Sunday, July 03, 2005

The chapter that has been most workshopped

I. Strangers

It was March 17 and Bill Blake had been running away from home for a week. First the forty miles to Boston and some drowning days at the Lenox Hotel, and now two hundred miles north on a bus route designed to torment a snail.

He had passed out somewhere near Portland and as he woke up the bus was hurtling northeastward into the teeth of a gale, far from Massachusetts and real civilization, and he wondered if they’d be able to stop before they plunged into the snarling sea at the end of Gaspé or Cape Breton Island or wherever the hell they were bound.

Oh, he knew where he was bound all right. He hadn’t managed to extinguish that many brain cells, but he couldn’t allow himself to think of the reasons why he was runny-run away.

With his eyes still closed, he distracted himself with the comfortable torment of fishing around in his trenchcoat pocket, grasping tight the silver flask he’d stolen from his mother. It felt tragically light. He sniffed and upended it to get the last fumy droplets of Scotch down the parchèd hatch and imagining the countless hours till the package stores would open and a modest pleasure would be restored to his suffering self.

He groaned from agony and anticipation, in equal parts. Wasn’t Maine a state where the state ran all the liquor stores? Limited selection! High prices! I fucking HATE socialism!

He raged inwardly, and he felt better. Rage seemed to intensify the buzz, gave a sense of liberation.

Bill peeped one eye open. He saw his reflection: sharp-featured, black-haired, deep circles under the dead eyes, the wreck of a handsome face, the slender frame of a small man who drank. He averted his gaze and focused on the passing country.

The roadside revealed nothing to him through the streaky windows, nothing but last year’s weeds and scrub oak branches thrashing. He thought they looked the souls of the damned, because who the hell else would live up here? But that was booze and the pathetic fallacy speaking, he wasn’t that far gone, wish as he might for sweet Oblivion. He was poised to raise the empty flask to his lips.

He looked to his right. The old bag in the stale dress was looking at him with the kind of disgust he would have associated with finding a garter snake in the underwear drawer. He decided to attack head on. He assumed his most Brahmin of tones. “Something on your mind, madam?” He hoped his implication was clear: Not that I think you actually have a mind.

She curled her thin lip and bobbed her flowered hat. “Drunk as a gawd-damn skunk.”

He sniffed her breath. He leaned toward her, crooning. “Well, if you are, you might share your hooch with me, baby.”

She gagged and exchanged looks with the Negro sailor across the aisle. “And he’s been belching in his sleep!” she told him in a stage whisper. The sailor shook his round head in polite commiseration.

Bill liked him anyway, because he sort of looked like Fats Domino. He nodded at the sailor. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Domino. You play some hot piano.” Fats grunted but tried to react politely with a half-grin. Then Fats’s skinny rockabilly buddy farted in his sleep, an apparent commentary on everything. Bill laughed and settled into a kind of half-sleep, still aware of his surroundings, alas, the inside of the bus that steamed with heat and hangover breath, fart-enshrouded sailors, and the armpits of the tired old dame next to him.

He willed himself with drunken irresolution to focus, focus: to focus, yes, on calming images, yes on images and sounds of sun, sea, tawny sand, blue sky and the nudist solitude of Angler’s Island. They lulled him, and at length he drifted off but a distant unsteady voice piped up. It sang boyishly in his ear: Keep away from bootleg hooch / When you’re on a spree / Take good care of yourself / You belong to me

The memory of the song and the singer woke him--a long thin face, goofy in its adolescent longing. He shut him away. He knocked him out and dragged him into an airless chamber behind a bolted steel door. He locked it and wondered how long till he suffocated.

Twenty-five years and the boy’s voice was not stilled yet. But the boy himself was long dead, tongueless in his grave.

Bill curled up in the corner, head at the chilly damp window. He was dozing again when the bus skidded to a stop. A general outcry, a shifting of cardboard luggage. The driver, a Ralph Kramden facsimile, bellowed, “Awright, Fancy Pants, this is you. Selene Hahbuh!” The driver lumbered outside. He opened the luggage compartment and could be heard above the storm panting and swearing as he shoved bags around. The bus shivered until he found Bill’s suitcases. Ralph grunted and heaved the two matching leather cases, imported from France, to the side of the road. He lumbered back aboard and sat definitively in his seat. The bus shuddered still.

