Partway through the show papa leaned over to Herman, who jumped and quickly put Burly under his shirt. “Can you see all right, son?” he whispered.
“Kind of,” Herman replied.
Papa looked behind him to make sure there wasn’t anyone he would be blocking and then lifted Herman to his shoulders.
At first Herman had a few butterflies in his stomach because he was so high but he could see better. It felt good being so close to his father so the butterflies soon went away. After a while Herman asked his father if he was hurting his back.
“Not to mention, as long as you’re having a good time,” Papa replied.
The hero beat up the bad guy with the help of Toby. One of the pretty girls turned Toby down when he asked her to marry him, which didn’t seem right. But another pretty girl did marry the hero, which made the audience cheer. The curtain came down, the band played some happy-sounding music, and the audience applauded.
On the way out Herman smiled with the satisfaction of knowing exactly what a tent show was now and of feeling love flowing from his family. Then he saw something that broke the warm feeling. Off to the back left was a section roped off for black people. He hadn’t noticed it when they came in. Indeed, it was the first time Herman had ever noticed that black people were treated differently and it bothered him. As his father lifted him off his shoulders and onto the ground, Herman’s first reaction was to ask his father about it, but he decided not to say anything.
He had almost forgotten the separation of the black people when they got home. Herman was about to walk into the house when his father called him over to the shed where he was putting the pickup away for the night.
“How did Burly like the show?” Papa asked.
Papa smiled knowingly. “You better take him out from under your shirt now. He’s going to rub your skin raw.”
Herman pulled Burly out. “How did you know? Did Tad tell?”
“Why? Did Tad know?”
“Um, no.” Herman didn’t want to get his brother into trouble.
Papa patted Herman’s back. “Don’t worry about it. Get on to bed.”
Herman was leaving when he decided to ask about the black people. His father’s serene expression changed as Herman spoke.
“Oh, the coloreds.” The last word floated up through Papa’s nostrils as though it were the stench of rotten eggs. He turned away from Herman, his way of saying a conversation was over. “Don’t worry about them.”
Now Herman wished he hadn’t brought the subject up. It put a sour ending to a wonderful evening. When he climbed the ladder to the loft he found Callie and Tad already asleep. He took his clothes off, opened his window and climbed into bed.
“How did you like the show?” he asked Burly.
“What I saw I liked. Of course, I couldn’t see much from under your shirt.”
“I’m sorry,” Herman whispered.
“Oh no. I was glad I got to go, no matter what.”
Herman smiled as he nestled into his pillow. “Wasn’t it nice of Tad to bring you?”
“Of course. I keep telling you he loves you.”
Herman sighed. “Yes. But often it comes as a surprise.”
From across the room came two other bear voices.
“How did you like the show?” Pearly Bear asked.
“Was it fun?” Burly Senior added.
“Oh yes, mama, papa,” Burley replied. “Even though I did have to sit under a shirt.”
“Sit under a shirt?” Burly Senior said with a hint of indignation. “Herman, why did you do that to Burly?”
“I—I was afraid of what Papa would say,” Herman stammered.
“But your father knew all along,” Pearly said. “You would have been better off being honest, and then Burly would have had a better view.”
Herman frowned and thought about the black people again. “Are people being dishonest about black people?
“I don’t know,” Pearly replied. “I just know about bears.”
And then Burly Senior asked, “But are bears and people much different?”
Tillie Purcival clutched, ever so gently, her sixteen-year-old Chihuahua Toots as she sat in the rocking chair on her front porch, waiting for her son and his wife to arrive. When she saw their sedan pull up, she set her jaw and tried to control the tears forming in her steel gray eyes. The son and his wife walked up the sidewalk, smiling and holding hands.
“So which one of you told this little dog she was old?”
Good grief. Here she goes again. I’m not a puppy anymore. Get over it.
Tillie’s husband Butch never allowed her to have a lap dog. He considered them a waste of time and money. Now, a hunting dog, he told her, there was a good investment. At least they could bring home something she could cook for supper. And Butch gave Tillie strict instructions never to pet the hunting dogs. That would just turn them into sissies and then what good would they be?
Three days after his sixty-first birthday, Butch took his dogs hunting. They were chasing a covey of quail when Butch tripped over the dogs, fell and blew a hole in his belly with his shotgun. After the funeral, Tillie gave the shotgun and the dogs to her son as a Christmas present. She promptly went to a dog show in nearby Dallas, strolled the aisles until she found a table of baby Chihuahuas, paid an obscene amount for the tiniest female, named her Sweet Little Tootsie Roll (Toots for short) and took her home.
Tillie and Toots became inseparable companions. An expert seamstress, Tillie created a lovely bag which fitted Toots perfectly. When she took her dog to the vet, he told her the Chihuahua was in good health but did have a slight curvature of the spine which would develop into arthritis as Toots grew old. Tillie decided never to allow that to happen so she always called her pet a sweet little baby puppy. Everyone who visited the house was instructed to do the same.
All went well for the next sixteen years until Toots indeed develop arthritis. Her little head perpetually cocked to the left and her tiny feet veered to the right. The odd walk never accounted for much because Tillie kept the dog in the bag or in her arms. The problem was with visitors who insisted on commenting what a sweet old dog Toots was.
“She is not old! She is my sweet little baby puppy!”
“Of course, she is, mother,” her son said.
“And if I accidentally used the word old, I am very sorry,” his wife added.
“She is not old!”
Stop screaming in my ear! I’m not deaf!
“Is she eating better than she was?” he asked.
“Yes, but I don’t want her to gain too much weight. Her little legs won’t hold it.”
The new stuff in the tiny packages is yummy. I’m glad she started buying it.
“I just don’t want her to be unhappy, that’s all,” Tillie sighed, relenting in her lecture.
I’m happy. I’m happy. Just stop screaming in my ears.
“She’s very dear to you,” the wife said. “I know.”
Oh great. The old broad’s beginning to quiver again. I better give her a kiss to calm her down.
Toots licked Tillie’s knuckles, which were becoming a bit arthritic too.
“You see,” she said, lifting the little dog to her cheek, “she needs me.”
You see, she needs me.