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The Afterlife of Emerson Tang: A Novel

The Afterlife of Emerson Tang: A Novel

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The Afterlife of Emerson Tang: A Novel

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Mar 12, 2013


A mystery surrounding a vintage car lies at the heart of this “moving, psychologically complex” novel of life, death, and history (Providence Journal).
A beloved car becomes a piece of us—a way back into our histories, or forward into our destinies. For Emerson Tang, the only son of a prominent New England family, that car is a 1954 Beacon. A collector—of art and experience—Emerson keeps his prized possession safely stored away. When his health begins to fail, his archivist and caretaker is approached by a secretive French painter determined to buy the Beacon at any cost. But they discover that the Beacon has been compromised—and that its importance reaches far beyond Emerson’s own history.
Soon they run into another who shares their obsession: the heir to the ruined Beacon Motor Company, who is determined to restore his grandfather’s legacy. These four become unlikely adventurers, joined in their aim to reunite the Beacon’s original body and engine, pitted against one another in their quest to claim it. Each new clue takes one closer to triumph, but also takes these characters, each grieving a deep loss, toward finding missing pieces of their own lives.
A fast-paced ride through the twentieth century—to modernism, fascism, and industrialism, to Manhattan, a German zeppelin, a famed concours in Pebble Beach, and a road race in Italy—The Afterlife of Emerson Tang takes us deep into a complicated automotive romance. A novel of strangers connected across time, through a car that is so much more than a car, it asks us what should be preserved, what memories to trust, and whether some of the legacies we hold most dear—including that grand contraption, the automobile—can be made new again.
“Passionately written . . . Champa delves into individual souls and emotions in her riveting, layered tale that holds its surprises right up until the end.” —Providence Journal
“A vintage 1954 Beacon car is the axis around which four characters revolve, trying to accept and resolve each of their sorrows in Champa’s vividly detailed debut . . . [an] intellectual yet deeply human examination of what it means to live as well as to die.” —Booklist
Mar 12, 2013

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The Afterlife of Emerson Tang - Paula Champa


Part I

The Body


I AM A WOMAN WITH no fingerprints. No patterned ridges to leave a trace of myself in a waxy coating of furniture polish. Nothing to press into an inkpad or scan with a computer eye. I am undetectable, a model of discretion. And I am human. At least I was during the time in question, with a bellybutton attesting to my birth thirty years earlier, a first and last name (Bethany Corvid), and ten fingers that were otherwise so ordinary as to pass without notice.

But—the ends. This was where the erosion of the self materialized. And if the ends of my fingers lacked the usual loops, whorls and arches, my other human qualities must have amounted to nearly as complete a blankness. That’s how it felt when the whole business started with the car. I didn’t know about my missing fingerprints then. I only sensed the blankness on the inside. Maybe you know what I mean: When someone you care for is dying, you can feel the emptiness of losing him even before he’s gone. I had no idea how many ways grief could rob you before it gave you something back. Sometimes I imagined myself a ghost, like the ghostly figures woven into the carpeting of the Royalton Hotel in Manhattan, where the artist Hélène Moreau established her provisional encampment that June of 1996.

If I’d had the talent of ghosts to haunt lobbies and hallways, to drift freely across oceans and eavesdrop on lives more definite than my own, I could have spied Hélène a few days before I came to meet her at that hotel, when (as she would later recount to me in frank detail) she was still waiting on a sofa in the office of Manfred Zeffler in Schnell, Germany, world headquarters of the automaker AG, AG.

Ghosts are close. They observe things: how glumly Hélène lifted the mug of coffee Zeffler had set in front of her . . .

I can picture Zeffler’s manicured hands tapping his phone as he told Hélène he wished she had called his office first, how he could have saved her a flight from Paris.

These are what we have. He stooped awkwardly at his desk to read to her from a few sheets of paper, as if those thin pages could have relieved Hélène’s obvious sadness. "The car purchased by a Mr. Alto Bianco in Rome was ordered on the ninth of October 1953. Chassis number 39212. Alto Bianco—"

And the color? Hélène interrupted in German, ignoring Zeffler’s neutral choice of English in addressing her.