Bill opened his eyes, bleared about, and struggled to his feet.

“Get a wiggle on, Shorty, we gut a schedule.”

Bill was sweating from the effort of struggling past the dame next to him, who wouldn’t budge. Her grunts of disapproval got louder and she grimaced so they could see her all the way in the front. Jesus, he needed a drink. “Hey, lady, get up for a goddamned second, will you?”

“Driver, did you hear that? I demand you punish this man!”

The colored sailor said, “Man, you must be a trial to your poor mother.” He went mm-mm-mm, as sadly as Fats sang “Blue Monday.”

The sweat began to trickle down his face in a couple of tickly rivulets, his armpits felt like a miasma. In a minute he’d be stinking like these Great Unwashed. “Come on, lady. Move it!” Then he thought aloud, “Stupid fucking bitch.”

Gasps from the old babes, jeers and hawhaw from sailors who were more shitfaced than he was. Fats buried his head in his hands and shook it with a groan. The woman got up and stood silently in the aisle with an expression like suffering Mary, mother of God.

The driver rose up with majestic slowness and proceeded up the aisle. The bus shimmied and shuddered. “I been listening to you shoot your nasty mouth off all the way from Boston. I ain’t takin’ it no more, you little shithead.” The driver hoisted him by the scruff and pulled him to the front of the bus. Bill’s legs danced crazily along, to general applause and laughter.

“You fat fuck! Get your greasy hands off me!”

Ralph threw him down the steps. “Welcome to Selene Harbor. You pint-size fuck.”

Bill tripped over one of the suitcases and landed on the other with his face in the weeds. He heard the doors whoosh shut and the driver gun the engine.

The cold rain drenched his face. The world’s spin was slowing, and he was grateful for the sobering storm.

No danger of puking! It felt like a prize on “Beat the Clock.”

Bill got up, brushing weeds and pebbles from the Burberry. He got up and stumbled around the dark road, trying to find the other case. He thought he heard them laugh as the bus shot forward, bound for St. Stephens, halfway there on its run from Boston.

He looked at it go, cursing. Rain sailed in horizontally from the Atlantic. Bare trees wildly tossed. Few lights shone in the village of white clapboard houses and 1880s vintage brick buildings in the downtown. The place reminded him of his hometown, but a miniature version. He buttoned al the buttons of his trenchcoat, raised the collar tight around his throat, pulled the hat down around his ears to keep it from flying away. He staggered, not entirely from the weight of his suitcases as he picked them up.

The Son of Man hath nowhere to lay his head! He gritted his teeth at the self-pity of those words. Then he smiled at his own self-pity, because it wasn’t true. He had a place to go. Question was, could he find it? He stumbled ahead in the rain-fed dark. The gale made the telephone wires moan. The crashing of the surf increased with the strength of the rain. Water poured off his brim, blew back into his face. So much for my new $25 Cavanaugh hat. Ruined. God fucking damn it. He was a New England connoisseur of foul weather, but this was really spiteful.

Under one of the few streetlamps at the deserted center of the town, a little square near the harbor, he set down his baggage and pulled a sheet of Lenox Hotel letterhead from his pocket. He squinted at it in the rocking light, cursing as the rain made the ink run: he watched the strong masculine script wash away. Some of the paper’s stored power disappeared with it: it grew cold in his hand.

Up Port et from Market Squ eft to Arm oad. Number 41 on t.

Cursing, Bill threw the paper into a puddle and stumbled around till he found Port Street. He tottered with his cases up the slope to a section of large houses with wrap-around porches and overgrown shrubbery. There was a sign for Armitage Road, and he went up one block, hesitated a moment, then turned left.

He stopped in front of a bulky shingled house that was remarkable for two asymmetrical turrets; they reminded him of the lopsided ears of an ill-bred police dog. The house was surrounded by a single wide porch, which added a brooding secrecy of the place. Rain sneaked past his collar down to his back as he leaned forward to read the sign that swung nervously on rusty hinges: Broadwood Tourist Home.

“Christ!” He dreaded going into such a place. He could imagine the way it smelled. Cabbage and farts.

