This is a fictional autobiographical novel of Henry Lawson, who at a young age hears strange voices which, at first, he does not recognise. He attributes one voice to ‘Sable Shadow’, a confidant of the devil, and the other to The Presence, a representative of God.
In high school, Henry is introduced to the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, and he begins to see life in existential terms, while not infringing on his rudimentary Christian beliefs.
Upon Henry’s entry into the world of business, he receives guidance from Sable Shadow; this advances him to a high corporate level. With his career nearly at its peak, he suffers a series of devastating tragedies. He feels tormented and attempts suicide. With the help of his wife, and a psychiatrist with whom he engages in existential dialogue, he constructs a successful, new Identity.
The novel follows Henry’s growing and selective acceptance of existentialism, and his efforts to make it a personal guide to living rather than a series of abstractions.
The novel has philosophical, psychological and theological dimensions, but it is firmly set in the every-day world of good and evil, triumph and tragedy.
My mother always insisted that we go to mass on Sunday, and while we lived in Rye, we went to the Church of the Resurrection. Even when my sister and I were small children, we were not allowed to fidget or make any noise during the service. We were supposed to sit quietly and listen. But I found this very boring. I didn’t understand what was going on, and even when my mother tried to explain it (not very often), it didn’t make much sense to me. So I started taking small pocket puzzles to church to work on during the service. My mother didn’t particularly like this, but she permitted it, because I was sitting quietly, and I told her I was listening. (I actually found it quite easy to do a puzzle and listen to something I didn’t understand at the same time.)
When I started first grade, my mother told me that I would be confirmed in two years, and that I ought to understand the Mass. Unbeknown to me, she informed the priest, Father Tom, that I would like to be an altar boy. As a result, I had to attend a ‘briefing for new altar boys’ on a Saturday morning. This ‘briefing’ was conducted by Reverend Robert, the Vicar. I learned where the vestments were kept, where I had to stand and kneel at various points during the Mass, and when to bow. The only interesting part was that I was to be responsible for the incense brazier. I didn’t actually get to swing the brazier: that was the job of one of the senior altar boys. But, I had to bring the smoking brazier from the sacristy, return it, put more incense in it, bring it out again and return it.
I’m sure I’ll remember my first service as an altar boy for the rest of my life. I was worried about making a stupid mistake in front of the whole congregation. What would my parents say?
That Saturday night, as I lay in bed, I tried to rehearse in my mind the various points at which I had to stand, kneel and bow. As I tried to remember, I got more confused. No! Then you face the altar and bow – or do you kneel?
Then I heard a familiar voice, soft and deliberate - a tenor voice: This is not for you, Henry. You can be ill tomorrow. Don’t embarrass yourself! Besides, you didn’t volunteer to be an altar boy. Just tell your mother you have a terrible headache tomorrow. I can arrange it, and you’ll feel much better when they’ve left for church.
I had heard the voice before. It was not me, and there was never anyone else in the room. It was very persuasive and, I felt, thoughtful about me. Sometimes, I took the advice of the voice. When I did, things usually worked out fine, but often I didn’t feel right about what I had done. Not guilty, exactly, although sometimes my mother or someone would say, “Henry, you shouldn’t have done that!” and I would feel ashamed. But what sometimes bothered me about the voice was that the cajoling tone it used, not a straight-forward announcement of advice: Henry, here’s what you should do. And often I sensed it was playing to my weaknesses – I know I have quite a few weaknesses – and that made me suspicious.
Go away! I thought. Go away! Leave me alone!
There was silence.
The darkness in my room seemed to thicken. It enveloped me. I wanted to put my hand in front of my face to see it. But I felt powerless.
Henry, it’s so easy. Just listen to me . . .
“Shut up!” I shouted. I was angry; I launched myself into a sitting position and turned, scrabbling for the light on the bedside table. I heard my water glass fall to the floor, spilling its contents, but my hand found the light switch.
