Saturday, August 26, 2006

CATCH OF THE DAY, CHAPTERS 12 - 14

XII. The Shuttlecock

The tourist throngs came early and stayed. Bermuda’d and sunburned, they crammed the shops and restaurants and even the seedier bars that were normally the locals’ very own. They spent freely; there were fewer Boston people than usual and more New Yorkers. The continued hot weather and the looming recession put them in a desperately festive mood.

Or maybe it was the presence of the film colony, which had descended on the town over the Memorial Day weekend. “Port Scandal” was a big-budget soap opera, and it gave Selene Harbor the alien glamour of a couple of hundred actors, technicians, and hangers-on who were so meticulously groomed, so well dressed, so rich in their expense accounts, that they conferred on the dowdy village a little of their debonair arrogance.

The effect of money and star power was instantaneous. The fantasy of sex galore seduced nearly everyone. Bill knew it had reached destructive proportions when Claire showed up for work one morning wearing “lip rouge,” a hint of mascara and a short-sleeved dress with a crinoline petticoat. She was still sporting her Red Cross Shoes, though.

“Hey, baby. What would St. Francis of Sales think of this getup?”

She almost threw the platter of scrambled eggs at him. “Nothing wrong with trying to look nice.”

Bill rolled his eyes back into his head and whispered, “Sometimes you can look toooooo nice.”

She gave him a hateful look, tossed her head--Bill noticed that she’d been to a hairdresser in a hopeless try at taming her curly black mop, no doubt for the first time in her life, no doubt pressured into it by her bitch of a niece with those sharp eyes and a way of delivering a compliment with a blade. And the damned girl was everywhere, popping in and out of view like some platinum-blonde version of—of what? The Raven? Harvey the Rabbit? The SS?

Claire moved on to a bald man from New York. She said sweetly, “Bonjour, m’sieu, des oeufs?”

He smiled, charmed by the French and the saucy style. “Why, yes, maircee.” He added, “That’s how we always say thanks on the Upper West Side!” Polite titters from around the table. Bill gave him a cross look and thought, Patronizing dickhead. Carol, the niece, flitted past the door to the hallway when the dickhead, who confessed himself to be a public relations expert, was flapping his gums. Whenever this tiresome newcomer was spouting off or humming at top volume along the corridors, Carol was sure to materialize. I’ve got some sharp eyes too, honey.

The other guests paid no mind--they were in high spirits, awaiting the appearance of a few crew members and lower-paid actors, who had contracted to stay for eight weeks at the highest rates. They got the turret rooms. They claimed to adore the views, the old-style charm and so on.

Who said Douglas was a dope at business? He’s raking it in! He pondered, briefly, the law of supply and demand and wondered if insufficient demand wasn’t really the cause of Douglas’s credit-unworthy existence. Rooms are so scarce--he’ll raise my rates, the pathetic prick

Bill listened for Douglas. He thought he heard him speaking to a female guest on the porch.

A few members of the crew entered, laughing about their hangovers. They sat at the table and playfully fought over the coffee carafe on a trivet.

A hush fell over the table, and the tourists tried not to gawk. They had the look of people who were satisfied with the value they were receiving.

The crew reveled in the attention but made no attempt to draw others into their incoherent conversation. They were young and gloried in their supporting roles as servitors to the glamorous. One of them, a broad-shouldered man in a tight polo shirt, referred to as Dave, glanced at Bill and looked away too quickly.

Bill’s heart skipped and he looked away, too. Was that what I think it was? He looked around the table and happened to see Dave flex his thick arms and flick his glance away again.

The civilian to the right of Dave asked, “What’s your job on the crew?”

“Grip.” No explanation. Everyone was afraid to ask precisely what he gripped.

Dave grinned at everyone generally. A good-looking guy of 30 or so, in a rough-hewn sort of way, Bill thought. He had dark hair that had barely begun its recession, a round firm face and a thick neck. He looked like a man who needed to shave three times a day.

Hairy as King Kong. Hung like, too?

He caught Bill’s eye and altered the grin--more leer-like--for a split-second.

Bill flushed and got up, muttering, “Off to work. I’m late.”

Mr. Upper West Side said, “Work? In this vacation paradise? What do you do?”

“Writer.”

“Oh!” He appeared to be impressed. But Bill thought that Dave sneered slightly. Maybe he imagined it; but he had heard that, in the barbaric culture of Movieland, writers were low down in the pecking order. Even below grips, maybe. He remembered what happened to the writer in “Sunset Boulevard.”

“How interesting,” the man from New York persisted. “What do you write? Essays? Poetry? Plays?”

“Fiction. Novels and so on.”

“Really!” Dogged fascination. “Like Hemingway? Faulkner? F. Scott?”

No, like Fanny Fucking Burney.

Bill chuckled like some condescending twit. “Yes. Well. Must be off now. Scribble scribble.” Another horrific chuckle. He mugged in a parody of artistic travail, compounding his own inanity. Dave winked, smirking a bit.

Remove me from this place! Where’s a Deus ex machina when you need one?

Bill went out to the sunny porch and sat on the railing as he tried to recover his composure. Douglas poked his head around the corner and said, “Good morning, Mr. Blake.”

Bill put on his sunglasses, as if Douglas would be able to read his flirtation with Dave in his eyes. He gestured helplessly, as if trying to phrase tragic news. Diversionary tactic!

He took a folded letter out of his shirt pocket and waved that.

“What’s wrong?” Douglas used a softer, less public voice and came over to him. He sat on the railing and blocked the sun from Bill’s face. “You seem upset.” He took the letter and read:

Dear Bill,

I have “my father’s business” to discuss with you. I will be in Selene Harbor over the Independence Day holiday. Wry Beach” is my joy and my cross. I assume that there will be room at the inn. Please be sober.

As ever your friend,

Don W.

“He enclosed a check for $200. That’s milk shake money! What’s with him anyway--there are more Jesus references in three lines than I’ve used in my entire life. These literary Jews love to throw him in your face: ‘He was one of us, and you let him down, too, you anti-Semite.’ Well, here’s another one for ‘em: ‘Father, Father, why hast thou abandoned me?’”

“Don’t be dramatic.” Douglas reread it. “Well, it doesn’t look so good, does it?”

“I don’t trust people who quote the Bible all the time.”

“You just did.”

“’All the time,’ I said.”

“You’re almost at the end of Wry Beach. You have another few chapters and then you’re done. You can finish it by the Fourth. That’s two weeks. Are there new pages to type?”