Bill lugged the cases up the dark and ill-paved walk to the porch. He had to step carefully, because the floor was shifty from rotten boards. He rang the door bell, waited as the rain slapped him in the cold gusts. The house was dark except for what appeared to be one feeble lamp burning far from the front door. It was about 8:30 on a Sunday night.

He rang again. “Where the hell is this asshole?” He shivered again. The cold rain had sobered him up a little too much.

A dim hall light went on. Then a low-watt outside light turned the porch a grayish yellow. A very tall, long-faced man peeked out of the curtained front-door window. Bill wondered if he imagined it—a blink of recognition, then a certain terror on the man’s face. He vanished for a moment. Then he opened the door about four inches and said, “Yes?” The tall man seemed to have trouble breathing.

“I’m Bill Blake. You were expecting me.”

“Ah.” The man’s face registered something like panic. He closed the door for a moment. He opened it again, with as much caution as the first time.

“Would you quit playing peekaboo and open the goddamned door?”

“Ah. I thought you were--Sorry, I--“ The man was wearing a ratty wool cardigan with a shawl collar--gray, Bill thought, like everything else about him--with leather elbow patches that weren’t an affectation. The thing probably dated from the Harding administration.

The man looked at the ground and bobbed his head in apology. “Sorry. Come in. You’re--you’re late. Several days. I assumed…”

“You may assume I’m wet, cold and tired.” Bill wondered if this was the owner of the hideous establishment, or if the towering horse-faced creature was a kind of hired goon. Bill noticed how massive the man’s hands were and saw them snapping the necks of normal men like canned potato sticks.

“Sorry. Come in, please. It’s only that I wasn’t expect--“

“OK, OK, I get it. You’re sorry.” Bill pushed past him and got in out of the rain, at last. “But I did call to reserve a room when I was in Boston last…” He paused a second and couldn’t remember what day he had called, or if he had done the calling himself.

Bill dropped the subject and his suitcases in the hall. He took a critical look around as he removed his dripping coat and hat, handing them to the waiting giant, who openly sought out the Burberry label.

As the man went to a closet, Bill assessed his refuge. It felt like the dreary old dumps he’d been entering and leaving all his life. It smelled like them, too, something composed of dirty wool, wax, moldering books and--yes, of course, how could an author resist this one--embalmed hopes. In the little pool of hallway light he could make out braided rugs scattered around like worn out little islands. Bill sighed.

“Douglas Broadwood.” The tall man offered his hand.

“Bill Blake.” Bill tried not to crane his neck as he shook Douglas’s hand. The man was at least 6-4 or 6-5. He had an expression of inner attentiveness that suggested a life lived mostly in his own skull.

Douglas lifted his hands helplessly. “Supper was some while ago but I—I can heat something.”

“Do. Please.”

Douglas nodded, as if agreeing to a novel proposition. “Follow me. I hope you don’t mind eating in the kitchen.” A chuckle. “I do all the time, of course. The dining room is typically for the guests. We have a pretty full house in summer...” His voice trailed off with no reaction from Bill, who was looking up at him with irritation.

They passed by a closed door. The Ed Sullivan Show blared behind it. An off-key singer was launching into “Till There Was You.”

Douglas led him to the back of the house from the cavernous hall, through the mahogany-heavy dining room and a grubby butler’s pantry, into the kitchen. The keeper of the house gestured for him to sit at a metal table by a pair of large, unshaded windows. A single light bulb (75 watts, tops) burned above a glass fixture that was a fly’s graveyard. The linoleum on the floor had been scoured for many years; the pattern was nearly gone. The chipped and cracked tiles of the countertop needed grouting. The sink’s fixtures pre-dated World War I and dripped. A square of light from the house revealed a patch of a garden that gone to seed. It seemed like a badly-funded public institution. The county workhouse, circa 1915.

Bill sat down hard, glooming inside. It was the bleakest house he’d ever set foot in. If he hadn’t made such a mess of things, he’d have been drinking Port by a wood fire at home, a Federalist near-mansion with a plaque on the streetfront wall, declaring its date (1785) and the name of the man who had it built (one of his father’s ancestors, some rum-manufacturing and -guzzling slave-trader). It was a place of beauty and taste, orderly, clean and well-lighted.

