The Wallstadt Boarding House was the greatest excuse of a shack that had ever marred the reputable art of architecture. An eyesore upon conception, and now an utter monolith of artless procrastination, the building huddled itself at the edges of Pointe Abbaye. Its continued tenacity to remain upright and general will to live were as improbable as its placement at the uncanny crossroad of Third Street and Third Avenue (an intersection which flummoxed generations of postal workers to no end). The building’s two stories were clearly abandoned in their rough draft form, and a well-rusted fire escape haphazardly cleaved to the exterior, connecting the two levels like the big sorts of cracks which sidle their way across antiquated china dishes (although the building was more the color of neglected pewter plates and had the insidious air to match).
In fact, the whole building looked as if it might have been dropped from a great height and then kicked an equal distance, although, this theory was quickly discounted, as Caelia reasoned that such a structure could only have arrived in a single direction – an ascent from Hell, that is – and further reasoned that even a mediocre kick was all the place needed to fall back into its constituent building supplies and make a Pompeii-style lumber yard right there on its fateful corner.
The sight was enough to call for a fresh cigarette. Caelia produced her pack of Lucky Strikes from her coat pocket and checked the address she’d scrawled on the side before she left home. Correction: before she left for home. Yes, this was indeed 3174 Third Avenue. This was certainly Pointe Abbaye, most assuredly New Jersey, indisputably America, most definitely Earth, and she was positively overdressed in a red wool coat and fine leather luggage. She had been allotted only a single bag, although, with H.J. Cave & Sons stamped to the exterior, even a humble handbag would be considered an extravagance in the present situation. She was not certain, however, at what point her luck had been left out to rot in the suns of fate.
This was the scene in the novel where the heroine would mutter to herself some husky sort of utterance, something darkly funny to cement the situation as a major turn of events yet reflect her inner gumption which would triumph over all that impedes her precarious path. The letter she’d received last night informed her that she was to board the train to Pointe Abbaye in order to meet her biological father. Wallstadt, apparently, was the dwelling of such an anonymous fellow. When Caelia opened her mouth to greet this plot twist however, all she could do was exhale an: “Oh, heavens.”
And just as the words left her mouth, ephemeral offerings into the descending twilight, a voice strangled the silence beside her.
“Paradise is just the word for it.”
She startled, dropping her cigarette and modifying her previous statement to an “oh, hell” as a man turned to face her.
“Need a light?” he asked.
“No, but perhaps a knife. Who are you?”
He took a step closer and slipped his gangly arm about her waist like an over-starched sash. “Don’t mind that ‘w’ there on the sign. I know it looks like it should be said Wall-Stat, but in actuality it really is Vallstadt with a ‘v’. Probably French or somethin’. They’re always spelling their words real funny.” His voice cascaded down the evening like a smooth swig of southern bourbon and drawled and twanged like the music of a banjo player who couldn’t tune the D strings quite right. “Only place in town where you can have a family of eight living for just a sawbuck every month.”
“And you are?” Caelia turned out of his arm, fairly certain it was a dance move she’d seen back at the Cotton Club when she and Charles had snuck out of the house that time Dad was off on business in London, Paris, or some other postcard-worthy place. After catching the two of them roller skating in the marble lobby, the cantankerous Franz had reprimanded them and told them to go chase themselves, and they did, all the way to the city in the new Cadillac to see Cab Calloway perform. She had worn a red silk dress and she remembered the way the glitter ball had reflected each ambient light from the outskirts of the room and made the whole club glow by the light of a thousand manmade fireflies.
“ ‘Sorry for being so forward there, ma’am,” the man removed his flat cap – a grand sweep whose effect only partially compensated the grime of the hat – and placed it over his heart as if he were introducing the one and only McKinney’s Cotton Pickers to the bandstand. “The name’s Thackeray James. Thackeray James, aged 20 years of Pointe Abbaye, New Jersey. Saw you standing here on yonder corner and that pretty smile of yours made me clear forget my head.”
“I can assure you, Strange Man of Uncomfortable Proximity,” Caelia said, maintaining a set distance from him as if he were a magnet of opposing force each time he encroached. “I was not smiling.” She shifted her suitcase to another hand. “And I must say, you’re the most southern New Englander I’ve ever met.”
