Edgar’s father, Hugh Keating, had always stood in his office in front of big windows high above the fog-sketched city of Chicago, knowing that in every building were rods of steel with his name etched on the side, the skeleton tattooed with the name of its maker. From that vantage point, from that height, he told the story—to board members, visiting businessmen, friends—of his family’s humble immigrant beginnings, of the new metal city rising out of the ashes of the old wooden one. He thought again: thank goodness for poverty. It’s much easier to be rich when your people were once poor. Sleep too comes easier, the mind peaceful with all that balance: a pile of gold and the counterweight of past hunger. This comfort was earned.
The missus, Mary, had made an intricate study of how to belong. There were such things as lower-class flowers (geraniums, chrysanthemums, poinsettias) and upper-class flowers (rhododendrons, tiger lilies, amaryllis, columbine, clematis and roses, though never red ones). She learned that the slower one drove, the higher his class. Cocktail wise, sweet was always low. Scotch and water (not even soda) was the highest. When they went to parties, she ordered two and then slipped into the ladies’ room to sweeten them with packets of sugar she kept in her handbag. She made sure her husband’s shirts did not gap at the neck—a sure sign of misbelonging. She practiced, with index cards, renaming everything in her home: formalwear, footwear, leisurewear, stormwear, beachwear, neckwear, tableware, flatware, stemware, barware, glassware. Edgar’s mother’s nightmares did not involve being chased or drowned but of someone catching her trying to eat an artichoke with fork and knife, of wearing floor-length to an afternoon affair, of everyone knowing that class for this family was not bred-in but a choice, or worse, a purchase.
Mary bore a boy, as hoped, and she gave her husband, seated in a wooden chair at the side of her hospital bed, a short list of names: Edgar, John, Henry. “What about Hugh?” he asked, liking the idea of a tribute to himself.
“Hugh was never King of England.”
“Neither is our son.” The boy squalled like a brief, violent summer storm, then fell asleep.
“There can’t be anything bad about having the name of a monarch,” she said.
“I seem to recall an Alfred,” Hugh said, joking,
“Edgar then,” she told him. “I don’t need your help if you don’t want to give it.”
The idea was to have four children. Either two boys and two girls, or three boys and one girl. A big family was one of the socially acceptable indulgences and it justified a bigger house, more cars, a stable full of horses. Giving anything for one’s children, even if that something was a Thoroughbred chestnut mare that cost as much as a small yacht, was an act of generosity and selflessness. Mary and Hugh both silently looked forward to the purchases they would be able to make in the name of good parenting. Neither of them cared whether the children would actually want horses or sailing lessons in the British Virgin Islands.
During her pregnancy, the veins in Mary’s legs had swelled into thick, raised ropes. Her calves were less pale skin and more twisting strands of blue. The doctor instructed her to keep them elevated above her heart, to massage them with particular oils. She would spend the rest of her seaside summers with a towel over her legs, the rest of her sundress days in thick stockings. Mary had wept over these things. She felt as if she had aged seventy years in the space of nine months, like the growing baby had detonated something poisonous inside her.
The doctor joined Hugh and Mary in the hospital room. “We’ve named him Edgar,” she announced.
“That’s a fine name,” the doctor said. “Stately and proud. He’ll go on to great things.” This seemed like an official pronouncement and Mary logged it as fact. “May I?” he asked, pulling the blanket down from her lap. Her legs were dark with bruises, the blood gathered in underskin pools. Her veins were high and fat. “I would feel worse about this if you’d just had a daughter,” the doctor started, “but with such a beautiful son to carry on the family name, it’s easier for me to tell you that you can’t have any more. The risk of a blood clot is too great. You could die.”
Edgar was asleep in his bassinet and both of his parents looked at him. Wrinkled little monkey-faced newborn, still looking halfway like a water creature. The ghost of the family they had intended to become, the fleet of them in matching Christmas outfits, matching tennis outfits, matching riding outfits, dwindled to a quiet three. Neither Hugh nor Mary cried while the doctor was still in the room, but for the first months of Edgar’s life, as he slept less and looked around more, as he fattened up and learned to grab things in his dimpled fists, their eyes were red-rimmed and swollen.
Edgar had to live the childhoods of all his brothers and sisters who did not exist. He took fencing, tennis, rowing and ballroom dance lessons. He learned to jump horses, sail boats, speak French and Latin, and recognize the architectural features of each great era. At age ten, he was enrolled in a figure drawing class in which he sat with a herd of older women and rendered the slack necks and falling breasts of a variety of models. His mother wanted him to play an instrument but his father vetoed most of the options: violin (too screechy), saxophone (too black), piano (too feminine), flute (homosexual), until he was left with a clarinet, an instrument that none of them could even remember having heard. All through his school years Edgar was busy from seven in the morning until he fell asleep. There was no time for friendships and he found himself talking to peers only while they were all otherwise occupied with something that their parents hoped would make them better, rounder adults.