Suddenly, my room was there; the darkness had disappeared. Nothing had changed. Superman in my poster was still rushing on his mission, his cape flying behind him. The grey toy bomber was still suspended from the ceiling, poised, as ever, to attack.
For a few moments, I sat assessing myself. OK. A little light-headed, still a little agitated, but OK. When my sister Jenny and I were put to bed, we were expected to stay in bed: lights out! But I didn’t want another visit from the voice. I got out my flashlight, a Captain Marvel comic book, and turned off my bedside light. I read until I fell asleep. The batteries in my flashlight were dead in the morning.
My mother had shined my black school shoes that Saturday night. (Altar boys weren’t allowed to wear sneakers in those days.) When I got to church, I put a heavy, red, floor-length gown and a white surplice on top of my shirt and trousers. It was hot and humid that September morning, probably high eighties in the sacristy. I was tired and kind of disoriented.
Father Tom was a stickler for doing things right. He noticed that I was in the wrong place in the procession. He physically moved me to the right place, and he corrected the way I was holding the chains of the brazier, which was emitting a plume of pungent white smoke. The bell jingled, the procession started to move, and the organ music began to reverberate through the church. The heat, the noise and the smoke, all together, were too much for me. I made it as far as the altar, but as I handed the brazier to the senior choir boy, Andy, I fainted.
I suppose this caused quite a commotion. I don’t know. Somebody – was it Andy? – carried me to the sacristy and laid me out on the floor. I woke up a few moments later, looking up into Andy’s concerned face. “Are you all right, Henry?”
I sat up and considered myself. My light-headedness was gone. “Yes. Yes, I’m fine. I guess I just fainted. I’m sorry.”
“Do you want to go home, Henry?”
I stood up, and looked around. I felt perfectly normal. “No. I want to go back to the Mass.”
“Are you sure?”
Together, we entered the apse and took our respective places around the altar. I only remember two things about the rest of that Mass. I had no further difficulties with the brazier or with kneeling, standing or bowing. And I felt an unusual sense of comfort: this was where I ought to be. I’ve experienced that sense of peace infrequently in my life.
On Maundy Thursday that year, my Uncle Robert drove up to our house on Cottage Place at about six-thirty pm in a large, lustrous, green Buick. He, his wife Joan, and daughters, Joanie and Ellie, got out of the car and looked around. I was cutting the lawn with our mis-firing and ineffective old mower. At the end of the pass, I slowed the motor to idle so as not to take a chance on having to restart it. I walked over to my relatives, who were standing together at the foot of the path to the front door.
My uncle called, “Oh, there you are, Henry! I didn’t recognize you.” I was wearing an old, stained pair of jeans, and a maroon sweatshirt with assorted paint splatters. (He probably thought I was a neighborhood boy paid to cut the grass.)
“Hello, Uncle Rob.” (This with a handshake.) “Hello, Aunt Joan.” (I had aimed to kiss her cheek, but she caught me full on the mouth, and I suddenly remembered that this was just the way Aunt Joan kissed everyone of the opposite sex.) “Hi, Joanie and Ellie.” In response to my greeting, Ellie, a shy twelve-year-old, simply murmured, “Hi.” Joanie, a year older than I, stepped forward and, like her mother, kissed me on the lips. “Hi, Henry. Looks like we caught you at work.”
“So, this is your place here, Henry?”
“Yes, Uncle Rob. This is it.”
My uncle continued to look around. “I always thought that Bronxville was a pretty fashionable place.” He turned his gaze on me.
“Well, I suppose it is,” I conceded.
Uncle Rob looked doubtful. “Seems like the houses ‘round here are pretty small, and in need of a coat of paint. . . . That the railroad line over there?”
“The noise from the trains wake you up at night?”
“No. We get used to it.”
My uncle considered this. “I see,” he said skeptically. “Your father home?”
“Yes, he is. Come on in, please.”
