by Brian Kerstetter
LONG ISLAND CASTLE
A few miles from LaGuardia Airport and the immigrants of Queens in New York City is a 126 room French chateau. Michael Jackson doesn’t own it and Prince Charles doesn’t play polo there. It is the second largest private residence ever built in America. In 1921, the New York Times called it “the finest country estate in America." Last August, O. called me at work and said, “In the mood to spend the night in a castle next weekend, you know we have to write a text for my catalogue. Maybe it will inspire us to write something that won’t put people to sleep (like most art-freak texts).” “No,” I said, “I don’t want to.” Then, before hanging up, I changed my mind and said, “If you insist, okay then.”
When we arrived at Oheka Castle, Mr. Eyebrows, our concierge with white hair and woolly caterpillar eyebrows, found us a room on the third floor with a fake fireplace and a view overlooking a golf course and Long Island Sound. In the morning we took our coffees in the back garden overlooking the 14th tee of the Huntington Golf and Country Club, where we witnessed an amusing turn of events…
Four brave fellows – all typical country club types with paunchy stomachs under checkered golf shirts and long shorts and saddle shoes – prepared to tee off. They had a caddie with them, what looked like a local boy, a miniature version of them, ugly clothes, good haircut and red cheeks. A stiff older fellow was the first to tee off and he drove his ball straight into the fairway and for that he received the praise of the others before ambling back to the cart like a peacock that has just spread its feathers. Three Mexican grounds men riding on lawnmowers along the fairway stopped and lowered their engines when the next guy, a very round one with a colorful golf outfit, teed the ball up and whacked a sailing slice over the trees and into the adjoining fairway. “Shit!” came floating up like an indigestive burp to disturb our peace in the castle garden. Then came, “Goddamn it!” to punctuate the first exclamation.
It was such an unexpectedly bad shot that even the Mexicans, who have probably never held a golf club nor teed up a ball, looked at each other with big white smiles and bounced up and down on the leather seats of their John Deere lawnmowers.
Without asking his companions if he could hit another tee shoot, he teed up another new shiny ball. This time he swayed back and forth and swung so hard he almost lost his balance and fell backwards. This time the ball decided to chart an opposite course to the first one and hooked so violently to the left that one of the other golfers jumped behind his cart, as the ball flew into a clump of oak trees and a dull, woody KNOCK! echoed from the woods. There was a moment of silence when no one moved, then suddenly the ball came bouncing out of the treetops and onto the cart path and back toward the golfers on the tee. It felt like the ball bounced and rolled on that cart path back towards its original location for well over a minute before it came to a humiliating stop about five yards in front of the guy. I could see the guy’s red face from the castle. He walked over to the ball picked it up, and drove the cart away. I have never seen O. so happy since being upgraded to Business Class on a flight from New York to Lima. He took a sip of coffee and said, “Nice shot, idiot.”
For dinner we had a picnic behind the castle, next to an elegant headless stone statue of a woman in a flowing gown. We spread two bright red Peruvian blankets on the grass beyond the manicured gardens and the fountain along the west wing of the chateau. We bought a new picnic basket for the occasion and filled it with Chilean wine, Asian shrimp, Greek olives, New York ham, a pot of sweet mustard, bread, wild rice, potatoes, pasta salad, and a shiny, plastic corkscrew.
After dinner as it was getting dark, I walked to the edge of the grounds and looked down between the trees where I could see a bright blue house with a strangely illuminated swimming pool. There, next to the pool, was a man standing in the liquidy shadows in a white t-shirt and sandals looking down at the water. His face was in the shadows while the rest of his body was glowing from the swimming pool lights. He had his hands in his pockets and just stood there. The scene looked like a David Hockney painting, surreal and faraway. The screen door to the house was partially ajar. I called O. to show him the scene. When he saw the man by the pool, he immediately asked, “Who did he kill?” and walked back to his glass of wine. The longer I looked at the scene, the more I expected to see a dark mass come floating to the surface of the swimming pool. Did he hate his wife and finally stick a knife in her? Or did he want it to look like an accident, surprising her in the pool and holding her under? He stood there, thinking he was alone, wondering how long a drowned body remains under water before it softly floats to the surface.
When I went back to the scene before we returned to the castle the man was gone. The pool was still bright and pale, magical and out of place. I strained my eyes to see the man until I found myself watching the watery shadows high up in the trees.
After our picnic we retired to the library, an immense room with a cathedral ceiling and walls and walls of turn-of-the-century volumes of New York State land ordinances. We settled into a couple of red-felt Prussian chairs, opened another bottle of wine, and when Mr. Eyebrows arrived, ordered two coffees. That was when we realized that old Mr. Eyebrows was, in fact, Otto Herman Kahn’s grandson.
You see, he was the spitting image of the 1928 portrait of Mr. Kahn, the man who had built the castle in the 1920’s. The painting hung in a gilded frame above the extinct fireplace but upon closer examination, the portrait turned out to be a photograph that was carefully ‘weathered’ to look like a 1920’s painting. The creative genius of PhotoShop had strategically place a pinkish hue on the cheekbones of the old boy, his lips were the pink of a fading rose.
At first we were disappointed by the castle’s lack of authenticity, then we thought it was great that everything was fake – photographs were PhotoShopped, china vases were made of plastic and the wood walls were actually painted cement. Then, because we were drunk, we had a stupid conversation about whether it mattered that the castle and everything within, was fake. Because I am of a delicate philosophic disposition, I related a parable in the form of a question:
A pilgrim climbed the highest mountain in search of wisdom and found an old wise man and asked him the meaning of life. The wise man said, “Live simply and be happy.” So the pilgrim returned to civilization and lived simply and was happy, according to the words of the wise man.
Another pilgrim climbed the highest mountain and found an old wise man to ask him the meaning of life. The wise man was actually a fraud, a drunk who had let his beard grow and sat doing nothing all day. The drunkard said to the pilgrim, “Live simply and be happy.” So the pilgrim returned to civilization and lived simply and was happy, according to the words of the drunkard.
O. took a drink of wine, and said, “That is the stupidest thing I ever heard. Really, the dumbest f_cking story I ever heard in my life!”
After a brief argument, we concluded that Mr. Eyebrows was Otto Kahn’s grandson. When Mr. Eyebrows served us coffee, with the portrait in the background, we saw the same white hair, the same furry dark eyebrows. We pointed the likeness out to Mr. Eyebrows and he smiled but wouldn’t confirm or deny the lineage. I think he liked the idea of being the heir to the second largest castle in the United States.
Such a fine, fine plastic castle.