Raised during the early 1800’s on a barely subsisting farm and fighting the rocky soil of Staten Island, as a boy Cornelius Vanderbilt often looked across the bay, watching ships come from all over the world to dock in Manhattan. He knew the name of every ship. His illiterate father, brought up as an orphan, and having had an education about the ways of the world commensurate with his station in life, scoffed at his son’s dreaminess. It pissed him off. He needed his son to pay attention to the farm.
By sixteen Cornelius’ tensions with his father grew to the point that he was ready to sign up for one of the ocean going ships. His mother would hear none of it. He coaxed and she coaxed until a suitable compromise could be found. If he cleared 3 acres of his aunt’s land he could keep the $100 and buy a used sailboat he had seen down at the wharf. He could use that to get a business going transporting people and goods across the Bay to Manhattan. He got to be on the water. The $100 could be considered a loan.
He returned his mother’s loan tenfold after one year.
Asked about his 5th grade education by a Knickerbocker gentleman, Vanderbilt shot back, “If I had learned education I would not have had time to learn anything else.” A fair enough assessment–his always active mind was the key to his success. If it had been contained in a cautious, well spoken persona, it would have meant the death of his golden goose, the source of his power, his shrewd rarely resting mind.
He could seem the ignoramus, squawking at the fancy folk, spitting into a spittoon or on the ground, continuing his ways as a young man among the other longshoremen. Later, he had no difficulty bragging that he could hire someone who could spell for $5 dollars a week. He also had little difficulty sending out letters with abysmal spelling.
At 19 he was already at what others thought was the top of his game, the owner of three schooners, his rich reward for his long hours and daring during the War of 1812. Using his $100 sailboat he defied the British navy day after day bringing supplies to the American forts. He liked to tell of his near death experiences, but only because it was exciting. It never occurred to him that he could get killed. His eyes were on the prize, the incredible money being offered.
On the basis of his schooners he was able to marry his Aunt Beth’s daughter, his first cousin Sophia from the next farm. As children they had played together, as teens they had laid many times in the grass with each other. He could now comfortably support a family. She could not believe her good fortune, the two of them starting out so young with so much.
She was soon disappointed. He sold all three schooners. He told her he could see the future. It was those clanking, smoky monster boats, which were beginning to appear on the Hudson, steamboats spewing fire and ashes into the air. He got a job working as captain on a small steamboat in New Jersey. He received a fraction of what he had earned with his schooners, but there were benefits. Edward Gibbons, the man he worked for owned a run down tavern at the end of a dock in New Brunswick, where his boat stopped overnight on the way to Philadelphia. The place smelled like cat piss and beer vomit. Sewing together rags, and using Yankee elbow grease, Sophia turned it into Belonna, a large home for her family and a decent inn where travelers soon heard of the comfortable accommodations being offered. With the latest of 12 children on her teat, each eventually used as assistants, Sophia and the children kept the business going. It took them 10 years to save enough for their first steamboat, then ten more years for the Vanderbilts to own 100.
He took the first vacation of his life at 60. He had finally gotten to where he wanted to be, passing Astor to become the richest man in America. He built the North Star, a yacht, said to be the most lavish ever built up until that time, nicer than the Queen of England’s royal yacht.
His triumphant tour of the European capitals was widely reported all over America. It got people excited, made them proud. The United States was hardly sixty years in existence, full of desperate people by no means sure of their future prosperity. Nor did anyone assume that the United States would necessarily survive. We were an untried experiment. Here is a comment from the New York Herald. “The sovereigns of Europe have looked upon our increasing power with mingled surprise and alarm—surprise at our progress, and alarm lest the lesson it silently inculcates might be learned by their own oppressed subjects.” The Scientific American weighed in, “Queen Victoria, Czar Nicholas of Russia and Napoleon III will get some of their conceit knocked out of them by a private citizen of New York.” Vanderbilt’s clergyman, Reverend Choules, invited for the tour, wrote a best selling book about the North Star, and its tour of the capitals. He had this to say about how he got along with the Commodore. “Fine. He did the swearing and I did the preaching, so we never disagreed.”
Who can resist a super hero? They address what we are lacking, provide us with spectacular triumphs and power–at least while the movie plays.
The Commodore would quickly interrupt if he were around. “I ain’t no hero.” And most certainly he wasn’t, but if one goes to Grand Central Station on Vanderbilt Avenue in New York, and allows the spirit of the place to quicken the heart, –like the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Windsor Palace, or Versaille it inspires awe. Each is a spectacular manifestation of a cultural peak. Grand Central Station is also a railroad station used everyday by commuters. It was Vanderbilt’s final passionate project, his castle built in his hometown, dedicated to his true love, business and enterprise. One might not see a superhero, but considering where he came from, certainly this man had an awfully long and good run. He was the Michael Jordan of his day.
It wasn’t just his tour of Europe that got in the papers. People couldn’t get enough of him. They wanted to know how his champion horse Mountain Boy had done the day before. Into his 60’s, whip in hand, Vanderbilt fought for each victory. He had to win and win and win. He wouldn’t allow it to be otherwise. Anything and everything about him, what he ate for breakfast, what he thought about shoe polish- Mark Twain wrote a condescending article about people’s adulation of him. But Twain got it wrong.
There was a reason for their love. One of their own showed ‘em it can get done. One of ‘em that spit and cursed and wouldn’t take nothing from no one. One of ‘em kept it going and going. The American dream may be a cliché, but to them that lived it, to the millions who came on a boat with little but the clothes they could carry, Vanderbilt’s story is what brought them here. Though today he is forgotten his story is perpetually reborn. He was the people’s hero in the land of opportunity, a superhero (with the blemishes of a real person).
Copyright © 2013 by Simon Sobo
All rights reserved
Commodore is based on the life of Cornelius Vanderbilt. It follows an outline of his life, but clearly all conversations and some of the depicted events and characters are fictitious
Thank you Victoria. Thank you Sarina.
Thank you Linda.
It would not have been possible without you.
Staten Island 1802
For the last twenty days, the weather has been overcast. It’s April yet the gray dark winter sky seems like it will never give way. Not an hour of sunshine to warm the face. Not a single warm afternoon so that the body can lose its chill.
6AM: Trailing behind his father Cornelius Vanderbilt, nine-year-old (Cornelius) “Cornele” makes his way across the potato fields. Deep mud from the melting snow sucks at the boy’s boots, making it difficult to climb the incline. Old Cornelius is irritated by the slowdown. He’s had to stop his wheelbarrow several times so that his son could catch up.
Gloomy weather like this would sour the mood of any farmer, let alone Cornelius. The freezing drizzle is also rotten luck for Cornele. He and his father would have taken shelter from rain, but his father insists, cold as it is, a drizzle is not enough reason to leave the fields.
Making things worse, the farm borders New York’s Upper Bay. A storm may be coming. High, mean waves are crashing into the shore, sending sprays of icy saltwater into the air. This joins the freezing drizzle, as gusts of wind sweep the moisture a hundred yards into the farm.
Cornele’s damp wool coat provides little protection. The wind finds its way beneath it, injecting Icy chills that cut right through him. More meat on him would help prevent the chill from seeping into his chest. Every few moments a sharp frozen, aching sensation reaches his bones, especially his knees.
Old Cornelius started this morning as he does every morning, wanting to call it quits. After the rooster startled him from his dream, he pulled his quilt tighter, kept his eyes closed, and- if only for a few moments longer, fought to stay asleep.
No luck. As the dream dissipated, it left him all nerves, which increased the longer he lay there.
Now, an hour later, angry energy propels him forward. He parks his wheelbarrow carefully, facing up the hill, so that it won’t fall, reaches for his pick ax, lifts it over his head, and swings it wildly into the mud, trying to free a large rock from the soil. He is a man at war, hurling his fury at the enemy, which is everywhere. Cornele stands nearby ready to help his father, but he is aggravating him more than he is helping him.
When they first went outside, Cornele played with the frosty air. He blew out a thin stream as far as it would go and waved his hand through it as if it were smoke. He tried to make rings. His father looked at him like he wanted like to kill him. As usual Cornele doesn’t seem capable of standing still.
“When you work, you work. No bullshit,” he lectures.
Cornele’s heard it a hundred times, heard the anger as his father said it. Only lately it’s moved beyond aggravation to a fury firing out of his eyes.
Cornele repeatedly tightens his ungloved fingers into fists, trying to prevent them from freezing. His knees move in and out rhythmically as if he has to pee. From time to time, his shivering escalates into a tremor, which culminates in a quivering little boy moan. He tried to pass this off as a playful sound the first time, but hearing it a second time further pisses off Old Cornelius. He’s convinced his son is exaggerating how cold he is. He wants Cornele concentrating on what they’re doing, not on what he is feeling.
“The Princess and the pea. Your mother is raising a princess.”
“I ain’t no princess.”
His father is undeterred. He is intent on showing Cornele his mighty swing. The boy has an unobstructed view. Each time Cornelius’ smashes his tool into the earth, it sends mud flying everywhere. He’s practically covered Cornele’s coat and face. A fleck of mud hits Cornele just below his eye. He flinches. Old Cornelius stares at him defiantly.
“Who told you to stand there?”
Cornele moves two steps backwards. He stares like a deer caught in the headlights.
His father scowls, “Are you waiting for me to say something?”
Cornele’s eyes begin to water.
“Don’t you cry boy. Damn’ princess with her pea,” he repeats. “How’d I ever get a son like this.”
Cornele’s first tear finally slides down his cheek, and then many more. Old Cornelius has seen enough. He will not stand out here with a crying son. He throws down his pick, and storms away in the direction of the house.
“It’s your Ma’s fault. Made you a cry baby.” He shouts loud enough to be heard.
Watching his father march off, Cornele wipes his eyes with his arms. He’s determined not to let the tears continue.
He lifts the pick lying on the ground and swings it solidly into the earth. Old Cornelius hears him and does an about face. He returns and roughly grabs the pick-ax away from Cornele. “Your Ma’d kill me…” he mumbles loud enough to be heard.
His father takes a mighty swing. The huge rock comes loose. “See what I mean?” is written on his face. Happy to have another opportunity, Cornele drops to the side of the rock. He digs his fingers into the cold mud surrounding it, and pulls the huge rock completely free. His father brings over the wheelbarrow. His face turns bright red as he lifts the huge rock to the edge of the wheelbarrow tray. Huffing and puffing he drops it in. This tips the wheelbarrow over.
“God damn’ it,” Cornelius yells.
He places it at a better angle.
“Come here and hold this steady.”
