virtuous man

A Virtuous Man

Joyce Myerson

A Virtuous Man
Synopsis

A Virtuous Man is a novel comprised of connected chapters/short stories, in which the narrating voices change. The plot hinges around the “virtuous man”, full of debilitating guilt, who believes himself to be a liar and a shameless poseur. Much of the book takes place in Tuscany and Umbria, where the two protagonists spend a brief interlude together.

Chapter One

I lied to her. Again. Will it be the last time? Can I go back and make it all right? I know, you’re always telling me to make up my mind before. Do I want to impress or do I really want to know someone for longer than a week? How come I haven’t learned? And this time I really really want to know her for more than a week. I know. I’m only here in this place for a few months, so I could tell her anything I want. But why do I feel so guilty about my wealth? Why do I have to make excuses about knowing how to hold on to the money nefariously earned by my father? And besides, you know very well if I wanted to, I could just as easily live here, move here, and do whatever it is I do from this end of the world. If I want something to work, I simply have to try. If I could just learn not to lie...

*

When he talks to me about his family, he’s like so-o-o nervous, almost as if the secret is impossible to divulge. I want to ask him all the time why he fidgets and fumbles with his clothes, his collar, his tie, his buttons when he starts talking about his father and his uncles and the “family” business. But I don’t. I don’t interfere with his so-called confessions. I don’t really want to intrude. The fewer questions I ask the better. And I’m tired of asking questions, tired of drawing people out. I do that all day with the students in my school. They never seem to want to talk to me although that is exactly why they are in my office. Often they come of their own free will, but to get them to start to disclose whatever it is that’s bothering them takes the greater part of an hour, and usually they have to go back into class when they’ve hardly warmed up to me. I do not want to be the person in charge outside as well as inside the school. I make enough decisions in one day to last a lifetime, and then I get up the next morning and do it all over again. Is that true? Yes, it’s true, but the tone of it isn’t. I sound as if I hate my job or something. That is a lie. Being the principal of a snobby private secondary school is a joy. Most of the students are really bright and sophisticated and have that smoothness in social situations that comes from a confidence in who they are or who their parents are. But frankly, students from poorer neighbourhoods do not have a monopoly on unhappiness or discontent or adolescent grief. So I can still be of use to them, being so well-equipped to handle other people’s problems. They hired me for my psychological slash philosophical background, didn’t they? No, not for the philosophical part. What I never told the parent committee was that I really taught courses in ethics and moral principles although in a psychology department in the university. And I had fantastic recommendations just because psychology students love those kinds of courses where they can discuss from morning till night the moral implications of various kinds of behaviour on the part of professionals. Yes, exciting debates in class on all manner of things as long as they went home and studied their Kant and were prepared for exams dealing with the history of moral philosophy and deontology. I couldn’t lose. So what if I’m not exactly what they think I am? I am a good principal. Sometimes I am not popular but no one has any reason to want to get rid of me. In fact the parents, the staff, and the students would be in a panic if I said I wanted to leave. Okay, but I don’t want to have to always be leading someone somewhere – you know – like to the point, to the crux of the matter, to the truth. If he wants his secrets, however uncomfortable they make him, then let him have them. I am not extracting them or some form of total disclosure from him. No. I’ve done that in other relationships and look where it’s got me – nowhere, right back to being the boss and who wants to be involved with the boss?

*

Should I tell her tonight? I could tell her I lied. I could make myself out to be less than the hero I usually portray myself as: the son that disinherits himself of his family wealth for the purest of ethical reasons, upon discovering that the number of wretches who have suffered at the hands of the potent and sadistic empire builders on my father’s side are legion. Yes, and mounted on that high horse, which I have learned to ride at an early age, I take myself off to the unknown wilds of Europe and study with self-demanding exertion until I am an authority on something or other in my own right and then return to the land of my birth upon the death of my father, never having needed the protection and support of such an infamous parent, and make good single-handedly, and always, always carrying the torch of my integrity aloft. Sigh. I am so tired of that speech. It threatens to bore me before an evening is over. But can I set it straight this time? Can I tell the truth instead of running from my shameful nature? Did she have to be a professor of Ethics, for God’s sake?

*

It’s the love muscle. It threatened to erupt last night and I’ve only known him barely a month. He has been avoiding the confessional lately but it wants to come out. What wants to come out? Something big. But I saw that side of him that made me jump with yearning over the divide that divides him from me. We were together with Saul and Rachel. Saul is my second-in-command at the school, and sometimes my knight defending me from unscrupulous men with unscrupulous designs on me, although at thirty-seven I hardly need a guardian: I really need options. Rachel, his wife, and my best friend, too, doesn’t even have to push him to do this. It comes instinctively from him. I have often wondered what Saul really feels for me. Is a hint of ulterior motive lurking behind his clean façade?