It was almost enough to make him miss Dora, his mother, even though she reminded him of Wallis Simpson, surely the most odious person ever to escape public hanging. He did miss dear old Fanny, who had grown old and gnarled waiting on him and hand foot, ironing his pajamas and bringing him hangover remedies venerated all over Dublin. Too bad he’d burned all his bridges. Too bad he’d had to flee, forever, he thought, from his most horrible shame.

Douglas apologized in his laconic way. “Just smoked shoulder. Bit of Irish cheese. St. Patrick’s Day.”

Bill came to, reluctant to leave his inner tumult and face this flat reality. “Don’t go to any trouble.” He knew he’d be smelling cabbage. Farts coming right up, he thought. Comforting in its way—it was the sort of swill Fanny prepared for them at home. “Yum,” he said sarcastically. Then, more earnestly: “Any Guinness to go with it?”

“Ah. No.” Douglas turned on the oven of the enormous cast-iron stove and piled the droopy food on a plate. He placed it inside carefully, so not to spill any of the runny mess.

Ah. No. Bill mimicked him inwardly and gazed out the window, catching sight of himself. He arrested his gaze and fixed on his own reflection.

He smiled, pleased with what he saw, which was more than a male spinster like his host would ever be able to say. An inch or two shy of medium height, trim, full head of dark hair, chiseled aquiline features, a merry glint in his eye, in his prime at forty, Bill often caused heads to turn wherever he went, with or without the beauteous but vile ex-Mrs. Blake. Men and women alike eyed him with merry lasciviousness.

Bill noted further contrasts between his own compact masculine beauty and the other man’s outlandishly tall, slump-shouldered form, worn out by fifty or more winters. No doubt the wretch bore the burdens of a bitterly disappointed life. He had a head of thinning blondish hair that was well on its way to white. Rather blunt features. Striking green eyes, expressive despite his efforts not to reveal anything.

Douglas seemed to be summoning his energies. The words came out in a rush, almost angry in their intensity. “Mr. Blake, you phoned. You said you’d arrive Friday. I gave your room to people from New Jersey. Retired. Very respectable. They plan to stay a while.”

Bill wasn’t listening; he didn’t see himself staying more than a night or two. He was considering how hat-in-hand to be when he returned home to Dora. Well, he couldn’t deal with that now. Mr. Broadwood was distracting him with his droning. He yawned and gazed about the kitchen, mildly fascinated by its state of decay. Once, in the public library, he’d read a 1907 issue of Popular Mechanics featuring the “modern kitchen,” and here it was half a century later. So this was how the future looked when it was clapped out

“You--you lost your private bath, I’m afraid.”

What? He was paying attention now. He lowered his head and looked up at Douglas with a sort of hooded expression. “Why would anyone come up here at this time of year?”

Douglas gave him an ironic look, the first sign of life. “Indeed.”

“Look. I got waylaid. Detained. In Boston. I--I had some personal business to attend to.” For once the verbal hydrant in his head was shut off with a king-sized wrench. Silence. He struggled back to the conversation. He cleared his throat. “The rate you quoted me--“

“Of course. I’ll reduce it.” Squinting, Douglas totted up the cost of Bill’s clothes, all upper-caste English wool and silky cotton. Handmade shoes, too, all the way from the South Shore. The best Dora’s money could buy. Bill didn’t think the reduction would be very substantial at all.

“You’ll be pleased with the room,” Douglas was saying without conviction. “Best views in the house. Unobstructed. The bay, the islands, the town. I envy you.” This was, clearly, as blatant a lie as any Bill himself had ever spoken. “My own room hasn’t got much of a view.”

Bill did not look pleased. “How much juggling of rooms do you have to do in the middle of March?”

Douglas set the table and started the coffee, which was soon perking on the stove. Its aroma softened the antiseptic smell that contributed to the kitchen’s orphanage gloom. Douglas turned off the oven and placed a tumbler of tap water in front of him, then the heated plate of boiled ham, cabbage and potatoes. Golden globules of fat added color to the over-boiled food.

Douglas sat across from him. He watched Bill pick up his knife and fork, assaying the meal. “How did you hear about us?” He didn’t look directly at him.

Bill watched his profile and paused before saying, “Someone I know came here. To get away from his wife.” He spoke between bites. The food was as bad as he’d expected, and not even thoroughly warmed. Still, he hadn’t eaten anything but doughnuts, hot dogs and Clorets for two days. “Till he could sort things out. Said it was nice. Good place to sit and think.”

