The Vagabonds


By Nicholas Delbanco

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ebook (Digital original)


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It doesn’t matter, really, if what we inherit is money or debt, a set of cats or cutlery or a portrait of grandfather Aaron. What matters is the way we deal with what’s been left behind. The Vagabonds From critically acclaimed author Nicholas Delbanco comes a novel about a family with a mysterious inheritance and a secret tie to history… Born and raised in Saratoga Springs, New York, the three Saperstone siblings have drifted apart and lead very separate lives. On Cape Cod, Joanna manages a B and B and a teenage daughter, feeling vulnerable and alone. In Ann Arbor, Claire flirts with becoming an interior decorator while coming to terms with a personal betrayal. And in Berkeley, David carves a niche as a Web designer-yet he yearns to be a painter. Suddenly, these middle-class and ordinary lives will come together again in an extraordinary way.

The death of their proud, spirited mother draws the Saperstones home to the New York resort town of Saratoga Springs. Gathered again in the family’s ramshackle cottage, they discover a stunning legacy from 1916. Almost a century ago, the legendary “Vagabonds”-captains of industry Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, inventor Thomas Edison, and naturalist John Burroughs-came to this town during one of their road trip adventures. Here they encountered a beautiful young woman, whom they would burden with a scandalous secret and a dazzling windfall. Now, when decades later this inheritance comes to the three Saperstones, it will utterly transform them-not so much for the riches it brings, but for how it will reconfigure the past they share…and a future they had thought beyond their grasp. Arresting in its poignancy and indelibly original, The Vagabonds is a brilliant marriage of a truth stranger than fiction and a fiction filled with transcendent truth.


Copyright © 2004 by Nicholas Delbanco

All rights reserved.

Warner Books

Hachette Book Group, USA

237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017

Visit our Web site at

First eBook Edition: November 2004

ISBN: 978-0-446-53482-6



What Remains

Old Scores

In the Name of Mercy

The Writers' Trade, & Other Stories

About My Table, & Other Stories




Small Rain


In the Middle Distance


Consider Sappho Burning

Grasse 3/23/66

The Martlet's Tale


The Countess of Stanlein Restored: A History of the Countess of Stanlein ex-Paganini Stradivarius Violoncello of 1707

The Lost Suitcase: Reflections on the Literary Life

Running in Place: Scenes from the South of France

The Beaux Arts Trio: A Portrait

Group Portrait: Conrad, Crane, Ford, James, & Wells

Books Edited

The Sincerest Form: Writing Fiction by Imitation

The Writing Life: The Hopwood Lectures, Fifth Series

Talking Horse: Bernard Malamud on Life and Work (with A. Cheuse)

Speaking of Writing: Selected Hopwood Lectures

Writers and Their Craft: Short Stories & Essays on the Narrative (with L. Goldstein)

Stillness and Shadows (two novels by John Gardner)



A gull above her circles, pauses in its rising flight and releases what it carries and lets the thing plummet and crack. It is, she knows, a razor clam, or maybe a mussel or oyster; the parking lot has been littered with shells, a white glaze of shattered dropped shellfish, and there are only two cars. Joanna drives past. A brand-new Volvo station wagon, complete with baby seat and snowshoes, waits at the edge of the path to the beach; a fisherman's truck stands idling there also, and the man inside raises his hand. She waves back—it's the thing to do—but parks at the end of the lot. There, smoking, she stares at the bay.

This day it's green and wintry, wind-roiled, with ice in its foam. She rolls her window open and hears the crackling tide. The sound, Joanna tells herself, is like a cocktail shaker's, the salt and sand and wave spume all freezing and mixed in together. No ships are on the water, no line at the horizon's edge beneath a glaucous sky. This is her lunch break and time to be private; holding the smoke, she inhales.

The winter has been long. It is February 10. Ice and snow have settled in, and she feels the way that clam would feel if it knew itself caught in the gull's outstretched beak and ready to be dropped. Last night had been a good one, or as good as she expects to have, with Harry the lodger appreciative and the spaghetti in her homemade garlic and pesto sauce cooked just the way she liked it and both of them, as he put it, lubricated by wine.

"I'm feeling lubricated," he said. "I'm just about feeling no pain."