He consulted the records and replied in his native tongue: They called it Egg Cream Custard.

What about the interior, was it red?

Scarlet leather, yes.

He handed her the page to see for herself.

Do you . . . Her lips were quivering. I don’t think this helps me. I thought you might have something else.

Of course. With a sigh of futility, Zeffler consulted the second sheet of paper: The car was one of the last left-hand-drive models manufactured in 1953, road-tested and approved for export to Italy on Wednesday, the twenty-third of December—

He glanced up. Hélène appeared to be lost in thought, resting the coffee mug against her cheek. Zeffler winced as she moved it to her lips: Emblazoned on her face was the lighthouse emblem of the Beacon Motor Company, the perfect reverse of the logo molded onto the side of the mug.

Was she branding her cheek on purpose?

He must have sensed she was not the type of collector who would be satisfied with anything as easy to locate as some substitute model. No, the drop-ins tended to be fixated on tracking down one particular vehicle, its chassis stamped with an identifying number as unique as a human fingerprint. Ambushed by Hélène’s pleading gaze, Zeffler was like a postman whose customer was begging him to open the mailbox so she could unmail an envelope. A love letter posted too hastily, perhaps. They always wanted something back. Something disguised in the shape of an automobile: a memory or a person they knew, a way of life they once had—or never had, and still coveted.

He offered the remaining sheets of paper to Hélène for her inspection.

But where is the car now? she asked, blinking wildly, turning over the pages.

That information is not in our current database.

Hélène’s chin sank to her chest.

When we acquired the Beacon trademark three years ago, we consolidated the production records and archives to form the Heritage Trust, Zeffler explained. You understand, with Beacon having been dormant since the factory closure in England in 1976, this was an act of corporate generosity on our part. We intend to register the current owners of the classic models as their identities become known to us. That will be phase two of the Heritage Project—

But I’ve come all this way.

I am afraid we have no ability to locate the current owner, Zeffler said. Are you aware that our new Beacon Heritage Museum has recently opened to the public? There are some fine examples of the type 135 roadster on display. He reached for the employee map on his desk. It’s just here.

Inside the tiny, well-ordered Beacon museum, proceeding from one wall text to the next like the Stations of the Cross, she encountered among the polished bits of chrome and glass the first motorcar to bear the lighthouse badge. On a wall nearby: a painted portrait of the company’s founder, the late George M. Beacon, in middle age. An earnest-looking man with the resolute stance of a wrestler.

Like many of his fellow engineers who had been children in the First World War, George Beacon spent his second set of wartime years dreaming of what he would build when the fighting was over.

In 1947, at the age of 44, he formed his own company, with an uncompromising focus on the engine—what he considered the soul of the sports cars manufactured by his fledgling Beacon Motor Company . . .

That boy—

What was it about the child in the photograph? No more than seven or eight years old, he was seated with Mr. Beacon in one of the company’s models, not smiling, not posing in any way. At George Beacon’s side, the boy was concentrating with great intensity on what was being said. Even the ends of his hair appeared to be standing at attention. The boy wasn’t aware of the camera, only the direction in which the older man was pointing: forward, to some unseen splendor.

It was the last image on display in the museum. Still meditating on the photograph, impressed by the bravery she detected in the boy’s face, Hélène heard her name and turned to find Manfred Zeffler striding through the exhibits, the panels of his suit jacket flapping like pinstriped wings. In his fingers he held another sheet of paper.

Well—I found something for you.

With a flurry of words—not in the database, had to search the files, take my own time to photocopy—he explained that someone in his office had corresponded with the current owner of Beacon chassis number 39212, purchased the previous June at auction, through Bonhams. He could offer her no further information, but he was pleased to provide her with a copy of the public auction record.

It listed my employer, Emerson Tang Webster, who at that moment was drifting into a morphine dream in his loft in Greenwich Village—four blocks from the private garage on Perry Street where he stored the same magnificent machine.

Hélène wept during a swim in her hotel pool that evening and on her flight to JFK the next morning. As the jet touched down, she reached into her handbag to cradle her souvenir from the Beacon gift shop—a 1:43-scale model car.

