You could’ve predicted that the marriage wouldn’t last. You could’ve predicted, but you’d’ve been wrong.
She was twelfth generation patroon. Half the Hudson Valley between Kinderhook and Rhinebeck had been her birthright. And he was the great-great-great-great and then-some grandson of interlopers. Massachusetts Bay Yankee good-for-nothings, peddlers really, disingenuous purveyors of paraphernalia, pushing ever westward from briny Plymouth, making life miserable for Pieter Stuyvesant and the brave good Dutchmen who’d taken the land from the vain and no-doubt tipsy Manhattoes in the first place.
But that was old news. Family peccadilloes all wrapped up, as usual, with American History. Today it was their son and heir, Peter Van Tenbroek Tilden, barely home from Bard, badly hungover, next-in-line to ruin the family name.
He sat slovenly slopping up his just-so eggs with his well-fried bread, reminding Katrina, neé Van Tenbroek, more than ever of his father’s father’s father, the bootlegging ladies’ man who stayed away more nights than he didn’t, till the State Police caught him good, and then he stayed away for eighteen years. Sing Sing. Named for the long-disappeared Sint Sinks. They’d sent Great Grandad Tilden down the river, but what difference did it make? It was the beginning of the middle of the end of two great family fortunes. Sing Sing was not the first prison to house a Van Tenbroek or a Tilden. Nor, Peter’s mother feared, in her worst nightmare, would it be the last.
And here they were, in the last manor house, on the last 200 acres, watching the last of the Van Tenbroek Tildens attempt to regain his dubious consciousness.
Albert Younglove Tilden eyed his only acknowledged son over The Wall Street Journal. He’d worked his way through most of Katrina’s full English breakfast and all of his stocks. He was not feeling exactly well, and it had nothing to do with his vrouw’s cooking. Their son had, plainly, gone round the bend.
"Plan on getting a haircut while you’re home?"
"Not planning to, no," said Peter, helping himself to more sausage, knowing full well he was eating the son of a son of a son and so-on of piglets he’d played with as a boy.
"Vater," cautioned Katrina. Albert shot her a peremptory glance.
"More potatoes?" she countered creatively. "Your favorite button mushrooms and beans?" Her husband glared.
Peter poured himself another large glass of orange juice, sucking at his teeth noisily, drinking all at once eventually.
"The Van Brunts are expecting us tonight," tested Albert. "Katje will be there," he sang, quite musically actually.
"Can’t make it," said Peter, knowing full well the impact of such dismissal.
"Peter!" protested his mother.
"And why not?" demanded his father.
"Busy," said Peter Van Tenbroek Tilden, scraping his chair as he threw his napkin to the table. "Sorry. Gotta split."
"Peter!" she objected, with the Dutch tone in her voice. "No marmalade?"
"Sorry mom. Great frühstück." He pecked her cheek on the way out the door.
"But won’t you wait for Nathalie?"
"I’ll be back! Tell her to hang!"
"It’s Indian tea, Peter!" she continued, uselessly, she knew.
"I want you to get a haircut, Peter! Cocktails before dinner!" concluded his father, who just as well might have been shouting at the Hudson to change its course.
Easter was early this year. Peter pulled his collar tight against the freshening breeze that carried the familiar childhood smell of the river, of the spawning sturgeon, the alewives, herring, and striped bass home from the sea.
The intonation of nature’s complexity fairly rolled up the hill to the formal garden behind the manor, an insistent susurration of possibility, of breezes through trees, wings great and small against the air, a tinnitus of insects, and birdsong, like grace notes, three octaves above.
How paltry and ill-advised seemed their never-ending effort to out-do Creation itself in this garden. What need for roses, say, when since time before time, since before even the Mohicans and the Wappingers, nature’s own garden sustained itself? Shadbush blossoms framed the river in their immaculate white. Lilacs danced purple, fragrant, all around, unchecked by one family’s need for order. Nature had no use for things that could be. She was satisfied merely with things as they are.
A snowy great egret wafting silent drew Peter’s eye downhill towards the river. Harriers hunted close-in, over the marshland. Osprey were out in force, farther out, seeking shad, black bass, minnows, white and yellow perch.
To imagine, once upon a time, it was even better than this!
Peter’s thoughts began to turn towards the night before, even as the morning grew warmer and the robins and cardinals, the early feeders, made for shadier places, less-manicured lawns. He walked and thought. Thought and walked, down towards his old river, friend and confessor.
How did he love Nathalie? Completely and well. Frequently. He smiled to himself. Every afternoon before dinner. Every night after homework. Every morning before breakfast. Again and again, as though their lives depended upon it. Surreptitiously though, at first, when they both belonged (they thought) to others.
He loved Nathalie in his mind when they were apart; in classes they did not share; painfully, for two whole weeks at Christmas when she had to go home, so many thousands of miles away. He loved her for the thoughtfulness she showed during the agonizing Field Period—Eight weeks! Imagine!—him in Washington at the Folger, Natalie in Kingston at her father’s studio.