Cornele does as he is told. He holds it tightly, trying to steady it. While doing so, he shifts his feet back and forth still trying to keep warm, which is what bothered his father in the first place.
“Pay attention to what you’re doing,” he scowls. He grabs the wheelbarrow tray and shoves it a bit, “Like this! Get it straight.”
With Herculean effort, cursing all the way, Old Cornelius again lifts the rock to the edge of the wheelbarrow and drops it in. The wheelbarrow falls over.
Furiously, loud enough to be heard in hell, he shouts “Hold it damn’ you.”
Cornele pulls the wheelbarrow up, positions it, stiffens his body, and tightens his grip. His father again lifts the rock and drops it down. Using all of his strength, Cornele manages to keep it upright.
“So when you want to, you can do it,” his father observes sarcastically, but as he wheels the rock away, there is a trace of affection for Cornele’s contribution.
Old Cornelius will add it to the other rocks, which form a wall cutting across the field. Each rock represents a separate battle. As has become his habit, he glances at the largest one every time he brings a new addition. On nicer days it serves as a trophy, but usually it is too hot, or too cold, too wet too dry—the biggest rock, all of the rocks, remind him of just how badly he’s been cursed by God.
“Fuck you Jesus. You son of a whore. Stuck me on this piece of shit land. Fucking rocks everywhere.”
With his father gone, Cornele takes the pick and throws himself at another rock. He is able to get it loosened. He gets on his knees and once again moves the mud away with his hands. Happily he anticipates his father’s admiration when he returns.
Old Cornelius’ reaction is completely the opposite. He grabs the tool.
“You are a fuckin’ idiot. I took the pick away once. I told ya. Ma‘ll blame me if you hurt yourself.”
Still intent on showing his son how it’s done, his ferocious swing further placates his rage. His steady stream of cursing, thousand and thousands of times before, has never been enough to get the job done. He can’t shout as powerfully as he needs to The ferocity of his pick ax swing attacking the earth momentarily makes him feel right
The rock is not loosening
“Mother fucker. You mother fucker.”
A boulder under the rock doesn’t allow him to get at the dirt underneath. He slams the pick into the earth a fourth time but it has no effect.
For Old Cornelius it always comes down to the same thing, futility. Why bother? You can’t win. He throws the pick ax on the ground.
One son sick and the other useless. Too many mouths to feed. Daughters not sons. There is nothing else to say or do other than quit. He heads for the house muttering all the way, bitter that Cornele has failed him. He had counted on the future when a strong son would ease his toils.
“Thinks he’s a prince. Nothing. You hear me Cornele,” he shouts. You’re going to be nothing.” A moment later he adds, “Can’t even hold a wheelbarrow. The world out there ain’t gonna wipe your ass like your Ma.”
When his father is far enough away, Cornele lifts the pick-ax and starts swinging. In the distance, his father turns around. Hands on his hips, he watches his son with the nastiest scowl yet. As he turns back to the house, he kicks a shovel that had been left in his path. He shouts at Cornele.
“How many times do I have to tell you not to leave the shovel there? How many times? Almost tripped on it.”
He picks up the shovel, swings it in Cornele’s direction, and then lets go. It falls far short of its target. Cornele is unfazed. His father has grabbed him roughly many times, but never actually beat him.
Fussing and cursing, Old Cornelius heads for the house again.
“Nothing! You hear me Cornele. You’re gonna be nothing.”
Phoebe watches him through the window as he returns She is not happy. She opens the door, stares him up and down.
“Another short day?”
“So why’d you drag Cornele out there? You already have one sick son. Jacob’s coughing started on a day like this.”
He doesn’t answer. She isn’t finished
“You managed to come back. Where is Cornele?”
Noticing his blue lips, her tone softens.
“There’s hot tea on the stove.”
She’s no fool. He’s regularly disappointed her, but with all his shortcomings, the family could not last 10 minutes without him. It isn’t easy to chop out their survival against nature’s malevolence. She wouldn’t want to be out there on a nasty day like this.
She shouts for Cornele to come in. Her voice sounds like it is coming from heaven. His arms had gotten heavy. He will soon be warm by the fire and sipping tea. With this in mind he has new energy. He stares at the rock that has been his nemesis, rust colored and smooth. He swings a mighty blow. No luck. It isn’t budging. He loosens some dirt and takes another swing. Still nothing happens. The next swing does the trick. He is about to lift it when it begins to pour. He fixes the location of the rock in his mind so he can return tomorrow. Slowed by the mud, he runs towards the house. Hail is bouncing off the ground. That makes him smile. He doesn’t get to see hail very often.
It is dinnertime. Cornele’s mother Phoebe Hand Vanderbilt and her eldest daughter Mary, are bringing food to the large kitchen table. Phoebe is pregnant. She has a strong face, a straight mouth a little drawn down in the corners, but green eyes that glitter humorously from under thick brows. There is shrewdness in her face, determination, kindliness. But not right now. Jacob, her eldest boy, is coughing the worst yet, hacking away from deep within his chest.
“Damn’ it. Cover your mouth.” Old Cornelius shouts at him.
Phoebe brings Jacob a kitchen rag. He hacks away once or twice more, but then coughs more gently before stopping. They settle down. She looks around the table.
“What’s with you Cornele? Why the sad face?”
He glances at his father surreptitiously, before looking down at his plate. Old Cornelius is chewing his food looking as innocent as a priest giving a sermon, making eye contact with no one. He can keep it up for only so long when she stares him down. She catches his eye for a fraction of a second. That’s enough for him to momentarily lose his composure.
The portions are meager. There is not enough food for the seven of them. After cleaning their plates, they look longingly at the little that remains. Phoebe takes the meat off her plate and puts it on Jacob’s plate.
“Here, eat this.”
The other children stare at the meat.
“Not hungry,” he replies in a sickly way.
“Can’t. I’m nauseous.”
Old Cornelius and Phoebe exchange a worried glance.
Phoebe puts the meat on Cornele’s plate.
“You take it.”
Charlotte reacts immediately,
“He always gets everything.”
“Men’s work requires more meat.”
“And what do we get? Sugar and spice?”
“Keep it up and you’ll get the back of my hand.”
Cornele quickly devours the piece of meat. Phoebe pours milk about a third of the way up in each of the children’s glasses.
Charlotte is not finished complaining.
“Can I at least have more milk?”
Phoebe pours the last of it into her glass. Charlotte continues to look expectantly.
“There isn’t any more.”
“Talk to your father about that.”
She still hasn’t let up on his decision to sell Betsy, one of their two cows, for one of his schemes. As usual, that money brought back nothing. Late at night, in bed, she’s told him a thousand times. She doesn’t mind the booze. It’s the gambling. Just because he loses it over a few months, rather then in one night it’s the same. He’s gonna land them in the poor house yet. Now with Elsa, their other cow, not producing well…
Jacob starts to cough again. Old Cornelius stands up and puts on his hat.
“Where you going?” Phoebe asks him.
Without looking back, he closes the door behind him.
No need for Phoebe to say anything. Old Cornelius storming out is a regular occurrence. She returns from the oven with a plate of steaming biscuits.
The weather has cleared. The clouds left behind by the storm have made for a magnificent sunset. A schooner, its sails haloed in orange fills their front window.
Almost to touch the color Phoebe goes to the window, She wants to get a better look.
“Come to the window.”
Charlotte hardly glances. She knows what’s coming. She’s heard stories about her grandfather a thousand times too many.
“Like the boat my father had. Some days I’d stand by the shore. Waiting…”
Cornele can’t take his eyes off the boat. In contrast to Charlotte, every time his mother talks about her father he enters into her memory like in a dream. It brings him to a better place. Like songs that sometimes play in his head, his pleasure multiplies each time the story gets repeated.
The ship’s deep foghorn fills the airways.
“I could hear him before I could see him. As soon as he entered the harbor, he’d sound the horn extra long for me.”
The foghorn again sounds its deep extended bass.
“Still sends a thrill through me… It’s why I fell in love with this house… You can hear the ships’ horns, watch the ships come back from the sea.”
She runs her fingers through Cornele’s hair, as she stares at the boat.
“He was tall and strong like you…
She sees he is uncomfortable.
“Go keep your father company.”
“He likes your company when he goes walking.”
Cornele is still hesitant.
“Believe me. He does. He told me. He used to like it when Jacob could go out with him.”
She hands him his hat. Cornele takes it and reluctantly puts on his coat.
Phoebe is pleased. She feels a little guilty for driving Cornelius from the dinner table. This will help. Cornele needs time together with his father when they’re not working. He can be a different person on his walks.
Here take this biscuit to your father.” She breaks off another half for him.
“Preparing for a comment from Charlotte, she goes on the offensive.
“You can each have another half a biscuit.”
Cornele catches up to his father. He is deep in a dark mood. They walk slowly, quietly along the shoreline, Cornele kicking pebbles along the way. It is now well into the sunset, the bay slowly changing from orange to red. They stare out over the water as small waves fold into the shore. The sound lures them into silence. It quiets Cornelius’ anger.
Cornele throws a pebble into the water. A thin ping can be heard as it breaks the surface. Lit by the sunset, circles of color slowly expand from the pebble, becoming less intense, and then disappear.
Cornele measures his father’s mood cautiously. He is still uncertain what will come next. His father throws a pebble. It is again followed by a circle of color.
Cornele lets down his guard a bit. His father takes out a flask and gulps down a swallow of whiskey.
Cornele’s apprehension returns. Could be the beginning of trouble. Then suddenly, another schooner appears, slowly passing them on its way to docking in Manhattan.
Ordinarily, Old Cornelius lacks the patience to nurture Cornele’s curiosity. He might begin with an educational purpose, but it too often turns into a lecture. Interesting details fade, invariably replaced by a lesson aimed at his moral education. This soon becomes scolding, sometimes for things Cornele didn’t do. His father will acknowledge this, but he says its good for Cornele to listen and learn. Old Cornelius can’t help himself. There is so much that needs fixing. There is so much anger in him at the injustice in the world.
The one exception is ships. Like Phoebe he has a thing for ships. He points:
“What is that called?”
“The jib sail.”
The ship’s flag comes into view.
“Spain. That’s the Castilla.”
Sure enough, soon is seen, written boldly, La Castilla adorning the bow.
“See I told you.”
“Your Ma says you can name every boat that comes into the harbor.”
“That’s how you use your time? Watching the boats?”
“They go all over the world.”
Old Cornelius says nothing but it is clear he is unimpressed.