We were approaching the front door when my father came out and embraced his older brother. “Good to see you, Rob. Have a good trip?”
“Oh, the trip was tolerable. It’s not too bad when you have a comfortable set of wheels.” He made a sweeping gesture toward the big, shiny Buick. “Got power steering and power brakes, you know.” Uncle Rob looked over at the old gray Plymouth, which was parked in a small paved driveway at the edge of the lawn. “That your car, Herbert?”
“Yes. We’re thinking about getting something newer.”
Uncle Rob studied my father thoughtfully. “I was telling your boy here that I always thought Bronxville was a fashionable place. Has it gone downhill a bit?”
“No, I wouldn’t say that. This is very comfortable for us and it’s only a six minute walk to the station.”
“You still with that Crossley & Barnett outfit, Herbert?”
“Yes, I am. It’s a good company.”
“Well, that may be, but I’ll tell you it’s best to have your own business. Brad and I as partners – now we can’t fire each other, don’t you know.” He chuckled. “Yes, it’s best to have your own business. You have full control.”
That evening Grandpa Joe organized a family dinner in a private room at the Brooklands. He and Grandma Nellie, as well as Uncle Brad, his wife and their two young boys had arrived. Both of my parents seemed to be ill at ease: perhaps because they felt like the poor relations, but also because, quite subtly, they were recognized as the poor relations.
It was interesting to notice the groupings of the people. The three Lawson brothers and their father constituted one group. Each of them had a martini in his hand, and the topics of conversation included business, generally, and Notre Dame. Next to the men, and close enough to be a part of the male conversation without actually participating, were Aunt Gail, Bradley’s wife, and Aunt Joan. Off to the side, were my mother and Grandma Nellie, who was the only member of the Lawson family (apart from my father) that my mother actually liked. Sitting at the table, engrossed in a world of tiny toy trucks, were two boys, aged six and seven, the progeny of Uncle Brad and Aunt Gail. That left me and the three girls in the final group. Or rather, I was talking to Joanie and, next to us, Jenny and Ellie were chatting happily about school experiences. Strange how minor age gaps can make such a social difference when you’re a teenager.
It had been at least five years since I had last seen Joanie. I remembered her as a reedy wisp of a girl with big pink cheeks, dark hair and eyes. Now, she was nearly as tall as I and her chest was starting to blossom.
When we were seated at the table and Uncle Rob had said grace, Grandpa Joe announced, “Now listen, boys and girls, we want to hear from each of you after dessert. We’d like you to tell us what you plan to be, or to do, when you get older. So you think about it, and I’ll call on each of you after dessert.”
Joanie, as the oldest, was called on first. “Stand up, Joanie dear, and tell us what you’re going to be.”
Joanie, blushing and clasping her hands in front of her, said that she wanted to be a fashion model. This announcement was greeted by murmurs of approbation.
When it was my turn, I stood up, somewhat nervously, and announced that I was hoping to go to Notre Dame. To this, there were loud rejoinders of “Yes, of course!” and “That’s the boy!” and “No doubt!” It occurred to me that the lengthy cocktail hour was having its effect.
“What are you going to do after Notre Dame?” Grandpa Joe asked.
“Well, I’d like to join the Navy, and fly fighter jets off carriers.”
There was a loud guffaw from Uncle Rob. “You want to do what?” he inquired loudly.
“I want to be a Navy fighter pilot,” I repeated defensively. I sat down. Uncle Rob leaned toward my father and said something which I couldn’t hear, but which was probably along the lines of “That boy ought to be in business, not flying around the skies, Herbert!”
When it was Jenny’s turn, she said that she wanted to go to university and become a graphic designer. There was a stunned silence: no Lawson female had ever gone to university and pursued a skilled, professional career. Jenny was about to sit down when Aunt Gail asked, “Don’t you want to get married, Jenny?”
“Not necessarily,” was the truculent reply.
Uncle Rob leaned toward my father again.