Bill moaned. “I hate this pressure. I dread his coming.”

“I can assure you that we won’t have a room for him. We’re overbooked as it is.”

“I’ll still have to deal with him, Douglas. Even if he camps out by the road. Don is at least as soft-spoken as you but infinitely more tenacious.” Bill looked at him closely. “Overbook? You?”

“Do you have the pages?”

“No, I do not.”

“You don’t think I’m tenacious?” Douglas’s green eyes clouded over.

“For Chrissakes, Douglas.” Bill got up and stalked off. “Actually, no, you’re not. Think back a bit, will you?”

He walked around the property feeling put-upon, yet lacerating himself as a shirker. Well, there’s a bit of undeniable truth. A shirker. Worthless. A shiftless shirker. Dora’s voice resounded between his ears. “Get with it, Billy. Be a man, for God’s sake, if you have the balls for the job.” Her snidely smiling face gleamed before him, as if she were the Duchess of Windsor at her husband’s funeral (“Rid of that little loser at long last!”)

He writhed around the property, loathing even his own shadow when it fell on the shingled walls of the house. He hadn’t written a word since they went to the beach. Since he went to bed with Evelyn. Since he slept--literally, slept--with Douglas. The only one who was at all happy with things as they were--with him--was Evelyn, who was probably counting the days till her next period and ready to publish the banns when she was a day late, or whatever desperate fat women who wanted a husband did in this stinking hellhole.

He felt somehow--what? Untethered? Cut off from his own deepest truest unfeigning self?

That sad sack of a Douglas had unnerved him with his on-again, off-again manner. Mostly off-again. They had slept together a good part of that night, and the man hadn’t made a move. He had gently picked Bill up when he was sure nobody was about the house, and he had deposited him in the bed of the Sarah Orne Jewett room, tidily tucked in so that Claire would see nothing scandalous when she brought his breakfast tray. All so decorous. Humiliating. As if he were a child who’d fallen asleep on his uncle’s lap.

Nothing since then.

Bill didn’t know if Evelyn had said anything, or if some snoopy neighbor had archly mentioned Evelyn’s randy little visitor. But it was clear to those with eyes to see, like Claire, that Douglas was back to his old ways: he gave nothing away, he was self-contained and discreet to an extreme degree. He conserved his meager stores of natural affability and spooned it out to the paying guests. Those guests, that is, who were paying exorbitant rates, thanks to the hot summer and the hop of Hollywood celebrity.

Now it struck him as so laughably pathetic--now it was Bill who mooned after Douglas, and who always had to know where he was and what he was doing. Now it was Bill who hardly ever left the property and looked hurt when Douglas came back from an unannounced errand or appointment. Now he was the one who knocked gently on Douglas’s door late in the night and whispered his name. And now it was Douglas who pretended he was asleep.

Or, worse, he really was asleep, callously indifferent to the suffering of the soul and body in the next room.

Or, worst of all, he did know of Bill’s duplicity and enjoyed his ashen-faced misery. Bill raged. Douglas Broadwood, public saint, private tormentor. Valmont in a moth-eaten cardigan. I could do a lot better than Douglas Broadwood!

Still, Douglas’s coldness had made it easy to go on dallying with Evelyn. She became a more active and vocal lover every time they were together. Now she was happy not to waste a lot of time going on and on about how happy she felt. And there were none of the usual follow-up hints about making it eternal and legal. Maybe it was because he made such a fuss over her voluptuous body and how it fulfilled all his fantasies, etc. Or maybe she had it all figured out and knew better than to push it.

Certainly, she seemed to be enjoying their erotic play as much as he did, if not more. He had started by coaxing her out of the missionary position and persuading her to let him engage in a practice that was supposedly the specialty of gay Paree. Now she turned out to adore oral sex, all varieties of it, giving and taking. She had a strong, delicate tongue, and she made sure they were both very clean before they went to bed. No orifice would go unexplored, unprobed, untasted.

“Where did you learn to do all this?” he asked, breathless one morning.

“Never mind. A girl has to have a few secrets.”

He supposed he had the disgraced Gary to thank for it; there were good things about having a queer husband after all. He must’ve been inventive with Brunhilde so he wouldn’t have to conduct with his baton. The image made him laugh.

“What’s so funny?”

“Nothing.”

“Oh really?” She started to get playful.

“Ow! Pick on someone your own size.”

“Tell me.” She was poised to bury his head between her Brobdingnagian tits.

“Nothing, actually. I’m pretty happy.”

He kept smiling even though he was breaking one of his own rules. He was determined not to let her get too serious.

“For as long as it lasts, huh?”

He sat up. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Oh, Bill. I realize there’s someone else.”

“Jesus Christ. Do we have to go down this road again?”

She sat up and looped her meaty arm around him. “It’s OK, Bill. I know you don’t love her.

“Well, so relax, if she’s not in the picture--“

She gave him a noisy kiss and hoisted herself out of the little bed. “Another fucking committee meeting. I’m late.”

“What did you say?” He was shocked. The color drained from his face.

“Late for my meeting, silly.”

He laughed, “No. I meant that I’m having a corrupting effect on you!”

She went along with him. “To be honest, I talked like that long before you showed up on the scene. Sometimes,” she said wistfully, “sometimes, you know, I think we fall in love to retrieve something we lost. Feeling free, mostly. And the person we fall for--well, he or she does a good job of reminding us how it feels, that’s all.”

“That’s fairly profound.”

“Coming from a big ox like me, you mean.”

You said it, not me. All you need is the cart, the farmer, and the yoke. He got up and put on his shorts. “Evelyn, I wish you wouldn’t talk like that about yourself.”

She smiled at him and kissed the top of his head. “Sweetheart, I’m not a complete idiot. No one around here is. Not even my brother.” He didn’t know what to make of what she said or the expression on her face.

“Oooh! I need some new polish on my toenails. You don’t think this frosted pink color is too young for me, do you?”

He had spent the rest of that day in a funk. They all have me figured out. I’m the punchline of their nasty little jokes!

This morning, then, he decided to go and gather some material for his book. Maybe he’d forget himself and everyone else as he observed the mechanics of filming a movie in the town square.