We all went out to dinner together for the first time. Because he moved out of his hotel and in with me? A celebration of sorts? It’s time for me to meet your friends now that I am thinking of staying more or less permanently kind of celebration? Am I being naïve about him? Was it a mistake to invite him into my life? I hardly know what he does all day. I only assume. Because he doesn’t say. It just seemed ridiculous for him to live in a hotel. And he was talking about finding an apartment. But he was in my bed, unclothed and beautiful, and our bodies so intimate you could not tell where his limbs started and mine ended. And, and I just asked him without thinking if he wanted to stay with me for the time being. I mean his hand was lying in the curve of my waist and our perspiration was mingling after all that groping and sharing and shrieking – mostly on my part that last bit. And when I asked, he smiled, his whole face merging from separate features into that smile, as if for one sweet instant he had forgotten what it was he had overlooked telling me over the last month, and it’s big whatever it is, and he seemed truly, radiantly happy, but that’s not what I wanted to focus on here. That was not the moment for me. It was later with the others. Saul saying that I had told them about him being some kind of art expert. I breathed a sigh of relief because it turned out I wasn’t wrong. I mean I had assumed that he worked in that general area because he had talked about a Ph.D. in art history from the University of Siena and later some kind of diploma in art restoration and he really knows tons about art new and old. I just thought he was an art dealer travelling all over and maybe that’s why it didn’t matter so much where he lived. But he never actually said. He had only talked about needing to get away from his father. His mother, too, went back to Italy, leaving her husband here to do something vaguely unsavoury. Mafia, perhaps? But then the outpouring stops. Well, not really outpouring, more like stop and start and Morse code-type revelation. And I don’t help him. I don’t pursue anything he cuts short. I leave the double hyphen hanging over the minefield. I guess I just touch him at those moments somewhere on his body, but I don’t even say encouraging nothings, like it’s okay, if not now, later, when you’re ready. I stroke in Morse code, too, and if I look in his face... but I don’t. I don’t want to see the hurt because then I will break down and start the drawing out process and I refuse to go there. I suppose I should ask myself why I am such a chicken. But let me get back to the original point, the pulse quickening and the irregular heartbeat. That’s what this is all about, what we’re all here for, isn’t it? Is it? Is this feeling what we’re all here for? I’d like to know. Because if it is, then I had it, and my life is finally justified.

*

I could have done it then – in front of everyone, her friends – and just said it. My father paid for everything. I never threw his money back at him. I took it and lived well and studied well and had all that money to get into the art market – because I bought and sold for him, for his little castle of beauty that he probably had built for one of his playthings. That isn’t even true. I have come to the conclusion that when I left, and then my mother left, he was really lonely. He died alone in his castle, and there were no other recipients of his wealth in his will besides my mother and myself. Who was that man? He was a genius at numbers and money and laundering and accounting. They called him “ragioniere” all his life – accountant. But he hadn’t studied anything. He could barely speak Italian. He lived and died in his Sicilian dialect, which I refused to speak. That’s about the only thing I ever refused. I took everything else – the fruits of his illegitimate labour. And I worked for him, crossed continents for him, made a name for myself through him. My mother never stopped me. But she left him. She’s different. She took her stand. When I left at eighteen to go and study in Italy, a move of which my father greatly approved, and then she followed, I loved her for that. True, she did take his money to make a home for her child in the North, from where she came – no Sicily for her – but I loved her for leaving my ignoble father. Later on I just loved her. I still do. But my guilt remains. It looms its awful head whenever I come to this point, the point when I want someone, and I haven’t ever ever told the truth to anyone. Because you can’t imagine how much money there really is. My mother doesn’t even know, as long as she can have whatever she wants. She couldn’t spend the fortune in ten lifetimes and neither could I.