“Oh? Who was it--who referred you to us?”

Bill’s eyes were fixed on the windy darkness outside. His heart was racing. He imagined telling one thing, then another, then another. Then his life would be shit, irredeemable shit. And he would have to leave even this terminal place. Maybe he would end up in the sea off Gaspé.

Douglas waited for more information. Finally, with the curiosity of the wretchedly alone, he asked, “And you--are you here to get away from your wife?” He ventured a grin, but he couldn’t shake off his lugubrious air.

“No.” Bill chewed with an angry chomp. “Not my wife. My ex-wife. Not to mention others.”

After a few minutes of silence, punctuated by the dripping of the faucet, the chewing of the stranger and the tinny yap of the TV, Douglas said, “I take it you’re from--somewhere near Boston.”

“Mm.”

Douglas leaned against the sink and folded his arms. He gazed at the floor. Every once in a while he’d peek at Bill, smiling faintly, but Bill returned his looks with a cold stare. Soon Douglas turned around and busied himself at the sink. “We used to go to Boston quite often when Mother was still alive. I remember we went there on our last outing before Mother got sick. We saw that last great silent movie. Sunrise’ was it? Or ‘Sunset.’ Mother cried.”

“Some mothers never cry,” Bill wanted to retort. But he held his tongue.

“Right before the Crash. Lost everything.” A tear glistened in the tall fellow’s eye as he looked around the threadbare place. “The Crash hastened Mother’s decline.” His sight was all inward.

Bill thought out loud, “What on earth would you be like if she had lived? Count your blessings.”

Douglas didn’t hear him. He was lost in the green glades of the past. “Then I took care of my father after Mother…“

“Ah.”

“That’s why I wasn’t drafted,” Douglas said, defensively. “Father was an invalid by then.” He mourned, no doubt for dreams denied, wishes withered, needs annihilated. “He died the day the Korean War started. No. I’m mistaken. He died--”

“Well,” Bill said in a concluding manner. He set his knife and fork on the plate, signaling an end to the meal and conversation. “That was filling. Now…”

“Yes,” Douglas was saying, “I’ve lived here pretty much all my life. Except for college. And graduate school. But I’m fond of it. I wouldn’t live anywhere else now.” Douglas smiled.

Bill had no idea where this conversation had been or was going. This lonely bore was coming alive and acted like he was settling into a good long jaw.

“I went to college down in Brunswick.” He waited for a response. The faucet went drip drip drip drip drip in a crescendo. Then he said, “Bowdoin,” clearly believing that it would be welcome news for the wayfarer.

Bill looked at his watch and made a face that expressed shock at the hour: 9:10. He thought he’d been sitting there three hours, not thirty minutes. And he wasn’t rising to the alma mater bait.

Douglas tried a smile, as if he were exercising disused muscles. “And later I went to graduate school in New York for a couple of years.”

“Really,” Bill said with more interest than he’d intended. The complete sentence had caught him off guard.

Douglas raised his eyebrows, as if to say, Really, and it was quite something.

Bill was more impressed than he let on. He hadn’t lived farther from home than Boston. Home in forty minutes. After he’d been thrown out of two colleges, he’d gone back to Angleport. Even during the war, he couldn’t escape. He was a uniformed clerk at the local Coast Guard station. Thanks to Dora’s influence--whatever that entailed--he was condemned to spend the war in hometown safety with her, his wife and his infant.

New York.” Bill sighed, whether from one of his few Manhattan memories or from a longing for freedom, not even he could tell. But it was time to shift the conversation back to himself. “My editor keeps after me to move there. He thinks I’d get more done. He’s got a pretty sexy wife.”

“Your editor? Are you a writer?” Douglas looked him in the eye, more or less, for the first time. It was like the view from a glass-bottomed boat, into the bright green depths with the brilliant life eddying around.

Hmm. Click. Bill averted his gaze, feeling that the other one was gaining a hidden advantage. The faucet dripped louder still, the drops seemed to echo. He made an effort to sound breezy.