“Your Ma also tells me you like to wear your grandfather’s captain hat.”
Cornele remains silent.
“You’re too old to play baby games like that.”
Another ship comes into view.
Cornele calls out excitedly.
“That one’s Dutch. It’s Dutch like us.
”“Don’t you let your mother tell you any different. The English stole New York from us.” Frustrated, angry, determined he continues, “It should be New Amsterdam.”
Cornele’s apprehension grows as the anger grows in his father’s voice.
“Telling ya. I would sell Betsy again. Your Ma don’t understand. Ya can’t get anywhere working with your hands. No future in it.”
He looks at Cornele, not sure what he understands. Cornele is, in fact, not listening. He’s planning his escape route, should the drinking continue.
Late December 1876, a lifetime later.
Cornelius Vanderbilt is sitting on the side of his bed using a cane to support himself. A doctor has just completed his examination. Eighty-four, thin and pale, he groans in pain as he attempts to stand up. Yet, sick as he is, he still radiates authority. His groans are as much shouting back at the pain as feeling it. When he feels irritation in his throat his raucously loud coughs take over the room.
Below his bedroom window, a mob of reporters has overflowed into the street at the front of his Manhattan townhouse. A newsboy can be heard outside calling out the tidings:
“Commodore Vanderbilt dying. Richest man in America very ill.”
Making it to a standing position, Vanderbilt heads towards the window. An extern, dressed in white, tries to help him, but he is waved away contemptuously.
The doctor begins to stir but thinks better of it.
Outside, someone is shouting “Commodore” over and over.
Vanderbilt mumbles to himself as he moves toward the window. He rubs away the frost with his pajama sleeve and looks out at the reporters.
“Twice as many as yesterday. They’re ready to suck on my bones the minute I die.”
An organ grinder, with a leashed monkey sitting on his shoulder, cranks out a tune.
“A fucking carnival under my window.”
One of the reporters catches a glimpse of Vanderbilt and points. The result is a new round of shoving and pushing as each tries to secure a better position. Everyone’s shouting.
Vanderbilt leaves the window.
The doorbell rings, a series of gongs.
“Pendleton. Get the door,” he shouts to the butler, as he makes his way to the second floor landing overlooking the entrance.
“Who is it?”
“A reporter,” Pendleton shouts back, “Mr. Michael Burch.”
Burch leans forward and looks up at the landing.
Vanderbilt moves into full view and straightens up. Like a bear rising on its back legs, he appears doubly menacing.
“ I ain’t dying you mother fucker.”
Calmly, Burch shouts up to him, “Sir, it’s Michael Burch.”
He waits for a response, but there isn’t any.
“Michael Burch. You asked me to come here… You liked my story about you in last week’s Sentinel…Said you wanted to tell me the rest…that ring any bells?”
“I read that article.” Vanderbilt shouts to him in a raspy voice. “I don’t remember asking you to come here.”
“Our readers want to know everything they can about you.”
“Sure they do. Especially, how I got my money. Probably think I have a secret which I’ll take to the grave.”
“Well, do you?”
“Just one. I tripped over a chest of diamonds and gold on Treasure Island when I was twelve. Been living off it ever since.”
“You’re a lucky man.”
“I wanted it enough. That’s how I done it.”
“Can’t be that simple. You started with nothing.”
“Actually it is that simple. It ain’t the stuff you guys write about. I know it’s hard coming up with news. Still! Ya ever get tired of bullshit?”
“We’re not all like that. Make you a deal. You tell the story straight and I’ll report it that way. Let our readers decide.”
“How you did it. That’s what people want to know.”
“There’s nothing unusual about it.”
“Nothing? You were better at making money then anyone that’s ever lived. People want to know about things like that.”
“I’m sure they do.”
“They’re looking for ideas. What’s wrong with that?”
“I ain’t no ‘how to’ person.”
“ I’m sure you aren’t. But something made you succeed. It wasn’t just luck.”
“There was plenty of luck.”
“Not the way you kept multiplying your money. You did it for 70 years.”
Normally, flattery would turn Vanderbilt off, but since he’s become ill, he’s been more vulnerable to compliments.
“People want to figure out how come, what drove you on like that?”
“I’m trying to sort that out myself.”
“There’s a lot of stories floating around, not all of them nice.”
“Not all of it was nice. But none of it was crooked.”
“They say you could outsmart anyone.”
“That’s because everyone thought they were smarter than me. Dumber they think you are, the better you’ll do.”
“See that’s what people are looking for, advice. You have some more like that?”
“No. Only other thing is ya gotta be quick. Act before someone else gets the idea.”
“So you are cagey.”
“You want to call it cagey, go ahead.”
“Well what is it?”
“Who the fuck knows. I just do what I do.”
Vanderbilt starts to cough. He clears his chest and gathers his phlegm, forces the gunk out of his throat. He lets the phlegm fly towards the spitoon. He hits his mark.
“Getting sick brings out new talents,” he says triumphantly.
“Do you see things differently since you got sick like this?”
“That I may be dying got me thinking about a lot of things. ”
“Is that on your mind a lot?” Burch asks with some genuineness.
“You really give a shit?”
Burch squirms a bit, which Vanderbilt ignores.
“Some days, it feels like I’m dying. Other days…I feel like a million bucks. Like today.”
“You know the Herald is printing a daily report on your health. Been running it for the last month.”
“I know. The countdown. You can tell your editor I ain’t dying any time soon.”
Burch isn’t sure what Vanderbilt believes. His physical deterioration is striking, especially his pallor. Burch saw him at a function a year ago. It’s as if the person before him is someone else, taking measured steps, frail like a ghost.
“Since you are feeling good, how about an interview?”
“Truth is when I read your article I thought about doing an interview with you.
Give you this. Most reporters make up stories to fill in what they don’t know. In your article you didn’t do that. What you wrote about me last week was true. Every bit of it.”
“I do my best.”
“I respect that.” Vanderbilt observes Burch as he absorbs the compliment. He continues.
“I need that. I want to set things straight. Never understood people my age writing memoirs. Now I do. I want the last word.”
“I can help you do that. People trust what I write.”
Vanderbilt seems perplexed.
“Is something wrong?”
“Sounds like I invited you, doesn’t it?”
“I really don’t remember doing that. Don’t remember it at all. I’m forgetting a lot of things lately. ”
“I was definitely told to come here.”
Thinking further: “Was probably my son, Bill. You got sons?”
Burch holds up two fingers, “Eight and ten”
“Wait ‘til they get older and become pricks like Bill…”
“You really didn’t ask me to come?”
Vanderbilt isn’t listening.
“I’m sure it was Bill. The fuck has taken over. Convinced the doctors I’m senile. That’s put him in charge.”
He clears some more phlegm from his throat.
“Probably I’m not all there. But all that means is I’m not paying attention to what’s going on around here…Who wants to? I’m stuck with this body that ain’t worth shit. And the fact is, my memories are a thousand times more interesting than the people around me now.”
He takes several labored breaths, than continues. “I keep mentioning people my son’s never heard of. So what? He thinks my talking so much about the past is proof I’m a goner.
The doctor agrees it’s a sign of senility. What they don’t get is, these people in the past happen to be the people I spent my life with.”
He hesitates to catch his breath.
“They mean something to me. I’m sorting things out with them. Finishing things up between us.”
“That matters to you?”
Vanderbilt doesn’t answer.
The extern, a tall young man, has followed him to the landing.
“Sir, I think you have to get back to bed.”
He grabs Vanderbilt’s arm trying to force him back to the bedroom. Over matched, Vanderbilt’s hand tightens on his walking stick as the extern begins to pull in earnest. He cracks the extern on his head, a sharp glancing blow, and pulls his arm free.
“Keep your hands to yourself,” he spits out. “Who the fuck you think you are?”
The extern retreats. Vanderbilt waits for him to leave the landing, which he does. He returns to the bedroom, leaving the door open.
“Shut that door!”
The intern ignores him. Vanderbilt returns his attention to Burch.
“Believe me, the people I’m thinking about are god damn’ more important than the assholes around here. Including Bill when he pokes his head in.”
He looks toward the bedroom.
“Put that down,” he shouts at the extern. He leaves the landing to retake possession of a urinal from the extern. He grabs it out of his hands. The extern gives him a patronizing glance, the same he gives to all the old biddies that he sees.
With Vanderbilt busy, Burch questions Pendleton,
“Is he okay?”
“His mind’s sharp as a bell. Remembers everything. What’s changed is now he tells people things he used to keep private. Doesn’t care anymore.”
“The last 7 or 8 years the second Mrs. Vanderbilt had made him into a gentleman.”
Pendleton’s pride swells as he speaks.
“Should have seen him at 80, dapper, erect posture; he looked 60. They made quite a couple…Up until this illness. Now he’s more like he was before he married her, yelling and cursing as bad as he ever did.”
Having defeated the extern Vanderbilt returns invigorated. He shouts down to Burch.
“You can bring your ass up here. Except you gotta do one thing first. Tell your buddies to clear out. I want ‘em off my sidewalk.”
“Sir. The sidewalks are public property.”
“Fuck you Pendleton. Who asked you?”
Vanderbilt waits to catch his breath.
Outside someone shouts. “Burch got in!”
There is a knock on the door.
“Burch?” Vanderbilt yells down at him.
“Get rid of ‘em. And get them off my sidewalk.”
“Sir, most of ‘em are not my friends out there.”
“I don’t give a shit. Next thing – they’re gonna invade this place.”
Two more knocks, this time louder, more insistent.
“Pendleton. Get that door and slam it in the man’s face. And none of your bullshit manners. See if you can catch one of his fingers or his nose.”
“Then send someone to the precinct. Talk to Donahue.”
Shouting like he’d like to slap him on the ass, “Pronto!”
Pendleton mutters to Burch:
“He’s the same man.”
“One other thing, Pendleton. After you send someone to talk to Donahue, I want you to get my revolver from the gun case, walk to the back of the house and blow your brains out. And don’t make a mess!”
Pendleton winks at Burch.
“As you wish, great one.”
He adds cheerfully,“ Burch. You can have my story.”
Burch goes to a mirror, nervously slicks down his hair, straightens his tie, and then rushes up the stairs. The doctor, looking bedraggled, passes him on his way down. The doctor shakes his head in frustration. He has a sympathetic look of “you’re next.”