*

So when Saul put the question to him or asked him to confirm the assumption that he was an art expert, he shrugged and nodded. Talk about humility.... And then he proceeded to recount something, which he had done recently. He reminded me that shortly after we had met at the end of April... and I’ll tell you about that, too, if you want... he up and left for almost a week, saying he had something to attend to in Italy, in Florence, to be exact. I didn’t even know if I would see him again, but he phoned every day and we had these really long conversations. Actually that’s when I think we truly got to know each other – over the phone. We had so much to say and then I found myself carrying around the desire to be with him all the time. I could barely concentrate on anything else and I kept dreaming of his next phone call. Well, he told us that he had been called to Florence to view some wood sculpture of a crucifix, because someone in the field had decided that it was a youthful work of a very important artist. He didn’t say which at the time, and maybe it was that reticence to actually name the name that had the rest of us in mute admiration, literally with our mouths hanging open, when he finally let it out after a question from Rachel. He told us that the reason why he was called to view it was because when he had worked as an art restorer, he was something of a specialist in sculpture, rather than painting or frescoes, although he can do that, too. So by this time we knew that he had worked on really important projects and had been closer to the greatest works of art than probably anyone will ever be. However, he talked in such an unpretentious and unassuming manner that the fact that he was actually sent for, because he was skilled enough to authenticate this piece of sculpture, somehow escaped our attention. I mean we took it for granted that he was good at what he did. So am I. So is Saul. So is Rachel. In our own fields. But we had no idea that he was great. It hit us on the head and knocked the breath right out of us. Well, Rachel came out with the “by the way” question, you know, who the hell was the sculptor anyway, and when he told us with the same “by the way” type of response, you should have seen us. He looked as if he were going to laugh. I mean so what if we’re talking about history’s all-time most important artist, for him it was just normal. But he didn’t laugh, just waited patiently for us to get over the shock. In fact he turned towards me. I was sitting on his right. He put his hand on mine, although all evening we seemed to be touching each other at various intervals, unable to concentrate on the food before us, much more interested in this other form of gluttony. I can’t ever seem to get satiated. I want more all the time. I want him close to me. But let me get back to the story.... Before I do, I just had this thought. Maybe his reluctance to say to me whatever it is that he has to say to me and I know it’s about his father and I used to think it was about the way his father earned his living that just had to be illegal, but why he should really believe that the sins of the father are visited upon the son when he earns his living telling people whether something is a fake or an original and not by selling drugs to children, if that’s what his father actually did, I don’t know. So my thought is this. Perhaps he is ashamed of his father’s ignorance. He is so educated, so European, although born here, that maybe he can’t reconcile, not only his father’s connections to the underworld but also, or maybe even more so, the fact that his father couldn’t speak Italian well. I don’t know. Tons of people our age, over thirty-five, that is, have uneducated parents. Why should he feel so bad about that?

*

I could have but I didn’t, didn’t let the bomb drop. I didn’t say it: I am a fake. I didn’t work at night to pay for my glorious education. I didn’t starve to be able to go to school. I didn’t support my mother so that she wouldn’t have to take his dirty money. I lived like a prince and courted the elite of Europe. I used his money to further myself. Okay, okay I know a thing or two about art. I’m smart. I learned from the best. But it was all made possible by my father’s unfailing ability to make money for his brothers and himself, to take the money that the rest of the family had earned breaking the fingers of some poor victim and find the right places not just to stash it, but to make it grow, flourish, flower, what you will. When I came here, after he died, to take care of his estate, I had discovered that two of the companies he had bought a decade ago for the family were in the process of going public. Two! The profits from those sales alone were enough to still the heart of any greedy criminal. He had a fortune in art with no small help from myself and somehow had managed to be solely in charge of several other businesses that he had bought over his career as trusted money launderer of the family. He had already begun putting together possible choices for their sale, I think to make my life easier or his, because he certainly didn’t realize he was heading for a fatal heart attack, or did he? I have no idea. And his investments! He was as close to genius in that as one could get. And he had many clients as well, besides his brothers and cousins, who were able to retire from a life of crime because of his fiscal wizardry. We all benefitted from his unusual insights into the world of finance, all of us. And I am just as criminal as the rest of my family because I lived off the transgressions of my relatives. I was never innocent. That’s it. I have never been innocent. I was guilty from the age of eight when I heard my uncle whisper to my father about some particular cruelty perpetrated on someone who had failed to pay up. Because, although I cringed, although I cried at the knowledge of my father’s betrayal of my admiring heart, although I vowed to leave as soon as possible, I never denied myself. St. Francis, you did. You tore all your father’s clothes off your back and returned them to him and he was only a merchant, not a villain. I did no such thing.

*

So he touched me in the middle of this instant – being stunned into stillness by his casual revelation – and he asked me if I would like to join him when he goes back to Italy in a few days, for about a week, for a second viewing, at which time he would probably put in print his opinion and the reasons for it. Saul offered to take over for me at the school. I really didn’t have to be there during exam week, as long as I came back for graduation exercises. Obviously my defender approved of this choice in a man.... I’m coming to it now... the moment when my heart leapt out of my chest, figuratively speaking, and I would have climbed the Himalayas with him. I hadn’t said anything yet. Only Rachel and Saul had spoken after the thunderbolt. I don’t think I could have spoken. My throat felt swollen. When I didn’t answer, Rachel, probably noticing my confusion or emotional state, turned to him, the recipient of my imminent stammering love, and asked him if he had had an opinion right after examining the crucifix. I mean did he know? Did he really know? Could one really know? Could he stand up and declare to the whole world what he thought? He took a deep breath. He leaned forward. Everyone else followed suit bringing a communal intimacy to what he was about to express. He held his hands together in front of him. All I could think about was how much I wanted to touch his hair, draw my hands through his dark curls and make my declaration that I had a right to him, that he was mine, exclusively. How I could be imagining the feel of his naked skin at that point in the conversation when we were all so clothed and public and in view, I don’t know. The vagaries of the sexual/possessive impulse have no logic.