My mother suddenly announced in a loud voice, “We don’t need your advice on how to raise our children, Rob!”
Uncle Rob was startled; he sat back and stared at my mother.
My grandfather suddenly entered the fray; he glared at his eldest son. “I think she’s quite right, Rob!”
A chastened Uncle Rob bit his lip. “Please excuse me, Edith.”
That night, I lay in bed thinking. If Uncle Rob and Uncle Brad are so successful, and if they care about their brother who is obviously stuck in a dead end job, why don’t they ask Dad to join them in their business? Why do they seem to delight in putting my father down in a subtle way? Maybe they don’t really care about him. But I rejected this thought: there was plenty of evidence of a genuine brotherly bond. Maybe they don’t think he would move to Bowling Green? But this point also seemed doubtful. After all, he had already moved from Rye to Bronxville, and the only important thing that was unchanged was my father’s employer. Might as well have moved to Bowling Green. . . . Would my mother have objected to a move to Bowling Green? Yes, probably, but if my father had a good income, she would have found a way to accommodate. That leaves only one thing, I thought. My uncles don’t think that my father really has what it takes to succeed in business, and they’re afraid that he would screw up their business! For me, this was a terrible thought, and I had no way of disproving it.
Controversy about the proposed acquisition swirled around the office. Some people said, “It’s great, new technology! It’s gotta be good!”
Others replied, “Yeah, but it’s not making any money. How good is that?”
I hadn’t actually formed an opinion. Of course, I’d seen the company’s press release, which said, “United Carbide announced today that it has made an offer to acquire the 10 million outstanding shares of Nano Carbon, Inc. at $2.70 per share. Nano Carbon, based in Charlotte, North Carolina, is a manufacturer of carbon fibers. The CEO of United Carbide, Mr. Brent Chapplehurst, said, ‘The acquisition of Nano Carbon by Carbide represents an opportunity to create significant synergy between our two companies. Nano Carbon is a leading edge producer of carbon fibers, and Carbide is a world leader in the production of polymers. Together, we will be well positioned to serve the growing markets for compound materials, which offer great strength at reduced weight’.”
OK, I thought, that sounds good. But what’s this stuff about losing money? The Wall Street Journal in their brief coverage of the announcement said that Carbide would also assume $8.5 million of Nano’s debt. That meant that the total price of the acquisition was just over $35 million. On that basis, Nano ought to be making nearly $3 million, after tax, per year.
I looked up the Dun & Bradstreet report on Nano. There wasn’t much in it. Profits over the last three years had improved from a loss of $2.7 million to profit of $300,000 in the last year. Their debt was repayable over the next 2 to 4 years. They were a start-up seven years ago, had been acquired by a venture capital company and then sold to Universal Electric two years ago.
What does Universal Electric know about Nano that we don’t know? I wondered. Universal was silent as to their reasons for selling.
Anyway, I figured it didn’t concern me. But Robert called me to his office the following day. “You know about our acquisition of Nano Carbon?” he asked.
“I’ve heard about it.”
“We want you to run the due diligence. . . . with PWD, of course.” There was a trace of a malevolent smile around his lips that I hadn’t seen before.
“What exactly do you want me to do, Robert?”
He pushed his chair away and leaned back, his hands locked behind his head and his eyes fixed on the ceiling. “This is all Brent’s idea,” he said. He waited for me to draw my own conclusions.
“And how do you and Ralph feel about it?” I asked.
“Not quite as keen as Brent. We’d rather off-load some of our dead wood before we take on anything new – particularly a new technology about which we know exactly (he made a circle with his thumb and forefinger) at an astronomical price.”
“Why is the price so high?”
“Brent says that’s what it took to do the deal.”
“He’s assuming that their financials are as advertised and clean.”
There was the malevolent smile again. “Exactly! We want you, your guys and PWD to give Nano a thorough scrubbing, and not just the financials. You should look at sales and marketing and their technical resources. Are they as good as Nano says they are?”