The Atlantic Ocean, August Night
A schooner violently rolls in the stormy sea. Driven by strong winds, waves of rain swamp the deck, as the ocean’s fury slaps against the side of the ship. Three hundred men, women and children are packed densely in the damp stowage compartment of the rotting interior. What light there is comes from a few candles. Nauseous and feverish, children are gagging, crying, screaming in discomfort. Others hold on to their mothers disheartened, whimpering in frightened silence. A ship officer holds a handkerchief over his nose trying to subdue the smell of vomit and unwashed bodies, a dank stench that sticks to their sweat soaked clothes. In the dim light, even the children have a grey complexion. Worse horrors are sporadically illuminated by lightning– people with boils, gangrenous toes, toothless, bloody mouths.
Watching the officer, a mother nervously shouts out a steady stream of happy baby-talk as she bounces her ten-month-old son. She watches an old man ladle some water from a barrel. He can’t keep it down. Nervously, she quickens her bounce, chanting her baby-talk still louder. Amidst the misery, the baby’s laughter sounds macabre.
Some men are removing the body of a dead woman, still being clutched by her husband and two children. After initial resistance, the husband relents. An officer faces the man.
“You understand what this means?”
“What does it mean?”
“You and your wife each agreed to seven years of indenture for the passage. You’ll have to make up her indenture. You will belong to your buyer for fourteen years.”
“But this ship killed her.“
“Bullshit,” the officer answers , “I saw her when she got on the boat. She looked half dead.”
“She was hungry. She wasn’t sleeping.”
“She was dying.”
“She was gonna make it. This hell-hole made her give up.”
“Whad ya expect for what you paid?”
“I didn’t know places like this existed. Hell can’t be worse,”
“Listen buddy. She and you put your X on the contract. She took up a space on the ship. You owe us your 7 and hers as well.”
“That isn’t fair.”
Amused, the officer pokes his buddy.
“Fair? He must be one of those guys that went to school.” He stares him down.
“Look. We did your wife a favor. She won’t be having any more nightmares.”
Aersoon lunges for the officer but is quickly subdued by his men.
Burch sits on a wood chair leaning forward, while Vanderbilt leans against the bed, half-standing. Vanderbilt clears his throat and spits into his spittoon.
“Elsa Aersoon Van Der Bilt, meaning from the village of Bilt. She was my great great grandmother. In those days half the people who came to the colonies in America were the same …indentured servants. My family goes way back in Bilt. Every last one of them a Dutch working stiff. It was the first time anyone moved. They had no choice. They sold themselves because it’s all they could do.”
“What do you mean?”
“Twenty, twenty five years ago a million Irish died of starvation. Good old Mother Nature cooked up one of its special treats. Famine. A little potato beetle. It was the same in Holland in 1650. You watched your brother, your sister, your mother, shrivel down to bones. Then they’d drop to the ground too weak to continue. Then they’d die. The choice was stay and starve, or sell yourself into slavery for a chance in America.”
“Where did you hear about this?”
“My father talked about it.”
“Where did he hear about it?”
“His grandfather. Not something a family forgets.”
He spits again.
“Americans got a proud heritage. They sold the men right on the docks with the rest of the goods brought to market. Strawberries, potatoes, pigs and men.”
People are milling around. A good-sized crowd is lined up for the auction of Aersoon. They’ve noticed his strapping frame, the anger in his eyes. Like he was capable of killing someone if his hands weren’t tied behind his back. One of the potential buyers pries open Aersoon’s lips and examines his teeth. Lunging forward, Aersoon attempts to grab the man’s hand with his teeth and bite him. He isn’t quick enough. The customer laughs at him.
The auctioneer shouts out: “Look at him. This one is special. You’ll own him fourteen years. Fourteen! Look at the size of his arms and legs. Brains too. He can read and do numbers. He also has two children that will earn their keep.”
“He’s got a nasty disposition.”
“The Dutch are stubborn, but trust me they’re no different than horses. You just have to show him who’s boss. You got the sheriff standing behind you.”
For emphasis the auctioneer smiles devilishly as he flips Aersoon’s nose. Aersoon rattles his chains, which brings a grin to the auctioneer.
“How much am I offered? Do I have forty pounds?” He points at a bidder with his arm raised. He points at another bidder “Forty pounds twenty shillings.”
“Fourteen years. That was a lot to pay,” Burch says sympathetically.
“He escaped three times. Sheriff hired Indians to hunt him down and bring him back for a whipping. They thought that was fair. Your master owned ya. Paid good money. You agreed to it. So they could whip you just like they could whip their own children.”
Vanderbilt spits, then continues: “They whipped a woman if she got pregnant. Added 8 months to the indenture. That was the law. It was all laid out. How many lashes you got for escaping one time, two times, three. Finally, they put an iron collar on Aersoon’s neck. Chained him to a post at night.”
“Jesus, when was this?”
“Told ya, 1650, at a farm in Flatbush.”
“Fourteen years of that?”
“Well that’s America. You may have to eat shit but at least you know it won’t last forever. You got a chance. That’s the key thing.”
Vanderbilt stands up. He clears his throat. Invigorated he again lets go a well-shaped wad of phlegm. Once again his aim is true. It lands in the spittoon. He’s pleased. He holds a cigar box up for Burch, who declines. Vanderbilt bites off the tip of his cigar. Burch lights a match for him. He inhales deeply.
Smelling the smoke, the extern comes in.
“The doctor is going to hear about this.”
Vanderbilt enunciates every syllable,
“Get the fuck out of this room.”
The extern leaves. Vanderbilt inhales again. He begins to cough, soon uncontrollably. The extern sticks his head in with an ‘I told you so’ look. Vanderbilt reaches for his walking stick. The extern vanishes. Vanderbilt puts out the cigar. Catches his breath.
“Where was I?”
“Something to look forward to.”
“Rules were you got 25 acres at the end of the contract. Thirty years later Aersoon gave money for a church bell in his wife’s name. He had become someone in Brooklyn. Then, after he was gone, his son lost what he made and the family was back to square one. That’s also America.”
He spits again.
“Lately, can’t help thinking about that. Specially that. How nothing lasts. Families go up n’ down. Up n’ down. I got a week, a month, maybe a year. Then that’s it. I disappear forever. Dust blowing in the wind. That’s what the preachers say we are. This life means shit. It’s the one after that counts.
“You don’t believe that?”
“Never gave it a thought until lately. I don’t know about the life after but the part about us being dust. That bugs me.”
“I can understand that.”
“Okay I’m gonna be gone. But ya don’t want to leave as if you were never here.”
Vanderbilt continues, “ Keep wondering what’s gonna happen to my grandchildren? What will they have in 30 years?”
“My guess is you’ll have plenty of very rich great grandchildren to spend your fortune.”
“Spend it? I want it to last. Being born with money makes you a fool.”
Burch is writing away. Vanderbilt continues:
“Your whole life can be determined by what you start with…My father never had a chance. Parents dead before he was three. Raised by an uncle who took him to get cheap labor for his farm. At least that’s how he saw it. Wasn’t sent to school. His uncle wanted the most work he could get out of him. The fuck made him work in the rain, wet clothes, chilled to the bone. When his uncle got in the mood, he had ‘em eat in the barn with the livestock.”
“Hate! My father hated most people. Admitted it to everyone. Worse than that. He almost enjoyed it. Hated me the most.”
“Who the fuck knows. He was mean.”
Vanderbilt continues “I’ve this dream which wakes me up. Almost every night… my father coming after me…At least I think it’s him. It doesn’t look like him. But when you dream you know these things. Lately it’s been real bad, a bat goin’ for my eyes.”
As he recalls it he is clearly shaken.
He takes a few breaths.
“He taught me everything I don’t want to be. Not letting what happened to my father, happen to me, drove me from the beginning. Whacked the shit outta that one. Whacked it good…
Trouble is. It doesn’t matter. No matter how much I stuck it to him. Got my revenge, rubbed my success in his face, now I’m trying to make peace with the bastard. Trying to be fair. But the bats still come at me. Lately, I don’t want to sleep any more… They chase you until they get you. You can’t get away. That’s begun to sink in.”
“What are they going to do?”
“What do you think? Kill me.”
He stares at the floor, preoccupied, quiet. Then he continues.
“It’s not like my father just took it, let his uncle do whatever he wanted. He escaped as soon as he could, when he was 14.”
“Where’d he go?”
“Landed up as a laborer on a barge. He hated the barge as much as the farm. He worked only what he had to do to get by.”
“Hate. It’s all he knew. The fuck thought it’s all any of us deserve.” He shakes his head. “Can’t put it any other way. A mean fucking bastard. A fucking bastard.”
Burch happily scribbles away. He’s getting more than he had expected. When he is finished he looks up, hoping for another serving. There is an awkward silence. Vanderbilt is unraveled. Embarrassment has replaced his anger.
There’s a knock on the bedroom door.
“Sir. Your lunch is ready. Should I serve it now?
Vanderbilt is relieved by the interruption. He was losing it. Talking about his father always does that to him. Shouldn’t have gone there with the reporter.
“I’ll be back in an hour.” Burch says. “I want to know about your mother.”
Let out the back door, Burch makes his way through the reporters to a carriage and is off. His favorite saloon is four blocks away. As usual, Charley is there. They take a booth.
“So how’s my big shot reporter doing?”
“I’ve got an exclusive with a real big shot.”
“Who’s the most famous person in America?”
“You mean always in the paper? Vanderbilt?”
“I thought he’s dying.”
“They say he is. But that’s what he wants. He wants to talk to me.”
“You’d think right now he’d want to be with people who love him.”
“Who’s that, Charley?” someone shouts from the bar.
“You know. People like we got here at Harry’s.” another answers.
“Well. He’s got me.” Burch answers.
“You.” Charley answers deadpan.
“Me. Everyone wants a piece of him. But he’s all mine. All those people out there waiting…’
“So what’s he giving you?”
“Don’t know…the truth. What he’s done,what he said. Millions of people are going to gobble it up. They already do. Anything from that guy. Millions of people.”
“You’re still alone.” Max shouts from the bar, a cigar mashed between his teeth. “No matter who you are.”
“Sounds like an asshole to me.” says the guy next to Max.
“Everyone’s an asshole to you.” Charley shouts back.
Burch lowers his voice so only Charley can hear him: “I really am interested in what makes a kid on a farm turn into a Vanderbilt. How did he become the richest man in America? Why is everyone so interested in him? Sure the money. But you don’t hear anyone talk about Astor. It’s gotta be fascinating. Why him and not a kid on the next farm? Why him and not Astor?”
“You think you can find that out?”
“I’m going to try. But truthfully? I’d be happy if he lasted long enough for me to get any part of his story.”
“He’s that sick?”