*

Couldn’t I just tell her in Italy? A different landscape. A different ambiance. A whole other setting for our togetherness. Couldn’t I? I can’t face this. Don’t push me. Why haven’t I done it yet? I wish it were over. But, but, but... after that evening out with her friends, after that outward acceptance and physical demonstration of our togetherness in the eyes of others, I couldn’t go back to the beginning, step over all the bodies I had vanquished to get there. Bodies. You know what I mean. Successes as steps already lived, already dead and conquered. What’s wrong with the metaphor? Too apt? That my brilliant embrace of such a desirable creature contains the seeds of death? I’ll tell her there. I promise. Meanwhile I’ll wrap her up in my sorry soul and hope the commingling of equal desires will withstand the ultimate tempest. What tempest? The tempest of truth, of course. Because it will either end in a conflagration of intense heat or a dripping deluge to whet even your gargantuan appetite for honesty. Either way it could kill. Kill what’s growing between us. And I’m not ready to let her go. What’s that you ask? How will she feel in a foreign country after she’s discovered that her boyfriend is a liar? I don’t know... alone, I guess.... I shouldn’t do that to her. I should be more selfless than that. Not only have I never been innocent, I have always been a coward. Not telling her is downright cowardly. Not having rejected my father’s wealth has been more than cowardly. It’s been monstrous, but I wouldn’t know how to survive without my father’s lucrative legacy. I need desperately the confidence that it has always given me. I have chosen that confidence rather than the life of a virtuous man.

*

And then he answered Rachel’s question so simply, naturally, truthfully, and I don’t know, in my mind, so fittingly. It was the kind of statement I have been waiting to hear all my life and the bulge in my rib cage pounded and vibrated with what? Faith? Certainty? The knowledge that I had always been right to keep vigil for a man such as this? Do I sound soppy and sentimental? But let me tell you what he said exactly. First he discounted Rachel’s questions as to possessing absolute proof for a decision he was requested to make about the authorship of a particular work of art. No, he could not know with complete confidence. No signature. No specific confirmation from a document or contract. As far as he was concerned, he was asked to provide an opinion. Yes, he was given letters and documents written by the artist and his acquaintances around the possible time of execution. The historian who had made the original discovery believed that if he could study this added evidence he might arrive at a similar conclusion and come to support his assertion. But in the room with the sculpture itself, he had had his own sensations, his own what could only be called relationship with that piece of wood. Of course he could be wrong. But he was human and therefore expected to live up to the responsibility of his claim to be a knower of something. It was his obligation to all other humans, who each had their own duty to live up to their specific knowledge of something – and surely everyone had some unique awareness of a particular aspect of the universe – to decide... to act on what he felt in the presence of that tiny but explosive rendering of human sorrow. And he did. He had said yes, he agreed with the other historian. He added that he wanted to further peruse the written data, and that after a certain amount of time he wanted to come back and stand in front of the sculpture again and then he would write down his decision, make it public, for what it was worth. When he sat back, away from the symmetrical huddle that our bodies made at the centre of that table, I felt as if my spirit drew away with him. I wanted to shout, yes! I wanted all the students I had ever taught to hear what had just been said. I wanted to tell them that what had just been said in fact represented the most satisfying example of human morality that I could muster for them – nothing more and nothing less. But I did not cry out. I didn’t even open my mouth. Rachel pursued the topic asking him if he had never had the experience where he couldn’t make up his mind and what did he do under the circumstances. I sat there beside him and just let my heart balloon into the sculptured cavity of my chest as he turned towards me and leaned his head in my direction, giving me an eyeful of complicity, as he answered her. I don’t know if I heard exactly what he responded. I was too full of the enormity of his gaze into my depths. He offered up, I think, his guilt, his remorse, his sorrow to us. When you don’t know and you are expected to, well then, you admit it, but you suffer. He suffers. I know he does. Because he is a virtuous man and it is hard to be a virtuous man.

About the Author

Joyce Myerson

Joyce is presently a professional academic and literary translator from Italian. The published books she has translated range from medieval history and art history to contemporary psychology and psychotherapy. In 2017, her translated book of 14th century Tuscan poetry (Andrea Pucci) was published by the British Rencesvals Publications. She recently completed the translation of the novel, The Caravaggio Syndrome, by the art historian and Italian literary scholar, Alessandro Giardino, to be published this Christmas in Italian. Right now she is translating a volume of writings on Gestalt psychotherapy to be published by Routledge. Her own stories have appeared recently in various American and Canadian journals, including The Write Launch.