“I know nothing about their technology,” I protested.
“We’re going to find you a top-notch consultant.”
“I also know very little about their markets.”
“Sounds like you and Ralph would not be bitterly disappointed if this deal fell through.”
Robert leaned forward and said something to me very softly, but it was drowned out by Sable Shadow: Don’t let him persuade you!
I nodded. “Anyway, I accept the assignment. When do you want me to start?”
“Tomorrow morning. Talk to Jesse Hershorn at PWD.”
“And the consultants?”
“I’ll let you know.”
I met Jesse at LaGuardia; we took the same flight to Charlotte. Jesse was a partner at PWD. He always wore stiffly starched white shirts which set off his dark suit, the dark shadow of his clean-shaved chin and his nearly black eyes. He was about ten years older than I, with very rapid speech and a slight stutter. “Carbide’s paying too much for this company. The tangible assets amount to about $18 million, so the goodwill is going to be around $17 million. That might be OK if the company was making $2 million a year and growing rapidly. But it’s not. You’ve got to write that goodwill off over forty years and it’s not tax deductible any more. Can you take an after-tax hit of nearly half a million every year?”
“I guess the big boss thinks so,” I said. “I’ve got a copy of Universal Electric’s prospectus on Nano and it argues that Nano’s profit will be one million this year, and will double every year for the next five years. It says net margins of 20% will grow to 35% over the same period.”
“So Nano will have a pretax of over $20 million in year 5. I don’t believe it.”
I said, “Neither do I.”
You should believe it!
On the plane I traded files with Jesse. “I have the impression that the big boss was very impressed with Nano’s technology,” I said
“In here, they just say it’s ‘efficient and unique’,” Jesse commented.
I was numb and senseless, but the pain was inescapable. I could not really function. I could walk, but my destination was unclear. I could hear voices, but I had to turn toward the voice I heard and try to understand if it was addressing me. My mind had great difficulty processing. It was as if a powerful ray had struck my head and turned my brain to mush. I knew David. He helped me pack, and he rounded up the pilots. He fastened my seat belt. He gave me a glass of something cold, and sometimes he would reach across and hold my hand.
I had no sense of time. I was drifting in a remote, timeless space. Then I recognized the front door of my house. Inside, there was Suzanne. She was pale, years older, in that familiar blue quilted bathrobe. We sat on the living room sofa, and she talked to me. I don’t remember what she said. She was very sad. She led me to the bedroom and took off my clothes. She removed her bathrobe. In bed, she pulled the covers over us, and we wrapped our arms around each other. We lay like that, weeping and dozing through the night.
There were dreams: of William trying to master a skateboard, of William holding up a small trout, of William wearing a muddied jersey number 24.
There was no mistaking the voice: You loved William and he loved you. Remember this.
What did you say?
But I knew what was said, and I knew the voice, even though I had not heard it often for ten years or more.
Helen came home. She tried to take care of Suzanne and me. She was scrambling eggs one morning. I said something about William. Helen started to cry as she was serving the eggs. “Sorry about that,” she said. “You won’t need salt.” Involuntarily, I stood up and hugged her.
People came to the house. They embraced me, and we wept together. Tim and Alex, my squash partners, were there, almost as distraught as I was. I didn’t know many of the others: neighbors? friends of William? people from work? It was comforting and draining. Comforting to know that your grief is shared, and that the loss of William was indeed the tragedy I felt. Draining, to have such raw emotion exposed for so many hours. There were flowers: baskets and vases of flowers. There were sympathy cards; each intended through illustrations and words to convey a sense of grief, but it was not a shared sense. That could only be conveyed face-to-face.
Early one evening, there was Belinda, pale and uncharacteristically out of order. “I’m so sorry,” she began. She dissolved on Suzanne’s shoulder.
“How did you hear about William?” I asked.
“He didn’t call me as we agreed. I called the base and they told me. Oh, I’m so sorry!”