“Can’t tell. One moment he looks like he s already dead. The next, he’s like a fire that flares up if he gets going. Damn,, if he’s dying he’s got more piss in him than someone half his age.”
“This is big for you isn’t it?”
“It’s the best chance I’ve had to go to the next level. To be someone.”
“Come on Michael. You’re someone to me. And to your kids… Your wife? Well. That’s a different one. They always want more.”
“Well he’s my chance.”
“So just make sure you keep him alive. But not for too long, otherwise he’ll talk to another reporter.”
“Wish I knew how to do that.”
“When you’re done put a pillow over his face.”
They both smile devilishly.
Vanderbilt is sitting up in bed, freshly groomed for Burch’s return. Burch sits down, gets out his pad and points his pencil at Vanderbilt.
“We were going to talk about your mother.”
“The Hands? Right.” Vanderbilt’s voice is authoritative.
“Exactly the opposite of my father. They were part of a community, a church congregation. The whole congregation came here from Scotland together. Fled the English who were coming down on them.”
He shakes his head. “Got plenty of beefs with congregations in New York. They’re after my money, but my mother’s people were the real thing. Her congregation helped each other out. Tried to be good Christians. It helps to have a lot of people looking after you…She had it good. At least in the beginning. Her father was captain of an ocean-going ship. He was crazy about her. My Ma’s name was Phoebe Hand…”
Six year-old Phoebe Hand, is playing with her doll when she hears the sound of a ship’s foghorn, long and deep.
It is their signal. She smiles and rushes to the window. She spots her father’s ship entering the harbor. The foghorn sounds again. Holding her doll, Phoebe runs down the stairs shouting to her mother.
“Phoebe Hand. You act like a young lady.”
Phoebe runs right by her. Exasperated, but equally excited, her mother takes off her apron, and walking at a deliberate pace, follows her daughter. Phoebe races across the Staten Island fields.
Captain Hand is talking to three sailors on the deck of his docked ship. Firm, yet cheerful, he appears a handsome man, although it is less his facial features, which are plain than his calm way that creates the image.
“Remember. Eight hour shifts. One of you stays on board at all times.”
As he descends the gangplank he sees his daughter charging ahead on the dock. She arrives just as he reaches the bottom, practically knocking him over. He lifts her up.
“How is my chicken feed? Been a good girl?”
“Excellent, cause I got something for you.”
He goes through his knapsack and produces a new doll, which he hands to her.
“All the way from Scotland where I grew up.”
She gives him a hug.
“Give me your old doll,” he says.
A bit reluctantly she hands it over.
“I’ll put it on your dresser.
She holds her new friend tentatively.
“It’ll be with you every night. “Her name’s Ellie. My Ma made her for your Aunt Mae when she was your age. Aunt Mae’s my sister. She wanted you to have it.”
She addresses the doll “You want to be my friend?”
Captain Hand speaks for the doll.
Phoebe hugs Ellie protectively. Delighted, her father watches her. He feels it as if she is hugging his mother.
Vanderbilt’s tone changes. “Unfortunately, her happiness was short lived. She lost him. She was seven. He got scarlet fever. My grandfather made it back from Ireland. Saw my mother, her sisters and brothers. And then he was gone…”
He is quiet for a few moments then continues.
“It wasn’t just losing her father. After he died her family had to be split up. Her mother couldn’t feed them.”
The sound of a bagpipe. The casket is lowered. There are tears all around her, but not Phoebe, who follows the casket with determined eyes. She clutches Ellie.
As she stares at the casket she whispers to Ellie, “You’re staying with me.”
As the funeral for Captain Hand ends, and people start to leave, Phoebe and her siblings remain behind with the minister and their mother. Grief stricken, her mother watches as one by one, various cousins and family friends take away her children.
Phoebe is focused on her older sister, 12 year-old Beth, her favorite, who is being guided away by a couple whose own two children are spiritless, completely broken.
“Ma, who’s that with Beth?”
“That’s your father’s cousin Daniel and his wife Anne. They live on the island in Castleton.”
“Will I see Beth?”
“When she visits.”
Beth breaks away from her cousins.
Cousin Daniel shouts at her, “Where you going young lady?”
Ignoring cousin Daniel, Beth runs back to Phoebe. She lifts her chin. Phoebe looks up. Beth lifts her own chin high.
Beth lifts her chin still higher, determined, defiant.
“No matter what! You do that. Okay?”
Phoebe keeps her chin up. Beth gives her mother a quick kiss then runs back to Daniel and his wife. Cousin Anne grabs Beth’s arm and tugs on it again and again as Daniel lectures her. They tone it down as the minister stares at them.
Beth looks back at Phoebe who is watching with a bit of fear. Beth forms the word with her lips, “Remember.”
Phoebe watches them until they are quite a distance. She turns to her mother who looks her straight in the eye. It is her turn.
“I know you can be brave.” She lifts her chin.
“You remember what Beth told ya. Come on. Chin up.”
Phoebe’s hand is put in the minister’s hand. He holds her hand gently. Her mother walks away without turning back.
“Ma.” She starts to shout, but then stifles her cry as her mother requested.
Her mother’s pace quickens. She silently follows her mother down the road waiting for her to turn around. But, she doesn’t until she is far in the distance, at which point their eyes cling to each other.
She feels the minister’s hand placed on her head. “Phoebe. It’s time for us to go.”
“She never let go of her father. Never. I grew up hearing stories about him, the same ones, again and again. She said that she sometimes saw him late at night. Felt that he was always near her.”
“Like a ghost?”
“His spirit.” Vanderbilt continues, “I remember waking up one night, hearing her talk to him. Don’t get the wrong idea. She was a completely sensible person. Intelligent. Very much in this world. She just wouldn’t say goodbye to her father. Or Ellie. I heard her once talking to her doll. I know it sounds crazy, but they were real to her.”
Vanderbilt clears his throat, and spits into his spittoon.
Burch is quiet for a moment before he speaks.
“How’d it work out for your mother?”
“She had to earn her keep. But it wasn’t too bad. Helped the minister’s wife with her chores. She was lucky. Not all of the cousins were nice. The minister respected her father and liked her. Taught her to read and write.”
He spits into the spittoon.
“The worst was not seeing each other. My mother told this one story again and again…She was 16 and walking on Broadway in Manhattan. She passes a stranger. There is something about him. His eyes also linger on her. They continue walking. Suddenly, he turns back and runs back to her. “Are you Phoebe Hand?” “I’m your brother Frank.” She grabs him. Holds him for dear life. Neither can stop the tears. “I thought so. I thought so.”
“No matter how many times she told the story, her eyes would tear up,”
Vanderbilt’s eyes begin to water.
“After that, she didn’t see him for another 30 years. He had to go back down South. I actually met him. Came to the house disguised as a beggar. Wanted to see if she’d recognize him.”
“No. They had a good laugh.”
His eyes continue to be on the verge of tears. An awkward silence follows as Burch doesn’t know whether to look away, or offer a handkerchief. Vanderbilt smiles lamely.
“You get old and suddenly the shoe is on the other foot. Lately, that story gets me. Never did before. Not like this.”
Pendleton who has been standing in the room silently, and seemingly out of it, comes to the rescue.
“Sir?” he loudly interjects.
“Double bourbon” Vanderbilt answers in his deepest voice.
“What do you drink?” he asks Burch. “We got bourbon. Or bourbon.”
“No thanks,” he answers indecisively.
Vanderbilt sips his drink. “Southern Comfort. You should try it.
“Bring him one.”
“No thanks. Don’t mix work and drinking.”
“You might do better if you’re comfortable.“
“I am comfortable.”
“If that’s your version of comfortable I feel sorry for your wife.”
Burch accepts the drink, but after touching it to his lips, puts it aside.
“Here’s something a lot of people don’t know.” Vanderbilt is almost giddy.
“My Ma’s brother in the South was the grandfather of my second wife”
“I didn’t know that.”
“That why I call her Frankie. That was my Ma’s brother’s name.”
“I brought him back from the South.”
Burch isn’t sure what that means. He assumes it’s because he’s old and doesn’t always make sense. Doesn’t seem like it is enough alcohol.
“Sir. She told me she called herself Franky before she came North.”
“Listen Pendleton. Don’t think I’m not noticing how brassy you’re getting as I’m going down.”
Pendleton says nothing. He knows he’s been stepping over the line quite a lot, like he never did before.
Burch uses the opportunity to look over his notes,. He’s excited but doesn’t want it to show. He feels like a miner who has just hit a fresh vein of gold. He decides to put it away for later.
“How did your parents meet?”
“He caught her eye at church. A lot of girls were after him. Knew how to talk to them. Most guys don’t have that. He was good looking. Like I told you, he couldn’t read or write, and wasn’t ambitious.
But he seemed tough which a lot of women like. He was sour and bitter, which put off plenty of them, but once my mom heard about his rearing, she felt he was entitled to any nasty crap that sprang out of him. After he’d get me going, she’d talk about him. She thought she could get me to be more forgiving. That didn’t work. But I could see how much she still liked him.
He had a lot to say. Wasn’t all mealy mouthed when it was time to say it. She thought that she could dull the sharp edges. Maybe she could connect him to religion. Anyway she was willing to take the chance.
After she grew up, when my mother was 14, she left the minister and worked as a servant. Did a good job, like everything she tackled. He was the opposite. He worked just enough to get by. My mother thought she could change that. Eventually she gave up
“When was that?”
Actually, I don’t know if she ever totally stopped believing she could get him to change. Sometimes her hope got up there nice and high, especially when he got nice for a while. But that happened less and less.
“Like I said. He worked only enough to get by. Worked the farm to feed our family and many years that was it. Didn’t work hard enough to have many vegetables for the market. My mother would gather together a couple of dozen eggs, but that was it. The boat was supposed to bring cash, which you need for things like shoes and tools. But there wasn’t enough of that.” He spits. “He’d lose interest. Sometimes he wouldn’t farm at all.”
“What did he do?”
“He’d sulk. Repeat over and over his excuses, how he was unlucky. That’s how he used to put it. Brains not brawn gets you somewhere. That meant he was a sucker for get rich schemes.
He once took a very big mortgage on the farm for one of his harebrained ideas. Practically wrecked everything. Considering we were barely keeping our heads above water before his deal. He was a fucking idiot. Eventually it sunk in. Realized he was going nowhere. It made him old early. Irritable. Every thing bothered him. Just getting up in the morning was too much for him. Took it out on all of us. That’s the person I knew. “
Spits into a bowl.
“You think about him a lot?”