The crew had set up early for the day’s shooting. The square looked the way it always did, but there was an unusually large number of 20-year-old cars in the street. They were glossy and new, not the dented wrecks that the local peasants drove out of necessity. Extras and a vast number of people who exuded self-importance stood around looking peevish. A couple of the stars emerged from nowhere laughing and shaking their hair in the sun. Bill and the rest of the gawkers couldn’t get anywhere near them, of course. He watched as they ran through a scene two or three times; someone always fluffed a line.

Most often it was the fey young actor who played the fey young friend of the heroine. Here he was dressed in an Army uniform, and he gave her an awkward kiss before he went away in what would be a vintage Greyhound when they were doing a take.

“Isn’t this exciting?” an old woman in red pedal pushers said to her husband. He murmured assent, cross-eyed with boredom.

Bill turned to leave. Some material here. I’d rather watch Cobb declaim ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade.’ He caught the eye of a strikingly pretty, petite blonde, who was wearing a tarty Hollywood interpretation of how lower-class girls dressed in the New England sticks. She had to be playing the role of the poor but proud girl who fed her rapist-father to the pigs. They’ve got her looking like Daisy Mae for Chrissake. Her hair wasn’t anywhere near frizzy enough to be authentic. Her makeup made her look like an expensive angel slumming on earth. She had a pouty mouth and soft pink lips. Her blue eyes were 20 years older than the rest of her.

And next to her materialized Dave of the flexing arms, who pointed at him and whispered something in her ear. Next to her golden beauty Dave was huge and dark, the definition of male magnetism. H. G. Wells came to mind. Eloi and Morlock. Funny how I go for the Morlock.

She gave Bill another look, more penetrating and frankly appraising. She closed her eyes, leaned forward to show her cleavage, and made a little kissy-face expression. Dave looked at the actress, then at Bill. He raised his eyebrows in a question.

The throng applauded as if this were the performance.

Bill smiled back at Dave and the actress in what he hoped was a noncommittal way and turned to leave. He had to fight his way through the gathering crowd.

“Oooh, there’s Brenda Ballard!” Jill from the restaurant cried, and he put the face and the name together. Confidential had detailed her drug habit (“reefer queen,” “pill-poppin’ baby doll”) and her taste for weird sex, lots of it (“all nite SM orgies with jigs and chinks!”). Hinted she might be a Commie, too, for a well-rounded smear job.

Either she was fucking the Kennedys or she wouldn’t fuck any of the Kennedys.

Bill walked back to Broadwood’s in a state of mild excitation. He thought of Brenda Ballard’s lascivious eyes. He wondered what it would be like to kiss those pouty lips. And he imagined what it would be like to put his arms around Dave, kiss his rough face, release his thick dick from those very worn, very snug dungarees.

Bill sat in the garden, eyes half closed in the heat of the late-morning sun. He congratulated himself on finally not censoring his thoughts, desires. A threesome with Dave and Brenda would be something to remember till the day he died. He wanted it. He wanted them. He wanted Dave mostly, of course. Brenda was there as a garnish, the pickle slice in the beefburger.

“I can do a hell of a lot better than Douglas Broadwood.”

He opened his eyes and there was Douglas before him, caught in mid step carrying a glass of lemonade on a little silver tray.

Bill scrutinized his face but got nothing. He put out his hand and Douglas let the glass fall on the ground. The lemonade glittered in the dried-out grass.

Douglas went inside.

Bill decided to spend the day in town.


XIII. Port Scandal

No this cannot be happening I am in a nightmare maybe I have finally died and gone to my just reward.

“Brenda tries to be a person of substance. She wants to be taken seriously. She’s risen from--well, not humble circumstances--let’s say that they were distinctly middle class, very Readers Digest condensed books. She wants more--to have more and be more. There’s nothing wrong with that, is there? Of course not. This is America which, putrid as it is with fear and prejudice, is a place where you can redefine yourself every two years if that’s what you really want. Invent a whole new persona. Make new friends, live in a new city, do something new to make a buck. Alexis De Tocqueville said that over a hundred years ago, and how insightful he was, don’t you agree?

“Brenda loves artists, she loves men of words. She loves men who can create a new reality with their vision, through the pain and wisdom that they’ve acquired simply by existing on this ridiculous planet. She doesn’t care about looks or a big cock, she cares about the mind, the soul. This is because she has a hunger for knowledge and wisdom.”

“Which is why Confidential—

“Which is why, when Dave told me he’d met a writer at the inn, I had to sit down with you. He told me you were nice-looking too, but he didn’t do you justice. Maybe he was jealous--and envious.” She let that sink in a minute, looking barracudaish. “You’re handsome. And Brenda likes small men. She hates being physically in someone’s thrall. She likes being able to put up a good fight.”

“So you and Dave don’t…?”

She smiled demurely and looked down at her pink umbrella’d drink. “There are times when being roughed up has its charms.” She took a sip and laughed watchfully. “Brenda Ballard didn’t say that. Neither did I.”

“You’re nuts, honey.”

She assumed the mask of tragedy for a moment and sat watching him. “Why say that? Is what a woman wants so unacceptable to men in our society? It’s fairly common for women to like forceful lovers. With thick cocks. It’s the thickness that really matters, did you know that?”

“So does length. But I won’t belabor the point.”

“Spoken like a man with a big load. My honesty doesn’t scare you, does it?”

“You refer to yourself in the third person. That fucking scares me.”

She raised her drink in an ironical toast and said, “So say something literary and clever. Replete your sentences with obscure references. Brenda loves that.”

Replete as a verb? HELP ME. “Where’s Dave?”

“He’ll be along soon. He said he thought you might swing, you know, both ways. AC/DC. I can see that dear dumb Dave was right this time.” Her foot was riding up his leg.

They were sitting in John’s Mariner. The cheesy nautical décor seemed to be a hit with the Hollywood people. That and the pretty staff--Jill’s uniform of short shorts had inched up to reveal, in its latest incarnation, a few bleached pubic hairs. She was looking at Brenda Ballard hungrily at the moment, and she seemed about to suggest an unorthodox arrangement with the two of them.

Bill’s face was burning not for that reason, but because he dreaded being spotted by Evelyn or the Cobbs. As it was, they’d hear about this rendez-vous with Miss Third Person before next sunrise.

She grinned, nodding and cooing, “Ooooh, my boy, you have some fun ahead of you.”

Bill noted, with resignation, that she was acting again. Was always acting. He almost missed the unaffected dopeyness of Evelyn Lamb. He put her leg down.

“I’ll wait for Dave’s leg, thanks.”

“Brenda loves a challenge.”

Bill would love to run home and get shitfaced.