Suzanne was still holding Belinda. “Would you like to stay for dinner, Belinda?”
“Oh, no, I couldn’t do that. I’m sure you have other things . . .”
“No. We need you. After all, you are sort of family.”
Belinda looked from Suzanne to me and back. Her distress was tempered by a trace of understanding. “Thank you. Thank you very much. I was hoping to be.”
As Belinda talked, over dinner, about William, telling little stories about him, the depth of her reciprocated love was clear. At one point she said, “I prayed and prayed that he would be safe, and that he would come back to me. But,” she looked up at us, her face still streaked with tears. “But it wasn’t to be.”
“When will you have his body?”
“We don’t know yet.”
“I would like to see him one last time.”
“Yes, of course. We don’t know where he was injured.”
“I don’t either. I just know his platoon was ambushed. One other man was killed.”
“How do you know that?”
“I talked to one of his friends at the base.”
“Where did it happen?”
“I don’t know. Probably in Somalia.”
Ambushed? Ambushed. Ambushed! This is what happened. I thought about the word and its meaning. This is what happens. It happens to everyone. Ambushed! A child is ambushed by leukemia. A wife is ambushed by her husband’s infidelity. We are ambushed by a burglar in our home. A grandfather is ambushed by a stroke. Life is made chaotic by ambushes! Who arranges these ambushes? They must be arranged! I can’t believe they are totally random. Who is the arranger? Sable Shadow? The Presence?
Neither one responded to my questions. And knowing it was an ambush did nothing for me. It only raised more confusion, pain and anger. Who was the Somali who decided to kill a person far better than he could ever hope to be? What motivated him? Was it greed, wanting to protect his investment in hostages? Was it a backwards, warped religious construction? For the first time in my life I felt genuine hatred toward another person, perhaps a group of people.
The same colonel who had notified Suzanne called to say that William’s body would arrive at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey the next afternoon. Did we want to meet it or have it transported to a local funeral home? Did we want him interred in Arlington National Cemetery? Did we want to have a Marine color guard at the funeral?
Suzanne and I talked about it. I said that I did not want to have him cremated. (I could not bear the thought of my beautiful son being burned to ashes.) I thought that Arlington Cemetery was too far away. I would want to visit him. We finally agreed to bury him in Woodlawn Cemetery, a beautiful garden cemetery in the Bronx.
“And the Marine color guard?” Suzanne asked.
“He should never have been in the Marines.”
Suzanne nodded. We selected a funeral home, and decided that Suzanne would plan the funeral and I would plan the interment.
Belinda asked if she could go with me to McGuire. We rode in a limousine, following the empty hearse. Inside a huge hangar at McGuire and resting on a gurney was a single, flag-draped coffin. Belinda, sobbing uncontrollably, placed a single red rose on the coffin. All I could do was place my hand on the coffin and try to keep myself upright.
At the funeral home, we waited.
A dark-suited attendant appeared. “He’s ready for you now, Mr. Lawson.”
“Was he very badly injured?”
“No, sir. His face is quite natural.”
I held Belinda’s hand as we entered the darkened room. There in a pool of light, was the open coffin. William was lying there in his dress blue uniform. I wanted to tell him, ‘Get up, William! For goodness’ sake, get up!’ But then I saw that his face looked like an exact replica of him from Madame Tussaud’s: the life was gone.
Belinda wiped her face with a sodden handkerchief; she leaned over and kissed him on the lips; she sat down and made no attempt to stop her tears.
I stood looking at William for several minutes. William, you were the me that I could never be, and now you’ve deserted me – so carelessly – how could you do this?
I kissed his forehead. I turned to the attendant. “Where are his injuries?”
The attendant considered my question. “Well, sir,” he began, “there is one on his neck just below the high collar.” He gestured inside his own collar. “And there is another below his right arm on the side of his chest.” Another gesture.
“I’m not a doctor, sir, but I would guess so.”