“In case you haven’t noticed I’ve been thinking a lot about everyone the last few months.”
“But your father?”
“When he died forty-four years ago, I didn’t feel a thing. Nothing. Now can’t stop thinking about him. Don’t know what I’m trying to figure out. Him and my mom? Him and me?
“You said you were afraid of him.”
“But it was more. I just remember how we almost went to debtor’s prison. We would have had to live there with him. My mother had to go to her sister Beth to keep us out of the prison. Twice my aunt saved us. She was always there for my ma, looking after her, looking after us.”
“Aunt Beth, the Johnsons. My Mom’s older sister. Our farm was carved out of their farm, They worked the farm next to us. Except they owned their land free and clear. Never was stupid enough to get a mortgage.
“The worst year was 1801. He lost every penny. Then the crops failed. The Johnsons had nothing extra. No one did. That winter we starved. I mean starved!
Have you ever been so hungry that you ate paper? You got to put something in your stomach… It got to my father, well all of us, but it got to him a lot. After that he was meaner than ever.
My Ma. Been thinking about what it was like for her lately. Not able to feed your children anything? Jezus. She said she had decided she wanted to live on a farm, so, at the very least we would have food. And then having to put us to bed with an empty stomach.
In later years she mentioned that at least she was able to keep a roof over everyone’s head. She knew what not having one was like.
Not to have a home; Jesus. we always had a place we lived. I mean we were poor. But we had our house and we had our farm.”
A warm sunny May morning
Last year brought bumper crops. An easy winter. Nine-year-old Cornele walks back and forth on the shoreline picking up bottles and placing them in a net. Bathed by the sunshine, fifty yards back, Cornele’s Aunt Beth, and his mother, sip tea, taking in the view of the bay. They watch Cornele from the porch, enjoying his diligence and energy.
His mother shouts to him.
“That’s enough. Bring here what you have.”
“Let him be,” Beth argues.
“No it’s enough,” Phoebe insists.
“I’m not done”, Cornele shouts back.
“Doesn’t matter. Bring what you got.” Aunt Beth shouts from the porch.
He drags his net, full of bottles, to her. As she counts them, she holds up each one, so that he is sure the count is right.
“Three hundred and twenty yesterday, a hundred and sixty this morning. Cornele,our deal is off. You’re going to have to pick up the bottles on your own beach.”
“Pa won’t pay me a penny for three bottles.”
“Yeah but one dollar and sixty cents. You’re gonna send us to the poorhouse.”
She takes the money from her cookie jar and counts it.
“Remember. This is it. The deal is off.”
Cornele takes the money. As he does so a tin toy eagle, lying on the porch, catches his eye.
“Can I buy that?”
“Don’t be silly.”
Aunt Beth hands it to him “Take it. Go on. Play with it.”
Holding the toy eagle as high as he can, Cornele indulges his favorate fantasy. He jumps off the porch, a good leap, letting out a high-pitched eagle’s cry. He continues forward on the trot. Then he swoops down, majestically grabbing a shell with his other fingers, and heads for the sky. He caws, triumphant and menacing.
“I am the king of the skies.”
His mother and aunt enjoy his fantasy with him.
“You can keep the eagle.” Aunt Beth shouts to him. “Luke hasn’t touched it in years.”
His aunt and mother enter the house.
“That boy is something.” Beth offers.
“You see it too?”
“Dad. He reminds me of Dad.”
“His eyes, maybe a little. His hair.’
“No I mean his spirit. The way he soars. He takes you with him.”
“Phoebe, you were seven when Dad left us. I was fourteen. We remember different men. For you he was a king from one of your storybooks. Like Cornele’s eagle. King of the sky. That’s not the person I knew.”
“I’m sure that is true, but-“
“Just be careful you don’t put too much on Cornele to live up to. That dad in your head is awfully high.”
“I’m not doing that,” she answers a little too quickly.
Beth puts her fingers through Phoebe’s hair, unconvinced she’s been heard. They are both quiet, reflective. Then she turns Phoebe towards her.
“Tooortle” she says affectionately.
Phoebe doesn’t know what her sister is talking about
Soon after, 11-year-old Luke arrives and sees Cornele playing with his eagle. “That’s mine,” he shouts.
He is two years older and much larger than Cornelius.
“Your mother gave it to me.”
“Hand it over.”
“She gave it to me.”
Luke slams his fist into Cornele’s nose, leaving it bloody. More surprised then hurt, Cornele charges his cousin. Luke grabs his arm and twists it behind his back. Cornele doesn’t loosen his grip on the eagle.
Cornele screams in pain the higher his cousin forces his arm up his back, but he holds the toy tightly. As he transfers it to his other hand, Luke unsuccessfully tries to rip it away.
With the eagle’s talons Cornele scratches at his cousin’s face. Luke’s forehead starts bleeding.
“I’m going to break your arm.”
“It’s mine,” he answers in a tearful high-pitched voice.
Luke furiously pulls Cornele’s arm still further up his back, “I’m going to kill you.”
The pain is excruciating. His shoulder joint feels as if it is being torn apart. Instinct takes over. Cornele’s fury matches his cousin’s. Now both are trying to kill each other. This time Cornele scratches Luke’s forehead hard, pulling up skin with the talons of the toy eagle. Luke loosens his grip and screams in pain. His hand is over his eye. Cornele goes to look. Luke shoves him away. His eye is fine.
“I didn’t want it anyway. It’s for babies,” Luke whines.
Cornele tries not to listen, tries to enjoy his victory and ignore his conquered cousin.
He holds the eagle above his head and starts flying again.
“Your father can’t buy it for you, so you have to steal it from me.”
“I didn’t steal it. Your Ma gave it to me,” he shouts.
“It wasn’t hers to give away. It was mine.”
Cornele throws the eagle down in front of Luke.
“Fine. Take it.”
Luke kicks it backs towards him. “You can have the fuckin’ eagle. It’s for babies anyway.”
Cornele comes over to Luke trying to get a better look at his eye. Again he’s shoved away but not as hard.
Aunt Beth returns. She sees the tears and blood.
“Were the two of you fighting again?”
“What are you looking at?” Luke scowls at his eight-year-old sister Sophia. She has watched the whole thing.
Sophia, petite and feminine, goes into the house and returns with a washcloth, which she uses to wipe the blood in Cornele’s nostril.
She sticks out her tongue at her brother.
“ You started it.” She says to him
“Watch out Sophia he’ll do the same to you.” He shoots back.
She sticks her tongue out further.
Two week later, on a Sunday, Cornele and his friend Owen are playing, when Cornele’s father approaches.
“I know I promised you could take today off but I’ve loaded half of the hay on the boat. The two of you load the other half and sail it to the wharf. You can play on the way there and coming back. Six pence for the job.”
“But you gotta pay us, not like last time.”
“Do the job right and you get paid.”
“We did it right last time.”
“That’s for me to decide.”
Owen murmurs to Cornele, “No way I’m gonna get robbed again.”
“But we get to sail the boat. Come on. I’ll give you my 6 pence.”
“I control the rudder.” Owen says as he walks toward the boat.
“We’ll take turns.”
Soon Cornele is busy loading the hay, while Owen half-heartedly paws at it. Cornele doesn’t care. Whether Owen helps, or not, is immaterial. He loves sailing.
The hay is loaded and soon they’re out on the water, Owen at the rudder. The sail is flapping every which way. Then he catches a gust, and almost overturns the boat.
At this point, Cornele takes over and they are soon coasting along at a smooth rapid speed. Cornele is a natural. Anchored by the weight of the boat and the load, he has a feel for the angles needed to get maximum push from the wind. On the way back, without the hay, the lost weight requires a new angle, a new positioning of their weight. No thinking is involved. Like a fine athlete his body automatically makes adjustments from the feel of it.
He had this talent within a half hour of his father’s first lessons. He was a natural, although his father would never acknowledge it. His father still gives him sailing lessons. Being able to teach and critique his son is one of his few pleasures, although he regularly underestimates his son’s ability.
“It’s my turn!” Owen calls out crabbily.
Cornele relents but Owen is no better than before. He tries to imitate Cornele, only what he’s imitating is how Cornele stands, where he puts his hands, how he bends. He doesn’t have a clue about the feel. Very soon he once again almost turns the boat over. Cornele takes over. Owen sulks further.
The next day they are at their one room schoolhouse. It is Cornele’s least favorite place. He is stuck there all day. Has to sit still and wait his turn to speak. But it is never about anything that interests him. The teacher usually asks questions about something he was supposed to read but didn’t, so he doesn’t have the answer. Reading either grabs him right off or it doesn’t. Even when he likes what he reads his attention disappears rapidly when he hits a dry stretch.
Especially homework. He hates being forced to read something that Mr. Van Etten hates, which is most of the material. He assigns it like he is distributing castor oil, good for you, but torture going down. His attitude is “if I put up with it, so will you.” Cornele gets enough of that from his father.
He’s not alone. His eyes drop when the teacher scans the room for someone to call on. Half the class does the same. Few of them have done the assignment.
The biggest problem for Cornele is they are expected to wear good clothes. Phoebe provides him with a clean shirt and pants. They look better on him than they did on his older brother Jacob, before he outgrew them. Shoes are the problem. Cornele’s big toe is visible through a hole in the front of it.
Mr. Van Etten leaves the room. At the blackboard an older student draws Cornele’s shoe and toe. He points to it, then holds his nose. Everyone else in the classroom does the same including Owen, who avoids eye contact with Cornele. Suddenly Owen shouts out as if leading a cheer.
“Cornele’s father is a cheat. Cheat cheat cheat!”
The rest of the class picks up the chant, “Cornele’s father is a cheat. Cheat cheat cheat!”
Sophia gets Cornele’s attention. Her eyes are sad. More importantly she is worried. She gestures for him to keep calm. That is impossible. Every eye in the room is on him. He blushes scarlet red, his face so hot it feels as if it is about to catch fire.
Owen continues, “He’s a lazy bum. Bum bum bum!”
“Bum bum bum!” shouts his schoolmates.
“He smells like a fart…
“Fa-” Cornele jumps on Owen and lands a good punch. Everyone starts to scream, happy for the chaos. At that point Mr. Van Etten returns. He grabs Cornele by the ear, lifts him off of Owen, and pulls him to the door of the schoolhouse. He opens it, places his foot on Cornele’s backside and literally kicks him out of the room. He goes flying, landing in the mud.
The teacher shouts angrily,
“Two weeks suspension! I don’t want to see your face.”
Cornele quickly rights himself and stares back at him.