“Fairies and jigs are a speciality.”

He reached out and grabbed her wrist. He twisted and she winced with pain, smiling. “Bye.” He got up.

“Aren’t you paying for my drink?” She rubbed her hurt wrist, eyes glittering. “Anyway, you haven’t told me about your writing. Dave said it was a novel. Are there good female characters? Are they convincing, or simply the typical shitty projections of male vanity? Queero writers are different, though, aren’t they? They understand women better than real men. I mean than real men do. I’m sure they understand real men very well.” She caught herself. “Brenda sometimes wonders if there are any real men. She thinks every man is something of a faggot way deep down.”

“Brenda would.”

She gave him her patented pout and then laughed at it. “I wonder--are there any good parts for women if your book is adapted for pictures?”

Oh, well. As long as she wants to talk about me

Bill sat down. Dave clapped him on the back and sat down next to him.

He put out his hand. “Hey, there…”

“Bill.”

“Bill. So. How are you two getting along? Friendly? Or is Brenda playing one of her bitchier parts tonight?” He flexed his arms and his chest. He smiled shyly at Bill. Bill was looking at the chest hairs peeping out of a round hole on Dave’s turquoise jersey.

“Bill thinks Brenda’s weird because she refers to herself in the third person. You do know what the third person means, don’t you, Dave?”

Dave rolled his eyes. “Oh, boy. Babe, how much have you had to drink?”

“Not much. I like to keep a clear head when I’m getting it from both ends at once. I’m not one to dull my own pleasure.”

Dave gave her a skeptical look and turned to Bill. “Brenda likes to shock people. She’s really a sweet girl--as sweet as she looks.” Another smile with a beseeching quality.

“She looks like a spoiled brat, actually.”

Dave glared at Brenda. “She really is not a foul-mouthed bitch. A bit of fame and a couple of stories in the scandal sheets, and--”

Eckshally. Veddy British of you, Mr. Fruit Writer.” Brenda laughed and shifted in her seat. She was probably running her foot up to Dave’s crotch.

Dave looked at Bill seriously. “We sure have our work cut out for us, huh?”

Bill sat staring at the table. “I can’t do this. I can’t be with these people.”

“You know, we’re right here.”

“Good. Then Bill won’t be inexplicably rude when he walks the fuck out.” He stood and pulled his hand away from Dave’s warm grasp. His touch reminded him of Douglas.

* * * *

He tried one more time. One last time he knocked on Douglas’s door and gently called his name. The clocks began striking twelve. He waited till they had ceased their unsynchronized din and called him again. No answer.

That’s it, damn you. Damn you, Douglas. I’m done with this. And you.

He looked up the stairs to the third floor and saw Dave. He had stopped a few steps up and was turned to look down at Bill. There was only a dim light on, and Bill couldn’t read his expression.

Dave descended a couple of steps. “Bill,” he whispered. “She said she was sorry. She had a bad day. I didn’t know until you left. Alla Trotter tried to get her fired. She gets like that when she’s scared. Brenda does, I mean.”

Bill grunted.

“She wants to see you. She wants to make it up to you. She’s really a swell girl.” There was a note of pleading in Dave’s voice, again. Bill waved him away and went into his own room. He switched on his desk lamp and pulled out his notebook. So miserable I might as well be productively miserable. The refined specter of Don Wassermann hovered over him, as beady eyed and all-seeing as the Raven. It was a warm night, but he shivered.

The clocks were striking one when he heard a scratching sound, like a rat in the wall.

“Bill.”

“Who is it?”

“Sssh. Me.”

Bill opened the door a crack. He was looking at Douglas’s shirt front. It was wet with sweat, and he could see Douglas’s nipple through the thin madras.

His breath smelled of gin. He was far less sober than Bill. “Please.”

He opened the door. He went back to the desk and picked up his pen. “Well?”

Douglas advanced into the room with a few side-to-side steps. He stood swaying over Bill and raised, then dropped his hand. “You hurt me this morning.”

“Thinking out loud--never a smart thing to do.”

“No. Not so much that.”

“I could do a hell of a lot better than you.”

“I’m sure. It wouldn’t be hard to do.” Douglas slumped down on the couch. “I was out on the porch and saw the way--you and that burly fellow, Dave… You’re very handsome together. I felt a stab in my heart. I still do. My heart hurts when I think of you and him. Of you and anybody.”

“Am I supposed to apologize?”

Douglas was silent.

“Twice you’ve taken me to the brink and dropped me. You’ve done it for the last time, Douglas. This little flirtation is over. I’ll screw anybody I want to, male or female. I’ve been screwing your--“

Douglas raised his hand. “Why?”

Bill’s turn to be silent.

“I know why.”

“Do you?”

Douglas nodded. He started to cry.

“This must be a family trait. No wonder you’re both alone. Mopey, depressed assholes.”

Douglas got up.

“You leave this room and I won’t speak to you again. You can go back to your fantasy man in New York, the beatnik or whatever the hell he is. You can jerk off the rest of your life. Compose stupid letters you’ll never send.” Douglas looked astonished, then embarrassed. “OK, go then. I have to finish this fucking book.”

“How did you know--“

“Claire’s got a big mouth. She also worships you. And she’s more efficient at cleaning up your waste paper than you are.”

“Oh God.” Douglas began weeping again. “I’m such an old fool.”

“No fool like.”

“Don’t, please. I feel rotten enough as it is.”

“Ah, the imperturbable Douglas Broadwood shows a new side!” Bill hiccupped as an editorial comment on Douglas’s boozing.

“Keep your voice down, please,” Douglas begged.

Douglas, I don’t think I care anymore. I don’t think we’re fooling anybody. I think everyone’s figured us out.”

“’Us’?”

“Us. Us, you big faggot. Us, here and now.” Bill tried to pull Douglas’s head down to kiss him. Douglas pushed him away.

“I’m not ready. I can’t--I can’t, Bill.”

Bill pushed him onto the sofa and jumped on him. “You’ll never be ready unless I make you ready, you chicken-hearted piece of shit.” He kissed him hard. He ripped the buttons off his shirt. Douglas put up slack resistance, and he whimpered. Bill stepped out of his gym shorts and whipped Douglas’s face with his cock. Douglas turned away and sobbed, whispering, “Not like this, Bill, please, not--“

The whimpering infuriated Bill. He grabbed Douglas’s wisps of hair and pulled his head back. “Shut up. Shut your stupid mouth. I’m sick of this damsel in distress routine. Fucking old queer! It’s bullshit bullshit bullshit.”