Joanna had lit candles and the lanterns in the dining room. She was wearing her blue toreador pants and the white Mexican peasant's blouse with the red embroidery, and Harry called her his flag.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Red, white and blue," he told her, and they clicked glasses and kissed.

He could be sweet when he wanted, and last night he'd wanted to, so after the salad and ice cream they went upstairs to his room. The whole house is hers, of course, and in the middle of a February cold snap there are no other paying guests, but it excited Joanna to be in his room and not on her own sleigh bed with the cat and bills and unwashed sheets; she took better care of his space, since, after all, Harry rented it and expected fresh laundry each week. So they were getting down to business, his mouth a mix of pesto sauce and cigar smoke and that Pinot Noir she'd ordered two cases of for Christmas, and still had three bottles of, his arms about her, leg on leg, when the telephone rang in the hallway and, after two rings, ceased ringing and then began again. This was her signal from Leah and she knew she had to answer because her daughter only called that way on the private number when she needed help, and meant it.

"Oh, lover," breathed Joanna, "wait, I'll be right back."

He could be a bastard when he wanted, and last night he'd wanted to while she got on the phone. It was Leah in trouble, big surprise—who has taken, lately, to calling herself Artemisia, because Artemisia was an artist, a painter in the old days when young women weren't supposed to paint, and who'd been raped for her presumption, or so the story went. And since fifteen-year- old Leah is into nose rings and tattoos this year she likes to think her name is Artemisia, Art for short . . .

"Mom, the car is out of gas," she said. "And I'm up here in Truro and there's no gas stations open and I need you to come up and get us."


"Me and Stacey and a couple guys."

"I'm busy," said Joanna. Because Harry was behind her now, his hand on her ass and his pants off already, and when Leah-Artemisia said, "But Mom, it's cold . . . ," he reached over and pulled out the cord from the plug and the phone went dead. And so she was caught in the middle again, the rock that is Harry her lodger and the hard place that's her daughter; by the time she'd wriggled out of it and finished staking out her claim—telling him don't you ever do that, don't you ever touch this telephone, telling Leah who called a second time that no, she wasn't coming because this is a mess you've made for yourself and the other kids have parents too; whose car were you driving and what were you doing anyhow in Truro?—by the time the argument was over she had been cold sober, the small sweet flare of pleasure gone. Harry lay back with his nose in a book, his stinking feet on the afghan she'd made and had been so proud of, and that was the end of that.

Another gull, rising, drops lunch. In summertime the lot is full, with a line of cars waiting to enter, but now the hard paved surface is a plate for gulls to feast off; no competition on the ground—just her and the truck and the Volvo and none of them looking for shells. She hates self-pity, guards against it, but sometimes—this is one of them—the gray sky and the empty beach and big house near the harbor she tries to make the payments on all seem to be working together and working against her, bringing her down. This morning in the living room there had been birds, a pair of them, terrified and battering at windows and shitting all over the furniture and window wells. Their wings and tails were black with soot, so they must have come through the chimney, and by the time she got them out—removing the screens and opening the windows and ducking under their frenzied rush—by the time she'd finished cleaning up and replacing the screens in the half-frozen frames and shutting the flue in the fireplace chimney she'd been late for work. It made no difference, of course; there were no customers at nine o'clock, and when she told Maisie about the birds—grackles, maybe, or starlings, not crows—Maisie nodded, unsurprised. "It happens."

"Shit happens," said Joanna. "That's what we used to say."

"They gather by the chimney," Maisie explained. "They warm themselves at the furnace updraft and get a little dopey and fall in."

"At your house too?"

"Not since Tom installed a chimney cap. It's good for keeping bats away. And squirrels and raccoons; you ought to get a chimney cap."

"I ought to do a lot of things," she told her boss-friend bitterly. "I ought to sell the goddam house is what I ought to do."

"Who'd buy it?" Maisie asked, and turned to the stock on the shelves.