And so it started, the race for a car and an engine that ended in a collision not of vehicles but of fates. Emerson’s, mine, Hélène Moreau’s, the boy’s in the photograph—our stories collided so forcefully that they cannot be pried apart. We’re like an Ambiguous Figure, a trick image with multiple parts. You might see, for example, the silhouette of a chalice in the center of the page, but when you shift your gaze to the edges of the frame, another image is revealed of a man and a woman facing one another. Their profiles form the outline of the cup, suspended between them, as if to seal a solemn pact they’ve made. Whether you notice the man and the woman, or the cup, they’re all part of the same picture—and more than that, the shape of one is determined by the others.

I can illustrate with a second example, using a paintbrush of Hélène Moreau’s that ended up in my possession: Here is what appears to be an old woman. She is troubled by some memory or sorrow, her chin sunken to her chest. But look again and you may also detect the outline of a younger woman there, to one side. The girl is turned away, shy, unwilling to show herself fully. Both figures are present—they’re composed of the same lines. What you perceive is a matter of how you read them.

It’s the same with the lines here, composed of letters and words, running along page after page connecting one event to the next. In the end, it’s impossible for them to reveal the shape of Emerson’s afterlife without revealing my own, or the fate of Hélène Moreau or the boy in the photograph, who was a grown man by the time she went off in search of the old car. Our stories cannot be separated, any more than they can be separated from one final image I must not neglect to share here, at the outset.

Look, and you may detect, peeking through the lines, the disquieting face of an Asian woman. At first you can just make out the slight curves of her forehead and nose; her cheeks, smooth but for the scar on one side where she fell to the ground from exhaustion. Here are her eyes, fixed in a hopeful stare, eager to take in their share of wonders. And the red bow of her lips—sealed, like her fate, by famine. She is part of the picture as well. The car brought us together, but it was grief that joined us, really.


I HAVE NO RECORDS from the Royalton Hotel from 1996, no way to calculate how many days and nights Hélène Moreau passed in that midnight-blue cocoon before the turpentine fumes that trailed in her wake made their way through the corridors for a final time, alerting the housekeeping staff to a recently departed room. This lack of records is an embarrassing oversight, for during that summer—during the business with Hélène and the car—my life was consumed by record-keeping: I was employed as a professional archivist, contracted by Emerson Tang Webster to manage his photography collection. And by the time his collection was disbursed I had become the archivist for the man himself, the custodian and conservator of one small part of his life—namely, his death.

Years later, as a souvenir, Hélène gave me a Royalton message slip, a crisp study in Helvetica folded once and tucked into a royal-blue envelope. It reads:


From this artifact I can trace the start of things to the day before, Wednesday, the nineteenth of June, when Hélène phoned Emerson’s office from Penthouse B and reached me. I recognized her name, though not as anyone Emerson did business with. It was unusual for an artist of her reputation to contact our office personally, instead of having her gallery or an assistant do it. What was not unusual was for me to tell her that Emerson wasn’t available. For the most part, he’d lost interest in talking on the phone the previous autumn, and any gallery or museum people who needed to reach him spoke to me. I asked Hélène if she wanted to leave a message.

Of course.

And that is?

I just told you. I’m in New York.

It was hard to know if she was being rude or if she’d simply misunderstood.

To meet . . . , she continued. When he’s available.

Coffee was mentioned. Her voice was French-accented, but I didn’t hear it that way. What I heard was weariness punctuated by a smoker’s staccato coughs, like an engine struggling to warm up in the cold.

While Emerson slept on the other side of the loft, fed by a morphine drip, I picked through my mental file on Hélène Moreau. A painter. Postwar avant-garde. Her early canvases in the 1950s had received the most attention: the Speed Paintings, named not for how quickly they were painted, but because she’d used speeding cars to create them. From what I remembered, not a drop of paint had been involved in the transaction. They were gashed canvases, studies in motion—the pure violence of an automobile moving through a medium that could do nothing but record its presence. Large in scale. Primitive. Void of figuration, they presented the unpresentable in negative form.

The Speed Paintings had been celebrated enough to warrant reproduction in art history texts forty years later. I wanted to group Hélène Moreau with the Abstract Expressionists, but I didn’t think she was catalogued as part of the school. She’d been young when she made the Speed Paintings. Then? Nothing. No strong impression of her later work. I had barely heard her name since my college art history classes.