“Naw, ma’am,” he said. “That’s what you’d call my affectation, you see. Makes me more refined and what’s the word…” He looked skyward for a moment as he took inventory of his lean-to of a vocabulary and thoughtfully stroked the stubble which made his chin look like a prickly pear cactus which never saw sunlight. He snapped his fingers. “Debonair! Real debonair. Anyways…” he continued, his intrepidness in the face of his own ridiculousness almost a tad inspiring. Like Edison and the lightbulb, if, of course, Edison had used his creative genius for generally creepy purposes. “I find that ladies take awful kindly to a southern gentleman – nearly swoon once I put my arm about their waist, whisper somethin’ ‘bout Atlanta and say that they’re prettier than magnolias in June. But, between you and me,” he leaned in. “It’s as real as you’d like it to be.”
“Well, Thack, I’m afraid my shoes have no tread for oil so refined.” By this point she’d taken a fresh cigarette and, blowing out the eager light offered by her companion, struck a match with one-handed finesse on its own box and taken a leisurely drag.
“Where are you from?” the staunch, self-appointed companion inquired.
“I’m from Carlton.” The smoky exhalation drifted forth from her lips and slowly danced itself to nothingness in partnership with the twilight.
“Nope, Old Jersey. From the bottom of America’s hamper.” Any man who used an accent as a wingman and blew his own ruse couldn’t be too dangerous, she concluded. Not to mention, it was fairly indeterminable whether walking through the ominous door across the street and actually pursuing her destiny would be preferable to the possibility getting bumped off by a stranger on a street corner.
“That’s a pretty ritzy neighborhood, ain’t it?”
“Where you’re from.” He stooped to the ground and picked up a cigar butt from the gutter and lit it.
“Well…we have no Wallstadt boarding house, but…”
Carlton was a ritzy neighborhood, though on the surface it almost looked like a collection of movie stars got it into their heads one gin-fueled extravaganza to remodel a farming town into a patchwork of fields and neoclassical mansions. Carlton lacked the glitz and glamor of such places as Tinsel Town, but compensated for the lack in unprecedented opulence. It was a town comprised of upper-crusted misanthropes: top businessman (the few who somehow finagled themselves into success despite the present economic conditions), heirs and heiresses, two authors, and the east coast’s most beloved bootlegger, Phineas Francis Wayelin, or, as he was more fondly referred to, “Gin Phin,” and, more recently, “The Late Gin Phin.”
“How old are you?”
“I’m about four months short of turning 18.” Thackeray turned his eyes skyward and was overcome with a thoughtful look. “Save yourself the mental math,” Caelia said, as soon as fingers were employed in his figuring. “I’m 17.”
“You sure don’t act like you’re only just 17 years old.”
“Yes, well, I was raised to act older.”
“What brings you my way?”
“Bad luck, I’m afraid.”
Bad luck. Mourning. Incomplete legal documents. A shrewd stepbrother for whom jurisprudence was a cardinal virtue and whose flaming red hair seemed to be a true, outward manifestation of conflagratory temper.
“Ahh…know it well myself. You runnin’ away or somethin’?”
“No…I’m coming home.”
“So you had run away?”
“I’m returning to a place I never left.”
“I was going to say – I’m certain I’d never let a pretty face such as yours slip by without my discriminatin’ eye takin’ notice.” He stopped to ponder what she’d said. “You talk like a poem, you know that?”
“Thanks. You have your own brand of verse yourself –”
At this he removed his hat once more and bowed. “I’m mightily obliged.”
“Perverse, but, anyways. If you’ll now excuse me,” she picked up her suitcase from where she’d deposited it upon the sidewalk somewhere amid their pointless conversation. It was a ponderous beast and an unpleasant compliment to her arm, which was less than sparsely muscled. “I’m obliged to meet my biological patriarch for the first time. It promises to be a momentous event, and I, the prodigal daughter, really shouldn’t be late. Goodbye, Thackery, and best of luck with the accent. Don’t take any wooden nickels.”
She tipped the brim of her cloche and promptly walked into the deserted street towards her destination. She had no sooner stepped from the curb when Thackeray was back, saying nothing this time, just bobbing along beside her.