A light snow falls. Joanna finishes her cigarette and drops it out the door and starts up Trusty-Rusty and, once the engine catches, eases it into reverse. Her lunch break is ending; she needs to get back into town. She helps Maisie out three days a week, and though there've been only two sales this morning—a cardigan, a pair of gloves—it matters to them both that they pretend she's useful and there's a reason to get dressed and drive herself to the store and check the order pads and rearrange the inventory they both know won't sell. In summertime the place is full, young mothers and couples or women alone—on rainy days so many of them you'd think scarves are a necessity, or harem pants, or wide-brimmed hats, which is why the place is called The Bare Necessities. From Memorial through Labor Day, Main Street is busy, hopping, and it's worth your life to find a parking place and what jogs or drives or bicycles past the store is tourists all day long.

But by October the town is half-empty and by February dead. They keep the place open for something to do and to pay the heating bills; they drink coffee and decorate the windows over Christmas and, gossiping together, watch the empty street. It's feast or famine here on the Cape, and lately it's been famine: the plague and seven lean years in which she somehow managed to get fat. Just how, Joanna asks herself, how did I get into this and how do I get out of it and where do I go next?

Leah will leave Wellfleet soon enough; she's been practicing departure and trying on identities for size. Last year she was a cheerleader and then a poetry-slam-wannabe and now she's a girl on the dark backseat of a souped-up broke-down car. Her daughter's father Mr. Ex-Right Ex-Husband #1 lives in Chicago now, and every birthday and for holidays he gets in touch and sends Leah fifty dollars and says, Whenever you're ready, there's more. Mr. Ex-Right Ex-Husband #2 preferred Jim Beam and Jack Daniel's and Johnny Walker and George Dickel and even Ezra Brooks to her, Joanna, and by the time he was in detox in Hyannis the preference was mutual; they haven't seen each other since—when was it?—1994. Her mother is dying, her father is dead, her brother David has been doing whatever he does these days in California and paying no attention, and she'd rather not deal with the kind of attention her little sister pays. The house, the lovely ancient house, is an albino elephant, a picturesque wreck like its owner and beyond her to maintain. And Harry is no help at all; her dirty Harry lies there, feet on the afghan and pants on the floor, and expects her to serve him his dinner in bed but won't even take out the trash.

It has been, Joanna thinks, a long slow slide since college and the degree she didn't finish in 1979. It has been a downhill slope and steeper all the way. She is forty-four years old, a woman with an attitude, or so Harry claimed last night while they were fighting; there's only so far you can travel, he said, on a pair of what used to be excellent tits. That's not fair, she said to him, that isn't fair, and he said what does fairness have to do with it, who's talking equity here? You're such a smug son of a bitch, she had said, why don't you try checking the mirror yourself, and he said because it doesn't matter, not to me. She has tried to teach her daughter, do as I say not as I do, don't do the things I did when young, you're worth much more than that.

She closes her eyes an instant while the birds in the living room fly through her head. Those grackles or starlings have nothing on her; there's air outside they're hungry for and once they find the open window there's a slipstream and escape. They're up in the trees now, away. But Joanna herself can't imagine escape; she will remain in her mortgage-strapped house, the staircase off kilter and rooms needing paint, the shingles half-rotten and roof like a sieve—will remain here with her little sign, "B&B, the Bay View Inn," while in the summer couples come to fuck, and off-season fish or sketch, and in the winter no one stays—remain here till there's nothing left and she's the old lady she never imagined she in her turn would become. My mother is dying—she says this out loud—and maybe that's why birds appeared and battered at the windows, just the way the old song says they do when a soul escapes this vale of tears: a bird of passage fluttering and gone from dark to dark.

And sure enough, when she returns, walking through the stockroom door and hanging up her parka, feeling the heat of the shop and smelling the sandalwood incense and telling Maisie, Hey, I'm back, she knows on the instant that something has changed and not for the better. Her friend has that solemn look on her face that means there's news, and the news is bad, that Maisie is misery's company now and ready and willing to cry . . .

"What's wrong?" she asks, and Maisie holds her hands up, spreading them, her fingernails bright crimson, chipped, and says that Harry called.


"Not Leah," she says. "It isn't her."


"Fifteen minutes ago, maybe ten. He says they've been calling and calling your line, until finally he picked it up, and it was a lawyer. Oh sweetie I hate to be telling you this. Except your mother's passed."

It's not relief exactly, this shock that floods and fills her chest, but when Joanna, sitting, says, "I knew it, I knew something like this would happen today," she feels a kind of rising release, a sort of confirmation: the gull's maw and desperate grackles and everything bottoming out. "What else," she asks, "what else could go wrong?"