“Ugly face,” one of the children shouts. “Ugly, Ugly, Ugly face.” The children laugh away until the teacher swirls around and quiets them with a threatening stare.
As Cornele walks home he replays every insult, every chant, striking back as best he can with what he could have said, what he should have said. That half works, but not like the punch he gave Owen. He is less successful with the look on his teacher’s face. Contempt. He’s familiar with that look. He’s seen it many times. Heard it in people’s voice when speaking to his mother. Or Charlotte. Or Jacob. Mr. Van Etten has looked at him like that since the first day he saw him. As soon as he heard his name. Vanderbilt! It’s the same with several others in town. The contempt on his teacher’s face stays in his mind.
He enters the house by the kitchen door. Phoebe takes one look and knows there’s trouble.
“What’s happened now?”
“They were making fun of Pa”
“Everyone. Owen started it.”
“Don’t you mind Owen.”
“I hit him good. He won’t say anything else.”
“Well if you’re gonna be home, me and Pa could use some help. Those dishes there need drying.”
He picks up a dish towel, and lifts a glass out of the sink, but soon tears well up.
He says nothing.
“Then how come you’re crying?”
He doesn’t answer. He looks down at the floor. His tears continue.
“Come on. Out with it.”
“They always make fun of Pa.”
This brings a new wave of tears, a depth of sadness that surprises Phoebe. It goes right through her. Old Cornelius’ frustration with his life, and the consequent cruelty towards Cornele has been the subject of many discussions with Beth. But the idea that Cornele is this bothered by his father’s reputation hasn’t occurred to her before.
It isn’t a total surprise. There was nothing to think about during the very bad winters, when half of the people on the island were starving. Famine is famine. They had to find food, one way or another. It was actually during the better, the normal years that on too many restless evenings, her disappointment with Old Cornelius preoccupied her. Each in their own way, the whole family has been affected by Cornelius’ reputation in the community. His failure to provide, in and of itself was the primary failure, but there are those that fail honorably. Old Cornelius’ hare brained schemes, his too frequent days that he would take off was seen as laziness.
Having a fool for a father defined the children’s social position, being a Vanderbilt was a mark against them. Phoebe does what she can. She taught them that dirty laundry stays at home. Only Beth knows the full extent of the family’s difficulties. Others can only infer. But that is not difficult to do. Cornele’s classmates’ taunting him is only the latest manifestation. At church she can’t help discerning a patronizing undercurrent that sneaks into conversations with her. She holds her head high, which her detractors see as haughtiness. Her admirers credit her for being resolute.
It just hadn’t occurred to her that Cornele was so affected. It always seemed that if any schoolmate bothered him, he would let them have it. He is tall and strong enough to do it. Which made him better than them. He’d make that clear often and well. He was never a bully, but he wouldn’t let anyone best him.
She recalls the time she had sent Cornele to buy flour, while they owed a huge sum at the store. He had come back empty handed. He didn’t want to talk about it and the subject never came up again. She didn’t send him again, preferring Charlotte, with her trusty mouth to come through for them. She thought he was done with the incident, but perhaps not. She hasn’t seen him look this hurt since he was a small child. He’s staring at the floor.
She raises Cornele’s chin and looks into his eyes.
“You gotta’ learn from this.”
“Learn what?” His eyes meet hers.
“To fix it you gotta be a different Pa for your own kids.”
“What does Pa do when people make fun of him?”
“They don’t make fun of him. Not to his face. Adults are different than kids.”
“Still. Doesn’t it bother him?”
“He’s long past caring what people think. He knows his place.”
Cornele knows his father’s place. He has noted his meekness around people outside the family.
“Sometimes…” Cornele stops.
“I think I’m just like him.”
“Well. You have his good looks.”
“I’m like him. Seriously.”
She is relieved that this is the worst of it.
“Well I think you got the better half of him. You dream like him.”
“You always tell him to stop dreaming.”
“If he completely stopped dreaming we would be burying him. I like that he dreams… You know Cornelius, he’s come up with a lot of good ideas.”
She smiles as she again raises his chin to look at her. “Don’t you stop dreaming. No matter what. You take a fall? You get back up again and dream another one.”
“Pa does that. Look where it gets him.”
“Not because of his dreams. He gets too easily discouraged when things go wrong. Lands up costing us money. That’s why I shoot him down when he wants money for one of his projects.”
She thinks further
“Cornele. You got one thing over your dad. You decide to do something you get it done… No matter what. I’ve watched you. Things go wrong and you work three times as hard. Ten times. There’s no quit in you. Keep doing that and you’ll be fine.”
The next morning Phoebe is down. The incident with Cornele has opened up old wounds. Many families worry that they could fall to the bottom of the pile, and everyone would see where they are. For that reason they make sure to maintain their social invisibility. The Vanderbilts have been, and still are, where no one cares to be. Not only the town’s gossipers, but even the least curious, assume they are on the bottom rung. Phoebe keeps everyone’s clothes clean and presentable. Same for the front yard. But try as she might, she knows her situation only too well.
It is a far cry from where Phoebe assumed she would be. Her father left her believing she came from good stock, but her memory is a flimsy basis for family pride. Other than those early years, she doesn’t possess the recollection of any time in her life when her family was held in high esteem.
In certain ways it is worse now that it was after her father’s death. Her family being dispersed to strangers was terrible, but there was no shame in it. Being a servant in the minister’s home wasn’t too bad. She was treated with dignity. And, in her imagination, she was able to nestle an image of herself which provided a happy ending. She assumed her problems would be remedied by marriage.
When this didn’t happen, she had to make major adjustments in her thinking. She still does. Clearly her situation isn’t all bad. The family has remained together. She, for one, is happy about that. It’s better than she knew as a child. But then it was circumstance. Now it is a failure of her husband. Her escape route has been squashed. In comparison to the happy ending she expected would follow her rescue, she has fallen a long way.
Perhaps it would have been different if her father had not died. With the clear eyes of someone who had been around long enough to understand people, he would have seen Cornelius’ inadequacy and influenced Phoebe away from a young and foolish choice. His good looks would have counted for far less in her father’s evaluation.
At the time she trusted her own judgment. She didn’t think she was desperate when she fell for Cornelius. Or if she was, in her mind, it was romantic to feel so much ardor, exciting to be so enraptured with his good looks. Her passion controlled her destiny, and that was just fine.
Only now, with maturity, with the silliness of youth long gone, can she see how childish she was. Only now can she fully appreciate the consequences of not having a father to guide her.
She knocks on Beth’s door. Beth takes one look and knows something is wrong before Phoebe has uttered a word. She has that brave little smile she always presents when circumstances have overtaken her.
“I’ll get some tea. Sit right over there and I’ll bring it to you.”
“I don’t want to sit.” She follows Beth to the kitchen.
“Fine. You pump the water and I’ll get the teapot.”
Beth brings the teapot under the pump. Phoebe pumps up a kettle full. Beth puts it on the stove.
“Now sit and tell me what’s going on.”
“Same old story.”
“Cornelius? What’d he do now?”
“Cornele’s class teased him about us being poor and about his father. Owen started it. My guess is that Cornelius didn’t pay Owen for some work he did for him and Owen got even.”
“Well there’s nothing new in that.”
“It was the way Cornele took it. He can’t stand anyone for getting the best of him.”
“That’s a good quality.”
“I know, but this really got to him.”
“It’s because of the way you see Cornelius.
“That he’s a failure.”
“So are a lot of men. Plenty of them. They can’t match up, make life easy for their families. But not every wife sees it the way you see it.”
“How do they see it?”
“I don’t know but they just aren’t as disappointed.”
“Easy for you to say, Nathaniel earns a good living.”
“I know. I’m lucky about that. But let me tell ya, Nathaniel doesn’t exactly make for a happy household. Cornelius is a lot more respectful of you than Nathaniel. Sometimes it gets so bad Cornelius begins to look good.”
“You can have him.”
“ I’m telling you. Your problem is Dad. You have this idea about what men are supposed to be like. Its like your eyes never opened up after he died. You have a seven year-old girl’s idea of what men are supposed to be. Compared to your father every man stinks.”
“He’s your father too.”
“Not that one.”
Phoebe doesn’t understand what she is talking about.
At harvest time, Old Cornelius has brought his periauger, a twenty-foot sailboat, to the town dock to load. Working efficiently and cooperatively, silently, they load their vegetables from a wagon on to the boat. The crisp chill of the dawn refreshes Cornele’s spirit. He loves these mornings. Getting off the farm. Goin’ to Manhattan! Adrenaline rushes through his veins as Cornelius unties the last of the ropes. Then they are off as the sun slowly rises behind them. They rub their hands together trying to warm them. The sound of seagulls, flying alongside, racing the boat, racing each other, climbing, diving, veering off to the side, only to return, crying, crying. An osprey gliding high above, with its far louder caws, momentarily silences the sea gulls, but soon they reoccupy their province.
Busy gauging the wind, Cornele’s excitement multiplies as they sail over the water. Cornelius’ father barks out the orders
Cornele is “on alert.”
Old Cornelius shouts happily.
He does as his father orders.
“More. All the way down.”
They catch the wind.
“Good. Very good”
The boat sails smoothly over calm waters with a gentle breeze. A schooner passes them. They ride the wind contentedly, calmly awaiting their destination.
At the marketplace Old Cornelius continues to be in a good mood. It’s been a good harvest and he’s proud of his vegetables, particularly his celery, peppers and cucumbers. He is busy making sales and making use of Cornele’s eagerness. He has him cutting off browned leaves, neatening the rows of vegetables. A customer makes a purchase and moves on to the next cart.
“Notice the look on his face.” Old Cornelius tells Cornele. “That’s what you want. Happy customers. Don’t sneak in a rotten tomato along with the others. He won’t be back. If you can, establish a reputation that you are likely to undersell your competitors. They will come looking for you.”
A new customer comes to their cart.
Cornele goes off to pump fresh water. As he fills his pail a merchant warns him.
“Heard a storm’s coming. You and your Da better get out early.”
Cornele returns to his father’s cart.
“People are closing early. A storm’s coming.”
“That’ll leave more customers for us”. Old Cornelius answers happily.
Later, as the merchants pack up, father and son watch them half-tempted to join them. But very soon the customers are lining up.
“I told you.”
It is early evening. Old Cornelius serves the last customer. He counts his money. Cornele loads the unsold merchandise on to a cart, brings it to the boat, and unloads it. He shouts to his father.
“It’s getting dark.”
Trailing behind, his father is in no hurry.