Douglas controlled himself. He got very still. His green eyes gave Bill their old melting look. Bill got quiet and watched him closely.

“I love you. Don’t be like this. This isn’t what love should be like. Please, Bill.”

Love. Jesus, here we go again.

Bill let him go. He stood looking outside for a minute. Then he threw his polo shirt on the floor and got into bed. “Get over here.” Douglas turned off the light and undressed. Bill felt the mattress dip wildly when he got in beside him, like when a boat’s about to capsize.


XIV. The Dialectic of Desire

Oh his little boat capsized all right and he swam and dove all night in hot green tropical waters the color of a man’s eyes, he grew gills, he breathed a new air, he held onto spars that rolled on the roiling waters, he lost his grip and he went under and he came up and then an electric eel nosed its way into him, charging him with a volley of pleasing shocks, and then he floated free again in a world of calm swells and then came more violent tempests that bruised and tumbled his small smooth body deep into this ocean of sumptuous terror, and he swam up out of it and was deposited on the wet mattress and reeking sheets of his room at 41 Armitage Road, and he lay in the long gray morning twilight dazed and spent, pleasantly fucked out, wondering if he was really was the transformed being, the Jonah of buggery, that he had most feared and almost hoped he would become.

And as he swoffed between sleep and waking he remembered that sometime in the stubbled dark of the night there was revealed to him an unknown being composed of an avid mouth that licked his face, gigantic hands that caressed and cupped and stroked, and a wave of solid flesh that crushed him from behind, and it growled out its excitation, then sang his name in a rocking swell of new lust.

And soon after the first coming but well before the second, the metrics of power, the dimensions of superiority, of the tactical advantages of height and weight and cock and the armor of language dissolved, and even taste and smell and hearing and most especially desire its holy self was burnt up in a consuming roar of skin that left only one passion in a kingdom where there was no distinction between desire and expression or between the glimmer of a want and its whole gratification.

At the end, exhausted, they looked at each other in a stuporous state of incomprehension. He broke the silence after a time, afraid he hadn’t been pleasing, that he hadn’t measured up in some important way. He asked Douglas, “Well, how was it?”

Douglas stirred and turned his head to look at him, opening his green eyes with a noontime brightness shining from them. “Oh. Oh, my dearest l–“

“Good, good,” he said quickly. “Me too.” He stretched up and kissed Douglas’s neck, licking the salty dried sweat on his skin. He sighed and rested his cheek on his clavicle.

They embraced, unwilling to let go of this special dispensation of grace, unable to heave it into the world of dripping faucets and drunks quarreling in the road. They lingered, without more words, but the night magic slipped away as they dozed off in exhaustion.

Bill slept fitfully again. Soon he was listening to the birds wake up. He fell into a disturbed reverie, where he saw Gwynne’s petulant face in a yearbook photograph, in which she wore only a string of pearls as the tops of her nipples peeped over the edge of the print, and the picture was crumpled, white creases showing through the glossy black-and-white emulsion, and it burst into flames and it blew away in a gust that stirred the sheer curtains and brought inside the grassy smell of dawn.

He woke again, a little, and felt the heat radiate from Douglas’s huge frame. He looked to his right and saw a wall like the White Cliffs of Dover, like Urizen himself, the strong back and colossal shoulders of the sleeping man. Bill nestled into him, trying to place his cock, still half hard, by his bum crack. He looped his arm around his stomach and found his lips were resting against the middle of Douglas’s back.

               The head Sublime, the heart Pathos, the genitals Beauty, the hands & feet Proportion.
            His own body felt childishly small and weak next to Douglas’s reclining vastness.  The sense of it mortified him.  It stimulated him, too, the image of them together, one tall and broad with sprawling long arms and legs, and the other compact and cock-heavy.  He tingled where Douglas had been.  Now he had an unrelenting hard-on of unprecedented sensitivity, wired directly into his blood supply, it seemed, without stopping for analysis and editing at his brain.                
            He hath stuck a Pecker up a Man’s bum Hole and lo! it was good.

He moaned a little as he pressed into Douglas’s large round ass. He understood that he’d been denying himself this pleasure for far too long. And he regretted the truth that materialized like a messenger from above: his thrashing, boozed-up existence had been a drawn-out diversionary tactic to keep everyone from knowing what sort of bird he really was. Especially himself, of course.

An arm reached and turned him over. He woke as his face met the tickling hairs of Douglas’s chest.

Douglas stroked his back and neck. He whispered, “How do you feel?”

Bill shrugged. He spoke into Douglas’s nipple. “Like shit.”

“Me too.” Douglas bent down and kissed his head. “No, in all truth, I--I feel as though I--I’m happy.” It sounded as though he caught himself before saying am in love.

Say it then. What could happen? He found himself not recoiling from the idea.

The cool breeze was blowing the curtains around as if they were benevolent, mildly disoriented ghosts.

Douglas sat up and gave him an affectionate, almost proprietary smile. The timorous librarian was nowhere to be seen. With surprising boldness, Douglas reached for Bill’s cock and stroked it till it was fully erect. “Oh, my…” Douglas’s own modest tool was limp but swollen to a promising reddish thickness from its workout. With a shock Bill saw that it wasn’t circumcised like his own. Bill’s fingertips dabbled with the foreskin, and it stirred. He noticed there were bits of brown stuff dried on the skin, and he dropped it, slightly repulsed by what this signified.

He struggled bravely to master his revulsion. “Well. I guess we went all the way, didn’t we? What shall we name the baby?”

Douglas leaned back and shut his eyes, smiling his Etruscan smile. He ruffled Bill’s hair. He sighed and whispered. “I must get up.”

“It’s not even five,” he said indignantly. The spell was breaking indeed. Blunt Thursday (Wednesday?) was already tapping its foot, waiting for its scrambled eggs and toast.

“Full house. Lots more work. Day and night.” He didn’t move. After a dozy few minutes he said, “I’m sorry but…but you’ve got a very nice one.” He laughed at his own habits of apology.

Four decades of Dora’s conditioning made Bill wary of any praise, especially when it came to things sexual. He fended off his joy at Douglas’s admiration. “You say that to all your conquests.”

Douglas gave him a squinty face. “What?” He turned away with the aggrieved huffiness of someone who has been wrongly accused of something. “I wish you wouldn’t talk that way. It’s beneath you. Beneath me, I should say.”