I wondered if she was still making art. The possibility made her phone call more curious, since it was known in art circles that Emerson had sold his important paintings eight years earlier, on his twenty-fifth birthday. All the proceeds had been used to fund his current collection, devoted to photographs of Modernist architecture. It was this collection he and I were preparing to dismantle via his Last Will and Testament.

Of the many indicators of my employer’s decline (his doctor’s records show that by then he was 63 inches tall and weighed 90 pounds), I mark the point of no return by the condition of Emerson’s bookcases. Daily, more and more of the books on his bedroom shelves were transformed into a menagerie of medical supplies: boxes of Triad alcohol pads, basic-solution tubes, plastic fluid paths with regulating clamps . . .

It began one night with volumes of Hemingway and Eliot and Woolf, catalogues on Brancusi and Duchamp, tomes on the great buildings of Europe—they all abandoned their former shapes in order to lie down and become finger guards and disposable syringes, boxes of rubber gloves, Sani-Cloths soaked with a patented germicidal solution . . .

What I mourned most was a bound monograph on the painter Edward Hopper, a volume I had not paged through, never even took down, but one I’d always admired for the simply embossed name on the spine in a font that, like the artist himself, had no pretensions. Now that too had disappeared, changed into a heparin flush kit for the Hickman port in Emerson’s chest.

It was one of the night nurses, Maria-Sylvana, who led me out into the living area to show me that Emerson’s books had not wholly disappeared. Rather, they had journeyed from his bedroom to form a bibliographic Easter Island across the hardwood expanses of his loft.

I didn’t drop any, Maria-Sylvana assured me on the way back to Emerson’s bedroom. I’m making sculptures.

She pulled a thick volume from a shelf overcrowded with tubes and, with its weight distributed across her hands like a tray loaded with champagne flutes, glided out into the hallway, got down on one knee and laid the book in place with the same care she used in handling the wasting parcel of bones and tissue that comprised Emerson himself.

Maria-Sylvana had unearthed a spiral-bound notebook amid the clutter on Emerson’s bookshelves. From what I could judge by the dates inside, it was the sum total of everything he had written down in college. In the same spidery hand I recognized from his to-do lists (and his things-done lists, in the manner of Caesar Augustus) were passages he’d copied down in preparation for assignments that he would have punched out later on a typewriter:

Philosophy of the Person            (due 4/5/82)

example: Sartre, War Diaries, notebook 3, page 51

– to be barricaded within stoicism = positive

– he is cowardly, grumbling but still a HERO

– a hero who will die screaming and begging for mercy but without confessing*

(an attractive idea, to which we can all relate)

* what they wanted him to confess

The bulk of the entries dropped off steeply after 1984, his last semester at NYU. It amused Emerson to see the notebook again, so I left it on one of the shelves, along with the battered jewel case of his On Fire CD by Galaxie 500 and everything else in his Merritt Parkway Driving Music stack.

Not that he could drive anymore. By the time Hélène Moreau checked into the Royalton that summer, his thighs and calves had begun to show bone—all the more noticeable on days when edema caused his ankles and feet to blow up like balloon animals, the skin straining over them the color of ripe citrus. On lucid days, he would review whatever decisions he had left to make. He kept signing documents until the morphine ate his muscle coordination and the arcs and dips of his signature grew closer and closer, then shorter.

That was how his identity disappeared from him that summer, like the stiff black hairs that would not stay attached to his head. His identity fell in clumps from him—his memories, but also his cares. If he went through denial, anger, bargaining and depression, there were days when he was in a kind of bliss, with one of the home healthcare workers, Brian or Zandra, rubbing his back, or me reading to him from the Times while his own blood and waste seeped out of him, dark and metallic-smelling from the meds.

Emerson woke in time for the six o’clock news, refreshed but pin-eyed from the morphine. I gave him the phone message with his evening antacid.

Hélène Moreau called your office earlier. The artist. I didn’t want to be condescending, but sometimes the meds confused him. She phoned personally. She sounded tired.

His opiate slur was still wearing off. What’d sesay?