“I’m coming. I’m coming. We can use the moonlight to get home.”
Cornele’s already in the boat. Defiantly, his father gets in slowly. “Like your mother. Worry, worry, worry,” he chides him.
Old Cornelius puts down the sack of coins on the bench next to him where he is seated. Cornele uses a pole to push them into the deeper water. They are soon catching a breeze and off into the moonlight.
Half way across the bay the sky darkens. Old Cornelius lights the oil lantern. Suddenly the wind whips up something fierce, practically capsizing the boat. The coin sack goes into the water and sinks to the bottom of the bay. Their heart, broken in two, stunned, they hesitate, but there isn’t time to think about it. Hurriedly, they lower the sails.
“You shouldn’t have left the money there, Cornele.”
Cornele knows the truth about the moneybag, but says nothing. There isn’t time anyway. Of greater importance, a squall has snuck up behind them. The wind isn’t quitting. Stronger gusts build on top of one another, torrents of unrelenting water and wind, push and grab them.
The rudder goes flying out of Old Cornelius’ hands. He is able to get it back, and hold on, but it is taking everything he has. The cold chilling rain has soaked right through them. One wave after another comes crashing over the top of the boat.
The water is soon above their ankles. They both hunker down trying to keep warm, Old Cornelius holding the rudder and Cornele the pole so they won’t be tossed out. But the water is coming in so fast they must act. Cornele widens his stance and stops thinking about being tossed out of the boat. He starts bailing the water. Above the wind and the crashing waves Old Cornelius screams orders, but they can hardly hear each other.
Angrily Old Cornelius jabbers, “No complaints Cornele. Bail faster!”
“I said faster! Damn you. We’re going down if you don’t.”
The water has gone up another 6 inches
“You can.” Old Cornelius rages at his son
“You take the rudder.” Old Cornelius shouts nastily, “Give me the pail.”
Old Cornelius throws himself into the task. But he is a flash in the pan. He is soon doing far worse then his son, doing more screaming than bailing. He stops, tries to catch his breath. For a moment, a bit of energy returns, but as he bends to scoop the water, he slips and falls into it. Soaked, he gets up, but he’s had it. Cornelius knows that look. He’s seen it before. “It’s over for us.” is written on his face.
Cornele almost immediately switches gears. He is not going to let them die. He takes back the pail and starts bailing like a mad man. He keeps on going, becoming stronger by the moment. The water level starts going down. He keeps going.
Then as quickly as it began, the storm ends. The water remains choppy, but a nice steady wind brings them home.
As they step on to land they are shaken, but grateful to be alive.
They walk from the shore. Once, just once, their eyes catch each other. Their relationship has changed. Son protected father. Ashamed, his father stares at the ground. Then he tries to recoup.
“You shouldn’t have put the money there.”
Emphatically he replies, with disgust.
Old Cornelius jabbers on. Cornele simply ignores him.
Cornele’s older brother Jacob is dead. He’s laid out on the bed he shares with Cornele. Phoebe turns to 11-year old Cornele.
“You’re going to have to sleep in Eliza and Melinda’s bed. Just for tonight.”
“Ma he snores,” Eliza answers unhappily.
“So don’t listen.”
Phoebe’s eyes return to Jacob. She and Beth have done a good job with him. He almost looks like he’s sleeping peacefully. Unconsciously, she smiles at him as if he could respond. Beth moves Jacob’s hair out of his eyes. Phoebe fixes it further.
She addresses the children.
“I know you’re scared, but one at a time, I want each of you to take his hand. Think what you want to tell him. He’ll hear it. God allows it one last time.”
“Go on.” Aunt Beth urges them.
The younger children wait their turn and take his hand dutifully. As Mary holds his hand she stares, waiting for a reaction from Jacob. When there is none her tears turn into sobs. Phoebe embraces her, strokes her hair slowly, her eyes watering as well.
“Sh…Sh. He’s with God”
Phoebe stares into space, thinking. She looks over at Beth who looks at her lovingly. Beth takes Phoebe’s hand.
“Go on. Go on.” Aunt Beth says to the children. They leave. The two sisters remain. Not a word is said between them. Beth runs her fingers through Jacob’s hair while Phoebe watches her. They spend the night watching over him, until they doze off in their chairs.
It is a cold grey day at the cemetery. The funeral rituals are followed exactly, which helps numb them. Old Cornelius seems the most pious of all. They all feel it. God’s somewhere nearby. It’s not a time to piss him off.
Afterwards, the mourners gather in the kitchen. Phoebe is bundled in a blanket, which she pulls tighter around herself. The rituals are familiar here as well. They have been here many before times. In 1804 no family goes for very long without someone dying. Aunt Beth pours hot tea for Phoebe.
“You’re chilled to the bone. Drink this.”
Phoebe sips the tea slowly.
“Wonder how many more God’s going to take?”
Beth frowns, “Don’t talk that way. Jacob was always sickly. We all knew this might happen.”
Quietly, Phoebe begins to cry again.
“I think he knew all along. He was so quiet. Sometimes I felt he wasn’t with us. Like he was preparing for heaven.”
Beth listens quietly. Some more tears. “So now he’s doing just fine up there.”
Phoebe imagines that and smiles at the image. Beth rolls her thumb across the back of Phoebe’s hand. Fresh tears.
“Look at the others. Cornele, he’s a bruiser.”
“I know. He’s a strong boy.”
Cornele is with his cousin Sophia, who looks at him lovingly.
Phoebe smiles a bit, “They’re always together.”
“You never know. It would be so nice. Another stitch holding us together.”
The family is eating breakfast the next morning. With a decent night of sleep, and cold water on their face, their morning cheerfulness takes little effort. They adhere to their routine out of habit, without self-consciousness, but there is a strangeness about what they do. It is as if there is someone else, a foreign someone possessing them, directing them, next to them, watching them from inside. While unfamiliar it doesn’t seem strange. It seems soothing to be watched as they do the usual, as if there is an angel keeping them company.
But there are impediments to this feeling of familiarity, for instance, Jacob’s empty chair. Try as they might not to look, it draws them like a magnet. They glance, and then look away. Glance and look away.
“Cornele. Take his seat. You’re the oldest boy now.”
Before proceeding, he looks to his father. There is no objection.
Very self-consciously he lowers himself into Jacob’s chair. It seems strange to all of them. No one says a word until Charlotte, who always prefers talk to silence, reacts.
“Well what do you have to say Cornele?”
Cornele looks at his mother, then more cautiously at his father.
“If I’m the oldest boy I should do what Jacob did. Quit school and work.”
“Wouldn’t you just love that?” Phoebe answers. “I know how much you hate going, but eleven is too young.”
“I can read and write.”
“You can’t spell at all.”
“I spell the way it sounds. That’s good enough. People can understand it. And I’m good with figures.”
“Talk to your father about not getting an education. It’s held him back.”
“You want to quit,” his father answers. “Then quit. You’re old enough to decide.”
Ever pleased to play the role of curmudgeon, Vanderbilt smiles as he continues with Burch.
“Truth is quitting school was the best thing I ever did. If I had learned education I would not have had time to learn anything else.”
Burch stops writing. He looks at him disapprovingly.
“You can quote me on that. He repeats the sentence again expecting Burch to take it down verbatim, “If I had learned education I would not have had time to learn anything else.”
“You want me to write that kids should quit school?”
“It helped me and that’s the truth. It could help a lotta others to know that. Encourage them to do it and not feel like an imbecile. Fucking educated idiots. Too many of them got their heads fucked up by what they learned.”
“That’s all I’m gonna say.”
Soon after, early morning, along the Staten Island docks, eleven year old Cornele is strutting about, as if it’s just another day, confident that he belongs with the other much older sailors and workmen. One of the seamen needles him.
“Where’s your father Cornele?”
The person asking, and his buddies, never let up on teasing about his father, and the family name, but at this point, with Jacob recently dead, there is sympathy in their laughter. Cornele long ago earned their respect with his sailing. They know he is as good a sailor as any of them.
He looks up at the church clock: 6:45, jumps off the dock to the sand, where his father’s periauger is sitting along with a sign:
Manhattan 40 cents.
First trip 7 AM.
A potential customer sees the sign and gets in the boat. Others soon join him. The boat seats twenty. As it fills, Cornele pushes the boat a bit further into the water. He looks again at the church clock. The bells rings 7 times. Cornele starts pushing off. He has miscalculated. As each passenger was added he hadn’t gone far enough into the water, so that the push off would be easy. They are stuck in the sand. Cornele jumps out and struggles to lift the end of the boat enough so that it can float.
Another boatman nearby, in his early 20’s, also with a periauger, laughs at Cornele’s difficulties. He shouts out.
“Come on. I’ll race you.”
Cornele nods agreement. He would never pass up a chance to race.
The boatmen each have a long pole that is shoved into the ground to push off. The first boatman is able to get his boat floating, and his sails up. His passengers let out a rowdy cheer, as they catch the wind. One of them makes a raspberry at Cornele who is still having trouble getting ungrounded. His own passengers are waiting to cheer. The other boat soon has a substantial lead.
Cornele puts the pole into his chest and pushes with every ounce of strength he has. Nothing with the first effort. Tries again and a third time before finally, he succeeds. His passengers cheer. The sails are up in no time. Out in the water, Cornele does his magic, tacking at an extreme angle, which gets them racing along. The wind smacks into the sail and lifts the side of the boat, holding it there again and again. Unperturbed Cornele shouts,
“Every one lean to the other side.”
The passengers do as directed and the boat is stabilized. The speed at which they are sailing is quite exciting to them. It is unfamiliar. Only a horse can achieve a similar speed, but that involves galloping, heavy pounding at the earth. Despite the sea spray, sailing fast seems light and airy, perhaps what it must be to fly.
The lead is shrinking. As they near a Manhattan docking, Cornele is only slightly behind. With a last burst of wind that he has somehow caught, he pulls ahead and jumps out, slamming his anchor into the sand. He has won. He half listens to the delighted cheers of his passengers. He, however, seems glum. After the last passenger is out of sight, he opens his jacket, revealing a bloody shirt.
In the Vanderbilt kitchen that night Cornele’s mother opens his shirt and washes his chest, revealing a nasty circular wound where the pole had penetrated his chest. She tends to it. Phoebe scolds him but is obviously proud.
“All this to win a race?”
“It’s foolishness. Showing off.” old Cornelius adds.
Vanderbilt lifts his shirt to show Burch
“I still have the scar. They’ll bury me with it. The main point is I won. Tell your readers that. No matter what it takes, you gotta win.”