Edgar’s father floated above the social pressure. He felt that they had earned their way and had nothing to apologize for. Which was what led him to the Mercedes-Benz dealership on a bright Saturday in summer where a flock of suited men lit and relit his cigar, poured him bourbon, slapped him hard on the back while they walked the perimeter of a jewel-bright coupe, blue as blue, like they were circling a high-mountain lake. “I won’t say it’ll change your life,” one of the suits said, “but it’ll change your day. How many times are you going to press your foot on a gas pedal? Thousands. This is the pedal you want to be pushing.” Hugh handed over his old keys and a banknote and left with the windows down and the new leather warming against his back. He took his fedora off while he drove and let his hair tussle in the breeze. He pulled into the construction dust of the family’s forthcoming country summerhouse in the middle of a hundred acres of prairie and forest, the horse paddock to his right, the place where the swimming pool would be to his left.
The car was like a blue mirage. Mary was standing with a man holding blueprints. Not recognizing the car, she thought someone was lost and did not feel like having to offer lemonade while they used her phone to get better directions. “Look,” she said to the man with the blueprints, “I just need to know how many curves will make the driveway seem leisurely but not indulgent and that’s how many curves I want.” Every decision in the house was a danger: it had to look understated and modest while still making other women jealous. It had to be beautiful in a way that seemed effortless, as if it had simply sprouted out of the good earth like an imperfect, perfect flower. There could be no columns or mock Tudor. No leaded windows, yet there ought to be a lot of glass to show that one had servants to do the polishing. The house was to be built of blush-pink bricks freighted in from a particular mill on a particular sea-wracked cliff known for its gentle sunset shade of clay.
Mary swatted a mosquito on her arm and wiped away the star of blood and body left behind. The blue car stopped and turned up yet more dust and she hated whoever it was in the way she had been trained to hate him—here was a person who was showing off his money and enjoying it, both of which she knew to take as a personal offense. The air cleared as a man stepped out, and Mary saw that the man was her husband. He held the keys like she was a dog he wanted to trick into coming closer. Here puppy, here stupid dog, I’ve brought you a bloody marrowbone.
Mary’s body offered her two choices: run at him, swinging her fists, or collapse on the ground. She chose the former. “Has anybody seen you?” she screamed, like he had shown up with a murder weapon.
“It’s top-of-the-line,” he said, repeating what the salesmen had told him and finding the words less meaningful this time around. “It’s German engineered. You press the gas pedal thousands of times.” Nothing was making sense.
“You bought this? You bought this without talking to me? Where is our old car?”
“I don’t know what you have against a nice car.”
“This is the car driven by African dictators and California dentists. You will ruin me. You will ruin both of us.”
Still standing there was the man with the blueprints and Mary remembered him, a witness to the crime. She brushed her pale yellow dress off and walked calmly over. “If you could avoid mentioning this to anyone, I would very much appreciate it. My husband doesn’t always think straight.”
“It’s a beauty,” the man said. “I’d be thrilled if I was you. A car like that?”
“Yes,” she said. “Well, it’s not for us.” The larger “us.” His kind maybe, which was exactly her point.
By the time the sun went down she had taken them back to the dealer and picked out a beige Cadillac, three years old, slow and respectable. It was not even completely clean inside. Mary drove. Mary drove the long way through the center of town so that they would have a better chance of being seen.
All through Edgar’s high school years, his mother attended to the particulars of social success like a doctor to a dying child, and every year it seemed to exhaust her more. She monitored every aspect—hairdo (round with a small flip at the ends, sprayed stiff), sweater-set shade (pastel), charitable gift sizes (significant without being showy), length of vacation (husbands went for six days, wives and children could stay on for two weeks), books to be discussed in mixed company (anything French or British), proper density of driveway shrubbery (very), race and age of house staff (the paler the better, not older than forty).
Mary did not gain confidence as time went on. Instead, the more she learned of it, the more intricate the labyrinth became. Wallpaper and lighting were frequently torn out and replaced at great expense. The house, to Mary, was a series of landmines. If she was found to still have Queen Mary chairs six months after everyone had gone Arts and Crafts, her entire social existence might be blown up. And no matter how hard she tried, she could not find the right dish to serve at a dinner—the Old Monies always served the same slab of grey beef with brown gravy and potatoes, and never enough of it, but Mary was far from established enough to pull that off. Many times Edgar came downstairs for a late-night snack after studying and found his mother asleep beside a stack of cookbooks. Beneath her head, a list of the pitfalls of each dish. Soufflé: falls. Lasagna: too Italian. Champagne and caviar: trying too hard. Lamb chops with mashed potatoes: fattening. Fish: the smell stays in the wallpaper for days.
Edgar woke his mother, draped her arm over his shoulder and put her to bed beside his snoring father. “Who cares what everybody thinks?” he whispered. “They’re just old rich people. They didn’t make the world.”
“Thank you, love,” she said. “But you’re wrong, they did make the world and they still do.”
From SONS AND DAUGHTERS OF EASE AND PLENTY. Used with permission of Riverhead Books. Copyright © 2016 by Ramona Ausubel.