“I am, yes. Guilty as charged.” A self-mocking inclination of the head. Bill was a published author, and he felt fairly certain, drunk or sober, that he was destined to tell a story that would fascinate the world, or that part of it that did not read for mere pleasure.

“You’ve actually--actually been published?” Bill couldn’t read the man’s face. Heightened interest? Fear?

“I said I was a writer. Not a dilettante, a writer.” He bristled.

“Forgive me. What kind of writing?” Douglas was interested, and it seemed to Bill that envy and admiration shone in his hazel eyes. Maybe he wasn’t such a bad sort after all.

“About people.”

“Touché!” A chuckle that disguised a flash of anger. “I meant—what form?”

“Fiction. Choate’s Castle. A novel ‘by an authentic American voice of moderate originality.’ And one slim volume of short stories.”

“Short stories? Second book?” Douglas winced. “Oh dear.”

“That’s what my editor said.”

“I imagine.”

Bill stewed a moment. “I’m working on a third book. A novel.” Bill mimed artistic despair. “Reputedly working on.”

Douglas took time framing his question. “Do you write under your own name?”

“You’ve never heard of me.”

Douglas blushed. Bill thought he was mocking him by hanging his long horse face in submissive repentance.

“It’s all right,” Bill said with strained benevolence, “you probably don’t get The New Yorker up here.”

“Well, of course we do, it’s just that--“

“They bought my first story.”

“Imagine. You must have been thrilled.” His voice seemed serious, but was there skepticism in this half-wit’s face?

“I was.”

“Have they published more of your work?”

Bill flushed. The injustice of it! Those elitist pigs! That coterie of the effete! “No.”

Douglas looked away with a studiously blank expression that could well have been a kind of sneer. Bill saw his own face in the window: scowl.

He decided to add a brighter note. “I guess you think there’ll be whiskey bottles all over the place and ugly drunken scenes--writers, bah!”

“No, of course not, Mr. Blake. I didn’t mean--I’m sorry if I…” He got up and cleared the dishes. He washed them right away. He stood at the sink and talked with his head turned to the side, the better to be heard. “I have known my share of writers. They can be difficult. Their lives are difficult. Often quite interesting, too.” Was there a wistful quality in that? A lovelorn longing? Bill felt interest grow, a prurient stirring.

“The two qualities usually go together,” Bill said encouragingly. What a privilege it was to be both difficult and interesting!

“They can.”

“They do. Two sides of the same coin. The marriage of heaven and hell.”

Douglas missed his cue. Two drips passed, and then he said, “That’s good. William Blake.”

Bill laughed a bit less sardonically than he’d intended. “I know! As if my parents knew what they were doing. Anyway, writers flail around amid all the messy dichotomies of living--cheek by jowl. Fair and foul are close in the behind, or whatever it is that Crazy Jane says to the bishop.”

“I get your point, yes.” Douglas raised his voice to be heard over the underwater sounds of bumping crockery. “I myself have been known to write a little…”

Bill thought it time to nip this in the bud. “Don’t you have someone to do the dishes?”

“Yes. Claire. She’s the one watching television.” A disparaging shrug.

“Which you disapprove of.” Insufferable snob! “Nothing wrong with TV. It’s better than reading junk, which drives work of quality off the bookshelves.”

Bill wanted to bite off his foolish tongue. Who was the insufferable snob now? And the truth was that he fought with himself every Monday night: would he watch Medic or I Love Lucy? Dora usually made the decision: Richard Boone was sexy, so that was that.

“Claire works very hard.” Douglas’s voice took on a warm tone, full of affection. He didn’t seem like the type to be dallying with the help; he was the picture of probity, or inhibition. He stooped over the sink and finished the wash-up. “She often stays late on Sundays for the TV. Off season.”

“Very enlightened of you, I’m sure.”

Douglas pondered this and changed tack. “Every few weeks I like to make Sunday dinner myself and have some people over.” A note of stoic martyrdom crept into his voice. “Very nice little group. The Episcopal minister and his wife, my sister--who divorced and came back to town--and a couple of vestry members. And some other people float in and out, depending on their state of their souls.”

Bill looked at him curiously. He couldn’t see his face, to scan it for signs of irony. Was the man being “humorous” or was he a prig? He had heard that stoic note again, tinged with smugness. Douglas was beginning to seem like the hatefully patient Sunday school teacher he’d tormented when he was about twelve.