"They want you there," says Maisie. "In Saratoga Springs, I mean. Your sister's flying out from Michigan to deal with the remains."

When the call arrives Claire is making the bed, fluffing up the pillows and folding the duvet; she loves this domesticity, these acts of meticulous habit, and the room is decorated to her satisfaction. From the Léger print on the south wall where light pours in but cannot reach and therefore fade it to the Calder on the west wall and the pot of freesia blooming; from the wallpaper with its intricate pattern of interlocked grapevines and a trellis to the chandelier and kilim rug; from the yellow shot-silk curtains to the marble-topped oak bookshelf, she has positioned it all: the ottoman, the rocking chair, the cedar blanket chest. The effect she strove for and achieved is one of busy harmony, of clashing motifs that nonetheless match, and everybody admires her eye.

Oh Claire, they say, you should have been a decorator, you could have been one anyhow, you have such a feel for design. I do expect, she tells her friends, to live with things I value; it isn't too much to expect, and the world would be a better place if others thought so too.

The whole house is her nest. There are spaces for the girls, of course, and Jim's study on the second floor and his exercise room in the basement, but the master bedroom suite is hers and hers alone. She cherishes the way the color scheme and light and furnishings just work. It's hard to put your finger on, hard to explain precisely why, but when her friends say, Claire, you should have been a decorator, she believes they have a point; once the girls go off to music camp at Interlaken this summer she might just give it a try.

She has thought about this lately: branching out. It would be gratifying, wouldn't it, to put your own individual stamp on other people's houses and to unlock the energy and realize the potential of other people's space. She doesn't need the income and wouldn't want to charge her friends, but yesterday at tea, for example, when Julie Cantor said, what's wrong with this room—standing in what she insists on describing as her parlor and saying it doesn't feel friendly enough and just doesn't make people welcome—Claire understood in a heartbeat that the problem was the lighting fixtures and how they didn't work at all with that overstuffed couch set and the Queen Anne armoire. The Chinese call it, she knows, feng shui, the art of arrangement and setting, and she supposes she must have an instinct for feng shui. It's the way a room gives out on a hall, or the hallway on the porch beyond; it's a matter of proportion and precise location, really, of knowing where and how to situate your things.

When Claire and Joanna were children they liked to play an address-game: let's go to Manhattan, they would say, in New York City in New York State on the East Coast of the United States in the continent of North America and in the Western Hemisphere and on the earth and in the solar system and then the universe and in God's palm. What's God's palm got to do with it? their mother asked, and Joanna said, oh, Mummy, it's only a mailing address. Don't take His name in vain, their mother said, He's not a mailman, girls.

When the call about her mother comes she is unsurprised. Her mother has been dying now for years. Last month in Saratoga Springs, the last time Claire had visited, she understood they were saying good-bye, or would have done so if her mother understood what they were saying. Alice lay in the upstairs bedroom, the one that gave out on what used to be a meadow and now is Skidmore College, lying back with both eyes closed, white hair fanned across the pillow—the hospice woman in the kitchen saying, Your mother is expecting you, she's doing fine, just go right up, I gave her a shampoo—the sheet above her rising, falling with each breath.

"Are you awake, Mom?"

"Who are you?"

"Claire. Your daughter Claire."

Her mother opened one eye. "Who? Claire? Claire."

"How are you, Mom?"

It is peculiar, isn't it, how something you don't notice becomes all you notice suddenly—how, for example, she had taken air for granted and paid no attention to her mother's labored breathing, and then all of a sudden she noticed the sheet and how it rose and fell. Alice had been sturdy once, not fat or plump so much as sturdy, but now she seemed near-skeletal, the long slow declension from congestive heart disease and the body's collapse near-complete.

"How did you get here, Claire de Lune?"

"No problem. I flew from Detroit."

Alice was lucid now. "When?"

"Do you want anything?" she asked. "Is there anything . . ."

"How was the trip?"

"You're looking well," she lied.

The room was hot. The whole house was stifling but this room was worst: the windows shut and sweating from the hot-water humidifier, the space heater turned to high.

"How are the girls?" her mother asked. "How's Jim?"