Bill poked him in the ribs, kidding around to cover his own confusion. His emotions were still loosely bound with the cords of sleep and memory. “It’s just that you surprised me with your expertise. I didn’t expect such…mastery. But it was my first time in this area, so…” He shrugged. He grinned, waiting for a protest of “your first time, it can’t have been your first time, you have a natural talent for this kind of thing!”

Douglas merely gaped for a moment, then said, “Didn’t you ever do anything like this before? Not once--in school or something?”

“No,” he scoffed. “What do you take me for?”

Douglas raised his eyebrows skeptically. “The same thing I am.”

There was a strange complacency in this, and it irked Bill to think that Douglas might glory in being more advanced or competent than Bill himself. He said, a bit spitefully, “By that you mean a full-fledged fairy? Complete with gauzy wings and a trilling little soul?”

Douglas gave him one of his ‘Incorrigible Bill’ looks, laughing silently. “I’ve never met anyone so brutally reductive as you.”

Bill sat up and looked him in the eye. He was about to say something but stopped short. He liked the superlative of ‘most brutally reductive.’ He said, “Thank you, Douglas,” with only mild sarcasm.

Douglas smiled, looking out the window at the first bright sun of the morning. He held Bill closer. They spent a few quiet moments, gazing outside at what Bill assumed was the same spot.

“It’s strange,” Bill said in a near whisper.

“What is?”

“This is so--I don’t know.” He figured it was better to finish the thought inside himself: So fucking wrong. And so fucking good.

A robin was sitting on a branch not ten feet from the window, warbling its little aubade. Douglas regarded it intently, saying, “It’s a gift from God. Take it and be grateful you’ve experienced it some time in your life. And that you recognized it when it came your way.”

Bill almost flinched when he heard “a gift from God.” If this was from God, he had to revise his opinion of God, and maybe even do some begging of forgiveness. He looked up at Douglas, who was afire with a new glamour, a cresting, confident beauty. “Do you really believe in God?”

That didn’t come out right. I’m not actually buying any of this bullshit.

But of course he was. And he celebrated inwardly when Douglas said, “I believe in God. Yes. Now I do.”

This has to be a first. I have turned someone to God. He had a brief image of himself as St. Bill the Baptist, pushing a mob of men under water and making redemptive love to them, waggling his magically healing staff over their heads, one at a time.

Douglas held him close and kissed him with a companionate tenderness, tinged with a playful irony, which belied the months of secretive torture that he must have been going through, and which marked the decisive appearance of a new Douglas Broadwood.

Bill had been going through the same torture himself, sort of, sporadically; even in his own head the sneering pose wasn’t working. This sudden happiness had come at a cost, and the payments weren’t all made yet, not by a long shot. Indeed, there was now a kind of smugness in Douglas’s looks and actions that irritated him. He wondered what would happen if this suffocating contentment went on too long.

“Now I do have to go downstairs, my love.” Douglas disengaged himself from Bill’s slender little limbs. He put on his dirty underclothes and tiptoed to the door.

Bill gave him a forlorn wave and hummed “Now Is the Hour.”

Douglas smiled wistfully, as if he really were sailing far across the sea. He shut the door very gently behind him.

Bill closed his eyes and began to drift again, feeling languorous and deliciously achy. He wondered what it would be like to live with Douglas--to be open about their kind of relationship, to fall into pleasant patterns--pleasanter than the ones they’d already fallen into, by far…as long as the centerpiece of all remained Douglas’s devotion to his talent and comfort. He imagined Douglas coming back into the room with breakfast on a tray, which Douglas would eat in bed next to him while he picked at Douglas’s plate of toast and cantaloupe and drank a gallon of superb coffee. (He made a note to tell him about the deplorable quality of the brew he served now. He still was a paying customer, after all.)

He dozed a bit more and had tumultuous visions of Douglas following him like a St. Bernard, salivating happily as he, Bill, accepted the Pulitzer Prize, and as he made charming small talk--very small--with a soused Mamie Eisenhower at the White House. He saw them flying a BOAC jet plane here and there, pampered and plastered in first class, and all the accolades and all the prodigiously liquid occasions in every corner of the English-speaking world, with appreciative laughter after his every sally of wit, every trenchant observation about the State of Literature Today.

But his visions clouded when he thought of the return home--home being Selene Harbor, Maine, 41 Armitage Road, in the unburied dead of winter. Sunday mornings in the off-season eating jam on dry toast in silence…listening to Russell Cobb witter on about Simpole’s Damascene Conversion every fucking January…enduring the pining looks and sniffling innuendos of an ever fatter Evelyn Lamb over endless flavorless mirthless Sunday afternoon pot roasts served without wine. And especially he dreaded the Sunday night bill-paying sessions, when Douglas would take a wee cup of tea and gloom on about the sorry state of the bank account and fret over the sorry state of advance bookings for summer and the coming collapse of the heating system, which Bill thought had already happened. Oh, and of course, could Bill please go easy on the Glenlivet or buy a cheaper brand, please, DAHling.

He woke up enough to recollect that Sundays with Gwynne--and Dora--had been far worse than anything he could imagine in Selene. Tense, resentful, silent, punctuated by the verbal strafings of three people who couldn’t stand themselves, and the intrusions of that nutcase kid, who came in every three or four hours, regular as clockwork, to demand some sort of attention, which none of them could stand to give him. Certainly in those charmless days he had not had the consolations of Douglas’s ardor or the look of unalloyed love that Douglas had bestowed on him when leaving the room. Or the delight of a strong male body next to his, and the hairy physicality of it all, plus a serving of coq en cul, included on the American Plan. He had experienced nothing like this, nothing. Ever.

It occurred to him that he didn‘t know whether to be thrilled or horrified. Love, he thought--if it was that--love is such a crushing burden.

Oh, God, this was complicated, and it no longer seemed a simple force, as powerful as the tides in Fundy, which it had been all through this petered-out night. Oh course not--already he was back at his favorite activity, this recessive rummaging around in the ashcans of his personal history. We who are doomed not to escape the nightmare of history pick through our own trash.

The impulse to laugh at himself died when he thought of the advice Don, the editor he loved and feared, had given him:

“Bill, you really need to see a headshrinker. It’d help you to discover why you--who you are and, well, why you tend to foul your own nest.”

A daunting prospect, lying on a couch and delving into the past, years and years of this tedious self-deconstruction and for what, precisely?