She’s here in the city.

He snapped his head around to face the doorway.

She wants to meet you for coffee, I went on, watching him.

Dishe say when?

Do you know her, Emerson?

His only response was to raise his arms in the air like a child waiting to be picked up. Then, with a kick of his feet, he propelled himself out of bed. He brought his hands down onto the rails of his portable toilet and balanced himself there as he tucked a cashmere lap blanket around his hipbones, sarong-style. I watched him move away from the handrails. Steady tonight. Relatively steady on his feet. Zandra was in the kitchen eating dinner before her shift ended, and Maria-Sylvana wasn’t due until 7:30 P.M. There was nothing to do but follow him, follow his deliberate pace through the loft, follow him and try not to step on his blanket as I bent to rescue his morphine pump from the floor. It was a small plastic cartridge, the size of my old cassette Walkman, attached to one of the medical ports in his chest by a length of silicone tubing. Left to its own devices, it trailed behind him like a dropped leash.

Where are you going?

The eternal question. One I asked whenever he went mobile without apparent direction. Not that I couldn’t understand why he preferred to drag himself to one of the bathrooms in the loft; pissing into Tupperware was unappealing at the best of times, and walking was one of the few forms of exercise he had left. His physician, Dr. Albas, encouraged it whenever she saw him. But that night he wanted to go to his office—even farther.

I tended to his opiate train as we crossed the hardwood spanning his corner of Greenwich Village, a loft space stretched across the second floor of two abutting buildings. The brick façades, facing Charles Street on one side and Bleecker on the other, had been maintained in their original nineteenth-century aesthetic, but inside was a different story: Sometime in the 1980s, Emerson had gotten the maze of rooms on his floor demolished, along with some sections of the common walls. His office and a collections-storage area now took up most of one building, with two bedrooms in the other. A kitchen and living area occupied the canyon in the middle, where moveable screens displayed the custom-made enlargements from his photography collection. On permanent exhibit was a trophy wall of Modernist residential architecture—his fantasy neighborhood: stylish, radical, mechanized and clean.

At the start of one curated streetscape hung a portrait of the architect Alvar Aalto’s modest home in Helsinki, along with a photo of a more elaborate villa he’d designed for friends elsewhere in Finland. The two residences faced one another agreeably across the polished hardwood. And from this gateway of sorts, the house photographs continued down the block alphabetically, by architect, in the minimalist frames Emerson used to surround every lot in his personal subdivision—each one fitted with a picture light sculpted from wire to resemble a miniature street lamp.

He lingered over a Marcel Breuer house with a cantilevered wooden deck, then shuffled past a portrait of the travertine house that the architect Gordon Bunshaft had built for himself and his wife in East Hampton—the architect’s only residential design. As it is logged in the Accession Register, the photo was taken by the great Ezra Stoller in 1963, one year after the home was completed. (This structure now exists only in photographic form; it was razed some years after Emerson’s death.) We continued down the hallway, with Emerson mumbling to himself.

Had photosofaces. Once . . .

Until the meds wore off, it always sounded as if his lips were stuck together with peanut butter. I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right.

Faces? Not houses?

His narrow back and shoulders convulsed in a shrug.

Sonlyone. Now.


No! Nophotosofaces! Faces uhavtaleave. Only—afacesis . . . gone . . .

Who’s gone? I asked, convinced he was hallucinating when he answered:

Whichouse dishegoin?


He stopped suddenly.

Whyermy books outere?

That’s Maria-Sylvana. She’s been stacking them.

I hoped a general answer would satisfy him. If he hadn’t noticed the latest surge of medical supplies on his bedroom shelves, I didn’t want to be the one to point it out to him.

Isse readinem?

Well . . .

Teller to movem out.


Theydon matter.

They matter hugely! We just used them yesterday to look up that Alfred Parker house in Miami, with the snaky indoor pool.

Umaybe attachtoem Beth.

I am not!

Outside, the days were growing longer with the unfurling greens of summer. But inside, with all the shades pulled down at Emerson’s insistence, the progress of the new season was barely perceptible. His speech cleared as we worked our way along the hall. He was in a contentious mood.