"Fine, fine. Becky's loving algebra. Everything is sine and cosine and tangent with her lately; I know more about triangles than I ever cared to learn. SOHCAHTOA, for example; it's what you call an acronym. No, a mnemonic device, that's the word. It's something you just can't forget as soon as you remember it, and it's what Becky uses for her test. SOHCAHTOA means sine equals opposite over hypotenuse, cosine means adjacent over hypotenuse, and tangent is opposite over adjacent. Or something like that, anyhow."

She could hear herself babbling, incomprehensible, continuing to chatter about right triangles and similar triangles and isosceles and identical triangles, and how Hannah was finished with geometry and trigonometry and told her younger sister that it didn't matter, she wouldn't ever need to know the word SOHCAHTOA after the test except for, maybe, SATs, which Hannah was preparing for and was a nervous wreck about; she talked on and on about nothing at all (the upright piano they were buying, the amount of snow, the flight from Detroit and how she had rented a Hertz at the Albany airport and it had been no problem, five hours door to door) until her mother's fingers ceased their scrabbling at the bedsheet and she seemed asleep.

Then Alice opened both eyes wide. "How are the girls?"

"They're hunky-dory. You remember that expression, Mom? It's what you used to say."

"How's Jim?"

Claire's husband is the CEO of a string of nursing homes, the Alpha-Beta Corporation. He did not understand why Alice planned to die at home, why she refused the comfort of round-the-clock service and knowing in advance her situation would be monitored, with everything under control. He took it as a personal insult or at least as a kind of rejection that his mother-in-law wouldn't come to Ann Arbor and settle into one of his establishments. When Claire reminded him that Saratoga Springs was home, and Alice had been born and raised in her half-timbered "cottage," he trailed off, cracking his knuckles, saying, "All the same. Round-the-clock care . . ."

"Or she could come and live with us."

He studied her. "If that's what you want . . ."

They have sufficient room. The house is an extravagance, but one they can afford—with Jim's new exercise space in the basement, his Nautilus and NordicTrack and rowing machine, his freestanding weights and Jacuzzi. There's a stereo set with headphones and a StairMaster and mirrors all along one wall and indoor-outdoor carpeting and a telephone. "Jim's Gym," the family calls it, and he works very hard to keep fit. He's down there two hours a day.

The truth is Claire worries a little he's growing antisocial and would rather be doing sit-ups with his headset on than in the kitchen with her and the girls, or at the office even, or a football game. He used to be a booster, with season tickets at the fifty-yard line, and every home game Michigan played Jim would be wearing maize and blue and cheering on the Wolverines until he came home hoarse. When they won he'd come back from the game with no voice left from cheering but—it's how he put it—blissed out. He cared about their coaches—first Bo Schembechler and then Gary Moeller, Bo and Mo, and now the quiet one, Lloyd Carr. He cared about those football teams more than she thought possible—with his flag attached to the car's aerial on game days and his "Honk If Ufer Michigan" bumper sticker and his high-fiving at an interception or touchdown and his outrage when they lost. It was embarrassing, a little, how he and his buddies rehearsed every play and rehashed what happened over beer and huddled like overage schoolboys outside at the barbecue and made travel arrangements to the Rose or Citrus or the Outback Bowl . . .

Now all of that is finished, or anyhow it seems to be; now Jim stays in his basement-gym and works on his pecs, glutes and abs. That's what he calls them, pecs, glutes, abs, and Claire supposes it means something—this new preoccupation—and hopes it doesn't mean that he's depressed. It might just be the time of year: February, football done, and the basketball program so hot-and-cold he doesn't bother with Crisler Arena or the remaining diehards in the stands. When she complained about the blues, the blahs, and asked him if he felt them too he said it's just the opposite, you feel much better after exercise, it's an energy booster instead. Then he smiled that closed-mouth smile of his, the one that she knows means he's lying, and turned the volume up and said, Still got ten miles to go this morning, and started pumping the Exercycle, working up a sweat.

Her mother coughed. The sound was liquid, sputum-veiled. "Who are you?"

"Claire. I'm Claire."

"No, not my little Claire de Lune? My Claire da Loon, remember?"

"Of course I remember," she said.