“Sir, you’re making me long for my whistle.”
“I’m just goin’ home!” he defended himself.
She stopped and turned to him, thinking for a moment what a lovely movie poster that scene would make – the two characters standing there, the middle of the street, one whose glad rags appeared to be sourced from an actual rag bag, the other cloaked in red cashmere. The only stars in eyes that would take place, however, would be if she clocked him one right in the mandible, which not an altogether repulsive thought.
“You live at Wallstadt?”
“Yes ma’am. That’s what I meant when I said earlier about the family of eight and the–”
“Oh,” Caelia muttered impatiently and continued on, no longer walking, but soldiering forth like a one-manned Light Brigade.
“You and me, we’re neighbors!”
“Wonderful. I’ll pass my Christmas fruitcakes on to you, then.”
“Your who?” the sound of leather-worn-to-parchment boots drummed the pavement beside her.
“If you wish to talk with me you’ll have to walk with me.”
“You said that you were gonna meet someone.”
“Yes, that’s why I’m here. I’m meeting my father.” At this point, she was no longer stopping to chat. She simply kept her route, leaving him to dodge around her like a great minnow.
“Yes, it’s quite a little three volume novel. You see, I was orphaned when I was a baby, adopted at the age of seven and a half months, was subsequently orphaned once again when my adoptive father died, only to find out that I did in fact have a biological relative by the title of father who was living a contented little life here in Pointe Abbaye.”
“Say, wait a minute,” he stopped in front of her, obstructing her path and putting his hands on his shoulders. “You said you were from Carlton, right?”
“Now you’re on the trolley, ‘ole boy.”
“Well, I’ll be dammed as the Colorado River!” he threw his hat on the ground with triumphant enthusiasm and threw his arms out as if he were employing himself as a large-scale visual aid to inform a class of sixth graders of the phenomenon of obtuse angles. “You’re just the person we’ve been waitin’ for!”
Considering this man as the courier of such news, there was a certain ominousness to his message despite his outward display of enthusiasm.
“How do you mean?”
“I mean that I’m Thackeray James Ludwin. I’m the son of Hank Ludwin!”
Hank Ludwin. Yes, that was his name alright, a name which left little room for forgetting – a name which sounded like it could fix a squeaky door hinge and fasten a bolt without the aid of a wrench.
“That means that –” she stammered, as she not often did. “You’re –”
“Your brother. Once removed but now back in your life! Just forget all that stuff I said earlier, ‘bout you bein’ so pretty and all of that.” He slapped her on the back, giving her a sudden infusion of brotherly love. “Welcome home, sis!”
And suddenly, tarnished reality reached out and snuffed the light at the end of the tunnel – a light which had been slowly waning as soon as she left the Wayelin estate that morning, ever since the train had left early and she’d arrived late, and as soon as she’d set foot into this town which was for all intents and purposes, every shade of drawing pencil. Charles was in England, and as Thackeray continued to speak, she was suddenly aware of how very alone she was in this pinprick on a map.
“May I take your bag?” he asked. She was sure he’d said something in between, but her mind had been a vagabond of memories and had missed every word he said.
“Sure,” she handed it out to him, only minimally amused when he nearly dropped the parcel at its unexpected weight.
“What’d you stuff this thing with, bricks?”
The two walked on, in tempo this time, Caelia no longer assuming the role of maestro.
“No, she said. “Books.”
“Yes, I presume you’re familiar with the medium.”
They were at the stoop of the boarding house now, and Thackeray stooped himself to place the recycled cigar back on the ground and open up her case.
“Holy Toledo, there, Caelia – you weren’t kiddin’!”
Inside, as meticulously stacked as a jigsaw puzzle was every book that had ever left its mark on Caelia. “These things are old too.”
“All first editions. I conducted a minor raid on the library before my departure, making use of the sudden leather ration which was imposed and thoroughly filling the one suitcase I was granted.”
Thackeray snapped the bag back together pulled ahead as they made their ascent. “Like I said,” he continued as he opened the door for her with all the combined gusto and dignity of a Maxim’s doorman. “Only place in town where you can have a family of nine living for just a sawbuck every month.”