A Mansion in Kansas

Do not imagine the house as they left it, the troupe Jonah in the Whale, for it was as empty of them then as if all the windows and doors had been thrown open and the wind had raced through in a clean sweep. Scouring. Erasing. Not a sound of gwoka drums as though Roland still summoned an island spirit to shadow his black skin. No marionettes leaning into each other where Ruth, their mistress, had placed them in a chair. No gauzy costume dropped in a corner by the beautiful Hera, or Maggie’s barre reflected in the mirror, or glints of broken glass shattered precisely by Olivia’s foot, or snakeskins packed in a box by Sammy. No hoop, set in motion by Leonard the Clown, still circling. Turning and circling.
       Instead, imagine the house on a rainy March weekend as the troupe members, singly or in groups, come up the long drive to take possession of it. 1977.
       An immense house. A broad house built in a hollow. There is prairie to the south and west and, in walking up the back way from the river, a person would see only upper stories, airborne on a foundation of rain-lashed grass. With half the house invisible, it would still seem huge. Yet for all its size, it does not fill the hollow. There are formal gardens in the front along the drive, and garages on the hollow’s northern rim, and to the east a bowl-shaped field which forms a perfect natural amphitheater settled in the earth.
       This bowl, bearing the marks of long cultivation, makes a clean field. The house, too, has the appearance of having been always in top trim, always provided with custodians to secure all padlocks—a gardener to prune the hedges in the spring and, in the fall, to scoop acorns from beneath the long lines of giant oaks—a housekeeper and maid to commandeer the dust before it settles on the tables.
       “Astonishing,” says Hera, who arrives by taxi during a lull in Saturday’s rain, her luggage cramming the seats and trunk. Even with the overcast day, she is wearing huge sunglasses. She unwinds a scarf from her flaming hair and hugs Maggie. “What did Jonah do,” she says, “charm the mother of all heiresses?”
       “More or less.” Maggie saves the long version for later. She is the official greeter, Jonah’s right-hand woman who arrived before the others to get things in order, coming from New York by train. She had made the excursions she intended. First, Canton, Ohio, and the Football Hall of Fame with its films that had left her inexplicably teary-eyed and thinking of her girlhood in World War II. Then a VA hospital in Indiana where she spent a morning pushing wheelchairs in the sunshine and an hour at noon trying to speak with Jack, the troupe’s high-wire cyclist whose brain burned up in Vietnam. Later, in Hannibal, Missouri, she stared at a green icehouse, the paint curling down its sides, and sat by the river and had the argument with herself that always convinces her Mark Twain wasn’t a racist. It took five days, her meandering trip, but now the words of Kansas are in her head—Wichita (all the lonesome pleading of its name), the People of the South Wind, the Ogallala Aquifer.
       “So who gave it to Jonah? Do we own it? Does he?” Hera asks as Maggie calls to Mac, the troupe’s strongman, to help with the luggage.
       “You hear about Julian?” Mac asks Hera—sweet, blundering Mac—and Maggie sees the tremor she feels in herself shudder through Hera’s body.
       Hera rearranges suitcases on a dolly. She unzips and rezips a bag. When she turns around, her face is composed, but the eyes are still hidden. Maggie assumes she’s been crying. “You could have let me know sooner, Maggie,” she says.
       Maggie absorbs the accusation. Yes, maybe she could have. Who did she tell what to and when did she tell it? She has no idea. “Jonah doesn’t own it. We’re a codicil to somebody’s will,” she says, not adding the rest, that every spring they’ll get three weeks here for training camp before starting their tour.
       “Interesting,” Hera says. “Or maybe it is.” She picks up two smaller bags and, holding the house map Maggie has given her, follows Mac and the dolly inside to the stairs.
       Maggie stays on the porch, watching them through the hallway glass. She twists her hair into a braid and listens to the thrum of engines in the garages where the mechanics are working on the big trucks. Three weeks ago Jonah called her from London on a theater binge, full of directions and fresh from a late-winter walking trip in the Lake District. She had no way to contact him and he didn’t call back. She was frantic at not hearing from him, but he arrived this morning in a yellow Porsche with a blonde Cassie from California and his Afghan hound. He’s moved in, preoccupied and serious, but in charge, and almost everyone else is here now. Leonard is here. Sammy. Tina . . .
       Maggie takes the pad from her pocket and ticks down her list as the rain starts again, beating on the porch boards and the grass. There’s only the costume truck to come, and Ruth, who is driving from Cincinnati with her marionettes. And Nell. According to Tina’s message next to the phone, Maggie’s pleas have worked. Nell will be here tonight and Maggie, when she screws up her courage, is the one who has to tell Jonah.


Permanent link to this article: http://emilymeier.com/excerpts/the-second-magicians-tale/a-mansion-in-kansas