“Funny. I thought all Episcopalians were big drinkers.” He knew he was. So was Dora, not to mention the late W. E. Blake, Sr., who drowned by falling off a yacht on the way to Avalon, Californeyeay, three if not four sheets to the wind. “Why wasn’t there any stout today, you know, to wash down the ham and spuds?”

“Some people are better off without it.”

There was a low blow. But Bill pressed on. “Let me guess. The minister’s wife.”

Douglas turned around, drying his hands with the tea towel. “Could be the minister.”

“Well, one or the other, that I could guarantee.”

“You from a clerical family?”

“Merely from a disturbed family in the best Yankee tradition. But no, I do not come from a clerical family. I said disturbed, not divorced from reality. See, the clergy can’t sustain the fiction of belief so they drink in order not to go insane. Dipso facto.”

Douglas ruminated. “I think you’re far too harsh in your assessment of the clergy. And of beliefs. Although there is a great deal of cant…”

“A great deal. Starting with ‘In the beginning.’ And ending with ‘Surely I am coming soon.’”

Douglas looked away, more horsy-faced when he was displeased. “I’ll show you to your room.”

Bill grinned. He’d gone too far. Good. He still hated Sunday school teachers.

Douglas led the way, stopping at the front hall to take Bill’s baggage upstairs. He lifted both of the heavy pieces without shifting his balance. “Follow me.” They climbed two long flights of stairs. The second flight wasn’t carpeted and had squeaky treads.

“Shades of Charlotte Vale,” Bill said.

Douglas glanced back at him, apparently registering something new. “Here we are, Mr. Blake.” He paused and added, “I’m afraid it’s going to be a bumpy night.”

Bill felt his heart skip a beat. Hmm.

At the top of the house, on the right side of a narrow hallway, Douglas opened the door to a chamber with large curved windows. Disoriented at first, Bill realized that it was one of the turret rooms that had looked so interesting from outside. It jutted out into the hysterical night in a grand half-circle. If there had been a fireplace, the draft would have blown out the fire and raised a cloud of ashes. As it was, the skimpy curtains twitched in the gusts that whistled through the window frames.

“Lovely,” Bill said. “Air conditioned, too.” He didn’t regret spouting off a few minutes ago. The son of a bitch deserved all of it if he was going to stick him in this wind tunnel.

“It’ll be better tomorrow. It warms up during the day.”

Bill stood still, shocked at the Spartan ugliness of his new digs. The shop-worn Lenox seemed like a palace now.

Douglas put the bags by the dresser and moved to the door, eager to avoid hypothermia. “There are extra blankets. The bathroom is down a flight at the extreme end of the hall. Turn right at the stairs.” Douglas loomed in the doorway. He ducked his head and shook Bill’s hand. His paw was soft and warm, but chapped. “Good night, Mr. Blake. I hope you enjoy your stay with us. It’s out of the way, but it’s nice and quiet. We like that.” Bill noticed the peculiar emphasis on the last bit. He grunted his good night. Douglas closed the door and creaked down the stairs.

Soon Bill could hear only the surf and the wind moaning in the bare trees. He lay on the bed in dim lamplight, fully dressed. Supper was heavy on his stomach, and he belched cabbage. He wrapped himself in a bulky satin comforter, imagining Jean Harlow. He watched the drafts play with the steam that issued from his nostrils. A water stain spread like shame right below the ceiling.

My God. How the hell did I end up in this place?

As a writer, he of course meant it on two levels.

* * *

Douglas sat by the fire in his study. He smiled at his inner gales, the wild gusts of clashing emotions, set off by the new boarder’s appearance. “Rude bristly little fellow,” he thought. “Face so handsome, so like…” He caught himself, leaving the blasphemous thought unexpressed.

Still, he could have asked him if he would like a nightcap. No, of course, that would have been too forward. Unseemly, even.

Douglas sipped at his Port. He meditated for a few moments, nodding off until the last piece of log sizzled and loudly popped. He forced himself to stand up, finish his glass and get ready for bed. He spread out the ashes, seeming to make and unmake faces of lost friends in the hearth.

Of course, Mr. Blake must go. This was clear. Then he wept in a snickering way, rubbing his eyes with the back of his chapped hands.


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