"I used to make tea for your father. I used to wake up in the morning and turn to his side of the bed—long after he'd abandoned it, long after his side was empty—and say, my goodness, look, I've overslept, I'll just run down to the kitchen and make us tea for two." She smacked her lips. They were colorless, cracked. "How are the children?"

"Fine. Thank you for asking."

"How's Jim?"

Claire fished in her pocket for Kleenex and found one and dabbed at her neck. "He's fine."

"How was the trip?"

And then her mother shut her eyes and truly fell asleep.

So nothing had been accomplished and nothing was resolved. Next morning Claire drove south again, making the flight from Albany and back in Ann Arbor by dark. The girls were at rehearsal for the concert the school orchestra was planning for that Friday, and she ate leftover chicken and a wilted arugula salad and, since Jim had done the dropping-off, collected them at ten. They asked, "How's Granny? How was your trip?" and she kissed them and sent them to bed.

That night she lay awake. While her husband rumbled beside her, oblivious as always to her night sweats and then sudden chill, she stared at the tasseled canopy fringe and the pattern it cast in the hall light's dim glow and tried to assess what went wrong. It was—she had known this already—the final time she'd visit Alice alive. She could remember feeling both pleased with herself for having made the gesture (the trouble and expense she'd gone to, the obstacles she'd overcome) and cheated of its consequence; there had been no blessing asked for or received. Claire would always want something her mother refused, always be asking for some sort of attention from someone who failed to provide it. She had wondered, bleakly, vaguely, if in her old age the roles would reverse, if she would shut her daughters out and they would feel the same way. In the feng shui of her own house she is well- positioned, central, but in that other household irrelevant as dust.

When the call arrives she is making the bed, and it is the lawyer, Joseph Beakes. He introduces himself, and she says, yes, I know you, yes, you represent my mother. He says our office has been doing so for forty years, your father too when he was alive, and we regret to inform you that Mrs. Saperstone expired last night; we were notified this morning by the Saratoga Hospice. He says you won't remember me, but I remember you—your sister and your brother too—when you were learning how to ride and falling off your ponies and getting on again; like yesterday it seems to me, and now you're all grown up.

When did she die, Claire asks, exactly when, and he assures her the end had been peaceful, your mother did not suffer in her final days. The hospice has been wonderful, continues Mr. Beakes, the management of pain is much much better nowadays and the body has moved—been moved—to the funeral home, and are you planning to sit what I think is called shiva and how can I help?

She answers him. Her mother had planned on cremation, the burial service is standard, and they are nonobservant Jews and will not be sitting shiva and her husband is, as Mr. Beakes might be aware, practically in the business because if you run a string of nursing homes you must be prepared for this sort of procedure; she'll call her sister and locate their brother and fly East in the morning and the others of her family will follow in due time.

"Mrs. Handleman? I hope you'll let me call you Claire. We've been trying to contact your sister and brother—Joanna, David—too. Are they away?" asks Mr. Beakes. "They don't seem to answer, or use a machine."

She swallows. He has tried to reach the others first; she is the third of three.

Then Beakes repeats his personal condolences and they schedule an appointment and the line goes dead.

David has been practicing avoidance; he is getting good at it, and better every day. He can avoid, for example, his own eyes in the mirror while shaving; he can avoid the pavement cracks while walking down a sidewalk and all conversation with strangers and the shrill importunities of headlines or the television news. He can say the word rhinoceros and then forget it rapidly; he can choose to imagine and then not imagine a gray mud-spattered charging beast, its pig-eyes and its flesh-clad horns and complicated rolling gait and snout.


On Sale
Oct 15, 2007
Page Count
312 pages

Nicholas Delbanco

About the Author

Nicholas Delbanco has published twenty-four books of fiction and nonfiction. His most recent novels are The Count of Concord and Spring and Fall; his most recent works of nonfiction are The Countess of Stanlein Restored and The Lost Suitcase: Reflections on the Literary Life. As editor he has compiled the work of, among others, John Gardner and Bernard Malamud. Director of the Hopwood Awards Program at the University of Michigan, he has served as Chair of the Fiction Panel for the National Book Awards, received a Guggenheim Fellowship and, twice, a National Endowment for the Arts Writing Fellowship.

Learn more about this author