“Shit,” he muttered. He turned over on his back and pulled down the sheet. He was sick of thinking, sick of the endless rehashing. Sick of all the scenarios of better living through progress or chemistry or red-white-and-blue manliness or whatever they were pitching this year. “Shit!”

He shut his eyes and beat off so he could sleep another hour or two. He tried to imagine Douglas kissing, handling, humping him. But the face, the hands, the body and especially the cock belonged to Dave the grip, then Father Purefoy, and climaxed with Captain Parnell. Despite all the activity of the night, he came in a couple of minutes. He shivered all over as the seminal fluid burst forth, hitting him first on the chin as he moaned and thrashed around, as if the denied passions of 25 years--as if the long line of frustrated men he’d flirted with had forced their way into the room and were demanding satisfaction at long last. Oh, yes, he wanted to give it to them, he wanted to be generous now that he’d fallen into this delicious degeneracy, he wanted to share every inch he had, and all he could imagine doing to handsome virile men, lots of men, men he didn’t know, men he’d meet tomorrow in a bar or public bathroom, men of many colors and sizes, as long as they had a mouth, a cock and an asshole.

He felt his heart rate slow. He looked down at the pearly clots of come on his belly and around his bush. He noticed there were brown flakes on his cock, too. This made him smile as he fell asleep, whispering, “Captain Bill.”

Bill got up and showered around 8 o’clock. He went downstairs bright and fresh, if a bit light-headed from the depletion of his juices, humming Elvis Presley’s joyous remake of “So Glad You’re Mine,” and went straight to the sunny kitchen. He avoided the dining room and the risk of having to deal with Dave.

He poured himself a cup of coffee and was standing at the window over the sink when Claire came in with a loaded tub of dirty dishes.

“Oh. It’s you.” Her eyes were rimmed with red and her voice shook. She brushed past him--almost through him--and he stumbled to the side, spilling a few drops of coffee on the linoleum. “You are late to begin writing. Or are you already so tired?”

“Is that a rhetorical question?” He thought it a better response than Mind your own fucking business. She muttered something that sounded suspiciously like Fous-toui. He opened his mouth for a demolishing retort, but Douglas bustled in, looking haggard from work and lack of sleep, yet smiling the goofy smile of the blessed. He gave Bill a merry roll of the eyes as a hello.

Carol called in from the pantry, “Claire, please bring Mr. Weisbrod his miel de lavande.”

Claire shrugged in resignation. Douglas said to her, “The film crew needs another pot of coffee. I’ll start soaking these dishes. Don’t worry about the bacon--we’ve got plenty. I’ll put on more scrambled eggs.” He went on and on with all the tedious details of satisfying the guests’ expectations. Claire was planted in front of him, looking at the floor with a hangdog expression, quaking for want of a Pall Mall and a good cry.

It occurred to Bill that she was more angry than sad. Either way, her big honker was red.

Douglas stopped filling the sink and leaned down. He spoke tenderly. “Claire, you needn’t worry about me. Everything will be all right.” He gestured towards Bill. “He’s really a wonderful… Tout sera bien, très bien. Et rien ne changera pas pour toi.

Carol flipped open the pantry door. “Now!”

Claire nodded, miserable, unconvinced. She went to the cabinet and rummaged for Mr. Weisbrod’s honey. She took it into him, forgetting the coffee.

Bill made a face at her back. “Well, good morning, you all happy peppy people. I hope the guests aren’t catching what ails her.”

Douglas was working at the sink. He looked outside pensively. “Claire has had a trying life. A life of trials, to be precise. This is home to her.” He smiled at Bill. “You’re shaking things up for her, too, you know.”

“Not just me,” Bill said.

Douglas acknowledged that with a rueful smile. He rinsed off a large metal serving dish. “Could you dry this, please?”

Bill moved away and sipped his coffee, attempting to seem abstracted. “She doesn’t even live here. How can it be her home?” He sounded irritated. He felt irritated--put out as much by Douglas’s indulgence as by her self-pity.

Douglas pursed his lips and reached for the tea towel hanging on the refrigerator door. He dried the serving dish himself. “Could you do the next one, Bill?” His saintly patience was wearing thin--he sounded irritated himself. “We really need to get these servers filled up again. It’s the busiest hour.”

WE? WE need to? Filling the trough is OUR problem now?

“Where the hell is Carol at this moment? Sucking off Mr. Weisbrod under the table?” With the ill grace of a teenager he took the tea towel and waited for Douglas to rinse the dish.

He’d omitted this little scenario of blessed domesticity, hadn’t he? Who would’ve believed that Douglas would move so very quickly to enlist him in his squalid inn-keeping chores? So much for his being the loyal amanuensis of a working author. This was the slyly smiling, laconic Douglas Broadwood in true form, wasn’t it?

Bill dried the next several serving pieces, aware that he was doing a sloppy job--though it was no sloppier than Douglas’s; in his haste he was washing fast and incompletely. There were bits of scrambled egg stuck to the insides--burnt-in bits of bacon--little trails of soap suds.

Douglas’s face darkened. “We have to take her feelings seriously. I have a tender regard for Claire.”

“Why don’t you rein in that obnoxious Carol then?”

He shook his head, as if pondering a deep riddle. “I don’t know what I’d do without her.”

Bill saw Claire stop at the door, holding it open a couple of inches. He spoke louder. “You mean Claire is merely useful to you? I guess she is, since you both work her to death.”

Douglas looked confused and displeased. “What’s got into you?” He went Bill and took him by the shoulders. His eyes searched his.

Bill smiled and shrugged him off. “Better not.” He nodded at Claire, who was still peeking in from the doorway.

Douglas turned around and motioned for her to come into the room. She approached them slowly, staring at the floor as if in deep thought. Douglas put his arm around the tiny, wretched woman and drew her to him. “There are all kinds of love, you see.” He said it looking at Bill, solemn and gentle.

Claire shook and pressed her face against Douglas’s shirt, which was sticking wet against his ribs. Then she turned away and dried her eyes with a tea towel, staring somewhere out the window. “J’peux pas travailler parmi les homosexuels.”

“I can’t work among a bunch of queers.” That’s what she said, isn’t it?

Bill’s face blazed red. He felt more ashamed than angry. “I’m going out.”

“Bill, wait.”

Bill was out on the porch before Douglas recovered enough to say, “You always run away when things get sticky.”

Bill put his hands to his head and said, “I do not!” And he turned and hurried down the steps to the walk.