She sent him stuff. Casual notes on company stationery. Photos of herself with famous people. Formal letters in her immaculate old-fashioned hand. A bible-black garterbelt, once, she asked him to save for her. A single white living orchid that froze to death in his apartment when he wasn’t looking.
And now they were giving him shit. They’d given him everything he ever wanted when he didn’t know what it was he wanted, and now that he did know, now that he couldn’t live without the one thing he wanted, the one person he wanted, more than anything, now they were giving him shit.
The old man he could understand. He was, indeed, old. Antique, and set in his ways. He was always older than moeder, like an aged burnished showcase, at one point Peter thought, the better to display her soft and opalescent beauty.
But more than that, dad’s thing was passing. Business was changing. Volume was increasing but profit-margins shrunk. Peter couldn’t understand why his father bothered himself so. It wasn’t like they were due to run out of cash. The only money in this part of the world that was older than theirs was wampum. It all seemed so undignified.
He’d come to the old tenant graveyard, long overgrown, many markers toppled by Peter himself and his friends and cousins at one time or another. Still, there were some of the old familiar names, framed in mossy green shadow: Neeltje. Klaase. Wilhelmus. The agents of wealth on his mother’s side long gone. From a time when people didn’t even have last names.
It was mom’s reticence that bothered him. She had supported him in everything he ever did, up to and including going to Bard, fifteen minutes away, instead of Yale, multiple light years in the past. His mother always understood him so well, he thought. How could she misunderstand this, this most important thing in his life? Most important person in his life? What was her problem?
It was a long stone’s throw from the dead Dutch serfs to the water’s edge. The tide was in, washing worn granite that once must have been mountain, rhythmically, noisily. The timeless power of the Hudson, Peter knew, would be with him forever. That he knew. The river was the only currency in life he would ever need. He sat thoughtfully, in his spot, like he had done a thousand times before, like he was eight-and-a-half years old.
He fired up the roach they’d shared. He could smell the faint memory of her lips, wrapped softly round that resinous vehicle of bliss. He stared into the quiet part of the river, farther north, round the bend, where nature had bottled herself up like deep green glass.
There was a part of him, perhaps, that wasn’t meant for company. For family, friends, and society. For schedules and balance sheets and annual reports. School was revealing Peter to himself, he guessed. Hadn’t he been a teen-aged troglodyte after all? Didn’t he live once, for a whole summer, right here, fishing for food, like a hermit or what’s his name who wrote Walden? Maybe he didn’t need to be a man called Peter Van Tenbroek Tilden. Maybe he was just a child of the trees and the river and the sky. Would that work? Would Nathalie love him if he were just a poet and a lover with no last name?
Peter closed his eyes, realizing that he had never heard Nathalie even say his last name. But the sound of her calling him Peter, over and over again as the waves of passion carried them further into themselves, well, that was a song in itself, wasn’t it?
Katrina Marietje Van Tenbroek Tilden gazed across her spotless kitchen towards the river. The sun was high. Summer would soon be in. And then another summer. And then, what? Graduate school? Would Peter take the middle road and at least entertain the idea? She doubted it. He wasn’t a boy for school. Smart enough to get by without studying. Cagey enough to give them what they wanted in exchange for grades. But it didn’t matter to him, not really. She could sense that now more than ever, after two and a half years at Bard. Peter, like his father, had become his own man. And didn’t she love the both of them for it?
Albert coughed that phlegmy frightening cough he’d had of late. X-rays revealed nothing. A CAT scan he’d had for something else entirely showed him in remarkable good health. But still. A box of Fuente Fuente Opus X’s a month he smoked, easily. Cigars. For forty years, she made it. A constant parade of hand-rolled Native American agricultural product in an infinity of shapes and sizes and colors. They might as well have been women, Albert was so attracted to them.
Wasn’t it odd? She never liked her father’s cigars either, and here she was, living with yet another man who was drawn to them as if by majestical spell. For all of her life. And she’d never even thought about it.
Albert looked tired these days. He had not slept soundly in, what, years perhaps? He worried so much. The charming fussiness—she had thought—of his youth had given way to this incessant pressure that he kept inside.
Albert started slightly; footfalls at the top of the stairs. Nathalie was a dancer, and her stylish heels clattered musically down the stairs and along the back hall. Albert glanced nervously at his wife. She smiled back, as if to say: Now courage. Try to remember.
The door swung slowly open, and there stood Nathalie Fairbairn Banks, smiling bright and clean and young, wrapped in a little plaid skirt that favored her beautiful legs. Her midnight hair was plaited in cornrows, straight as time past her shoulders, and her black skin shone, dewy, like a sweet secret waiting for a gentle hand, like sharps and flats in the major key of C.
"Oh! Mr. And Mrs! Am I late?" she asked in her bewitching liquid melodious Jamaican accent.
"No. No, not at all," replied Albert, gruff, a bit too quickly.
"No, Dear," said his wife. "We were just waiting for you."
Peter’s mother and father smiled at the girl. Her beautiful sea-green eyes, flecked preternaturally with gold and promise, reminded each of the Van Tenbroek Tildens, all at once, of lovers they had known, long ago, and left.