Homes aren’t machines, he fumed at a villa by Le Corbusier. Not castles for defense either, he added, shuffling ahead. Or symbols of prestige. Ask Schindler— He pointed down the hallway, in the direction of the S’s. Homes should be capable of flowing with your life—encouraging better living. His pace slowed. Until your life ends. Then you have to stop. Then you have to pull over to the side of the road.

The trees outside, thick with leaves, cast shadows over the shaded windows, giving the impression that dusk was falling, though the miniature streetlights had not yet come on for the evening.

This idea of life after death, Emerson said, turning to me. This legend. You want to believe it. But what if it’s a lie?

It was a conversation we had been having on and off for weeks. His lucidity on the subject was inversely related to the strength of his morphine doses.

I don’t believe it’s a lie, I told him. But who can blame you for not wanting to find out? Your life is your story. Of course you don’t want it to end.

He nodded vigorously. And when you die, do you even know how it ends?

In the office, he slipped down so far into his desk chair that I had to prop him up with sofa pillows. He got himself settled at the fax machine, positioning his legs on either side as if he were going to drive it, before commencing an agitated transmission.

I watched from my desk behind him. Can I do that for you?


My head felt heavy. For a moment I mistook the morphine pump beside him for a pack of cigarettes. My eyes were closing.



Busy! Emerson bellowed. In the middle of the night.

It’s just past dinnertime now.

No, in Europe.

Who are you faxing?

It made me crazy to see his morphine tube tapping against the fax machine as he punched the buttons.

I took care of the Schindlers yesterday, I reminded him.

Tap, tap. Tap. Silence.

San Francisco took them.

Oh? he asked distractedly.


No response. He evidently had no recall of the bequest I had been working on for two months—one of the last groups we had left to finalize. Or maybe, like the books, he didn’t care about his photographs anymore either.

Who are you faxing, Emerson? Can I do it for you?


Tap, tap. Tap.

But thank you, Beth.

I pulled open the sturdy brown-board cover of the Accession Register and prepared to work on the Transfer of Title documents.

Accession Number: ETW 1992.8.3


– Print depicts the street façade (angle approx northwest). See also: beach façade (west), accession number 1992.8.2. See also: interiors, accession numbers 1991.102.5–1991.102.7.

When Emerson got tired of the busy signal, when he had slumped so low that the fringes of his blanket were splayed out on the floor, he let me roll him back to bed in his desk chair.

I knew Emerson for the same reason everyone in my hometown knew him: He was the first Asian boy we had seen in real life—the only child of Chinese ethnicity registered in the Burring Port, Connecticut, public school system in the 1960s. I was born two and a half years after him, in the same hospital, named for his family, and raised along the same few square miles of New England coastline. By the time we came face to face, my older brother Garrett had already shared a kindergarten classroom with him. Whatever my brother’s impressions were, they are lost to time. I only know that, for me, Emerson was the object of unparalleled fascination, the evidence of a wider universe beyond the one I knew, though I could not articulate it at the time. Was this how the ancients felt the first time they saw a comet?

My family wasn’t part of the town’s social set. We lived in the outer planetary rings of Burring Port, in a wood-shingled, two-story house built on land that had been subdivided in the 1940s and, after a brief lapse in zoning restrictions, shared ever since with the low brick headquarters of an electrical supply company. At the far end of the property, passing trains shot through the green frame of our back yard, advertising a regularly scheduled temptation of escape in one of two directions, east or west.

But even outside the Websters’ circle, some things about Emerson’s family were common knowledge. Not long after graduating from Yale in the late fifties, Emerson’s father, Lynford Webster, had gone traveling in the Far East and returned with a Chinese wife. The year he met his bride, in the midst of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, the race to transform Communist China into an agricultural and industrial power had driven millions of citizens from their remote villages to cities. Emerson’s mother had gone farther. Along with a shipment of Chinese cotton, she’d made it to Hong Kong. Mr. Webster imported her to the United States, and Emerson was born in 1962.

In my memory, Lynford Webster is filed as a curiosity at one of my brother’s school recitals: a slight man with black, bushy sideburns, and disappearing into them, a pair of eyeglasses with round rims and straight sides, so heavy

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