He caught a glimpse of the sunny scene inside the dining room, where Dave was watching him with a knowing grin on his brutish, attractive mug.

* * * *

This transparent excuse sickened him, of course--no, he really wasn’t an utter fool, he was aware and conscious of his venality and self-indulgence--and he headed to the package store as soon as it opened at eleven.

He stopped short when he reached the main street that led to it. The film crew had set up there for a day’s shooting, and the route was closed to the public. The usual excited crowds behind notional barricades of rope and saw horses, the usual self-absorbed actors, the usual unattractive, snarly director and his instantly reactive minions. He scanned the scene for Dave and Brenda, but they weren’t around.

Thank Christ. I don’t want to deal with any horseshit from anyone right now.

He turned to go back around the corner and approach the liquor store from the other side.

“Hey! Watch it, honey!”

He bumped into Allie Cobb, who gave him a knowing grin. “Hello, Mr. Blake. This is quite a morning, isn’t it?”

He peered upward as if reading the clouds for omens. My shitty luck.

“Guess so.” He began walking away, but she fell in step with him and laughed in a peculiar way. “What’s so funny?”

“Oh, nothing and everything.” She scrutinized him as if counting the blackheads on his nose.

His heart was sinking. In a village of two thousand people, even the most sublime bedroom secrets had a mysterious way of becoming known and discussed in lip-smacking detail within an hour of the last toilet flush.

Allie took his arm and laughed a trifle less ominously. He imagined that they looked like a moderately unhappy couple, a handsome young husband saddled with an older, boozy frau whose only claim to privilege was a fine set of cheekbones.

“It’s a lovely morning, I think. A good day for new beginnings. A good day for true things and open hearts. Cause for merriment, and a bit of celebration. It’s never too early for that, Mr. Blake. Come to that, it’s never too late. You know the old expression: Life begins at forty.” She waited for her volley of intimations to hit home, but he wasn’t reacting. She faltered on with a watchful, “Ars longa, amor brevis or something like that.”

“Did your life begin at forty?”

Allie let go of his arm. She barked out a hollow laugh. “Don’t let’s talk about me.”

They went around the corner under a double arcade of majestic elms, away from the buzzing gawkers and the self-conscious bustle of business done in public, with all the tedious layerings of plays within plays. On the deserted little street Bill was aware that they were starting to assume a more relaxed posture, and Allie’s expression was again bland and ironic. She said, “I called Douglas early and Claire picked up the phone.” Silence. “She seemed agitated.” Silence: Bill looked straight ahead. “She told me Douglas was exhausted but quite happy. Said he had a glow about him. You know--the way a bride is reputed to look on her wedding day, or should I say, the first morning of her honeymoon.” Silence. “Mr. Blake, are you there? To what would you attribute such extraordinary behavior on his part?”

Bill watched the long boughs of the elm trees droop lower in the mounting humidity. He saw a haze building up, unusual for this hot, exceedingly dry summer. The observations she was reporting didn’t sound like anything Claire would say--she had to be interpreting liberally on the merest scraps of information. Or she’d been dishing the dirt with Carol.

They sauntered around the corner and saw the liquor store a couple of short blocks ahead on the left. Holy Apostles was far to the right, all but its front porch hidden by houses and trees.

“Mrs. Cobb, you seem to have figured everything out without my telling you a damned thing. The reason for Douglas’s joy, etc.”

“Of course,” she said. “No one acts or says anything without a highly specific reason; there is no such thing as an unmotivated action. To say so is to lack information. Or a sympathetic imagination.” She gave him one of her searching looks. “What I can’t figure out is how you feel about it. I think the happiness is one-sided. I think you’re going to hurt lots of people by the time this is done.”

“Well, then, who’s likely to limp away from me most wounded? Me?” He tried to sound sarcastic to match her unblinking irony, but he was afraid his curiosity got the better of him.

“That should be obvious. ‘You always hurt the one you love.’”

“Thanks for the profound wisdom, courtesy of the Mills Brothers.” He looked around sourly, as if he could foist her on a good-natured tourist.

“I could quote the Bible, but I’ll leave that to the professionals.”

Right on cue, Russell Cobb drove up in his perfectly maintained 1941 black Buick and tooted the horn twice. He leaned out of the window and cried, “What a gorgeous day! Did you see the film crew--and Alla Trotter! It was worth being detoured to see the great star herself!” There was no irony in his voice. He bounded out of the car and gave Bill a two-handed shake, then leaned a little to the left to kiss his wife chastely on the cheek.

“You make a lovely couple. Should I be jealous, dear?”

“Oh no, Russell. Hardly.”

He laughed, his molars showed. Bill had to look away.

“Are you two off to the package store?”

“Yes, dear. Why else would we be walking together on Elm Street?”

Russell calmed down and considered this for a moment. “Indeed.” Then he brightened and turned to Bill, who was starting to inch away from them. “Bill, I want to invite you--if my better half hasn’t already--to a little celebration at our cottage up at the lake. Oh, it’s not for several weeks yet, but we’d love to have you join us.”

Allie shot Bill a look. “Oh, yes. Do come.”

He grimaced and looked at Russell. “What’s the occasion? An AA convention?”

Russell threw back his head and guffawed. “Touché! As a matter of fact, it’s the day of my dear heart’s nativity.”

Bill went, “What?” He had an image of Allie in a creche, peering with wizened cynicism at a flock of blond, green-eyed camels and lambs.

“He means it’s my birthday,” Allie explained. “Russell, why don’t you speak English when you’re not wearing your collar?”

“Dear heart, it’s part of my charm.”

“Ah,” she said, bland irony turned way up high, “that’s what it is.”

Her husband laughed and drew her close to him. “We’ll send a proper invitation in the mail. It should be the event of the Selene summer season.” Standing together, arms about each other’s shoulders, for a second the Cobbs looked equally engaged and ironic, vital and glamorous, handsome and united against the world.

Bill made haste to break the spell of their complacency. “OK, let me get in there before you buy them out. I’m going easy on the sauce these days. Writing, you know.”

“Of course,” Allie said, amused by his non sequitur. She bent closer to her husband and tilted her cheekbones to catch the shadows exactly right, almost as if she meant to taunt Bill with her femininity in the grip of her husband’s taut virility.

He left them and bought a fifth of Scotch. He ignored them when they passed one another in the store’s entrance, as Russell called out, “Have a blessed day!”