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Studies in Composition

From: New England Review
Volume 34, Number 3-4, 2014
pp. 21-29 | 10.1353/ner.2014.0021

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The Chapel Bells Had Begun, Calling The Boys To Dinner. From the kitchen veranda Davis watched them shambling through late-summer heat, khaki shorts slung low, loafers mashed at the heels, laughing or occasionally tossing overgrown bangs to the side. In a few minutes the day seemed to have swollen. There was a heavy smell of frying. In the distance the rolling pastures greened and damped, grown dark as moss. The farthest was dotted with horses—the boarding school a working farm also, these hundred years since its founding. Unseen was a river; a dappled wood where on weekends the boys were allowed to hunt, its leafy harbor suggesting other things to Davis. He was an imaginative boy. Handsome and mildly disdainful. When headmaster Givens passed, Davis merely nodded, refraining from the “sir” other boys would have offered.

“Waiter?” commented Beaufort brushing past him, more a statement than a question.

“First time this year.” He had a muted Boston accent that, like his manners, distinguished him from his peers. He had drawn the job from a hat containing the names in his advisory group: Dunning, Fielder, Dex, Becket and Cooper, whom you always thought of in a single breath, and little Sam McCabe.

Davis checked his watch. His gaze swept the Blue Ridge mountains. Then he saw her, shuffling over the loose gravel road that led from her house. There was a ghostly quality to her, swaying at her husband’s side, the low sunlight blurring the outline of her limbs and hair. Lola strolled behind, a slightly taller echo of her mother. Jackson ran ahead, arms circling like windmills, his six-year-old body undimmed by the heat.

Davis stood for a moment, studying the composition they made. It was typical of the way he approached the world—attuned to the interplay of light and shadow, the eloquence of certain images. In his spare time he liked to take photographs.

The first course sat on round metal trays under plastic wrap, the advisers’ names taped on top. Davis took a white coat, fresh from the laundry, and went to stand in the doorway with the others until the headmaster’s greeting and the chaplain’s prayer had finished. Then the wooden stands were carried out, and the trays.

“Aspic, Ma’am?” It was how you addressed the wives at table—the dish part of the anachronism of the place also, its affectation.

“Is that what it is?” Mrs. Hilliard laughed. She had a brazen laugh. Her eyes were heavily made up, the wrinkles around them deepening now. “My God, who knew?”

“Claudelle.” At the other end of the table Hilliard inclined his head in mild reproach. He was the sort of man you saw running at dawn through the fields. When it was his duty to check on the boys at night, he came with a blue blazer over his pajamas.

“Ted, I’m only saying!” She waved her hand. Reaching forward to take a dish from the metal tray, Davis caught the smell of her perfume and, beneath that, the tart saltiness of her skin. She was only sexy in certain moments, he decided. Like a stone glinting underwater, plain once you’d gotten it home.

“Oh God, Davis.” She caught up the sleeve of his white jacket. Beside her Lola made a disgusted expression, clasping her hand over her mouth.

“Ma’am?”

“It’s obscene; don’t you see what someone’s done?”

An opening had been made down the center of the aspic, as though a finger had been dragged through it. Or else—the idea struck him suddenly—a tongue.

“Seriously, what does this look like to you boys?” She tilted it so they could all see. “This slit.”

A cry went up, as from a chorus, heads thrust forward. Jackson was half-leaping from his chair, “Where, what is it, Dad?” Hilliard mumbling as if to no one, “You really should have checked, Davis.” With a jerk Lola pushed back her chair. Her face had gone crimson. The week before they had celebrated her sixteenth birthday with a cake with lemon yellow frosting.

Davis watched her leave. He watched the pale fringe of her...



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