Sunday, July 03, 2005

Recently edited, less workshopped than Chapter 1

II. Arcadia in the Sleet

Bill knew he was in trouble. When he woke up in the frigid damp room he was as sober as he’d been in a year. He was at a low point in his life--a Time of Crisis, as Time magazine would pontificate--with nothing in view to change his expectations for the better. The Broadwood Tourist Home, from its Depression-era name to its tattered gentility, did less than nothing for his mood. And a stroll around Selene Harbor the next morning failed to raise his hopes.

Bill supposed the little town was pretty enough in the summertime, when the paltriness of the houses and the dowdiness of the little commercial district might be camouflaged by a canopy of green and some potted flowers. And at that time of the year the ugliness of the local inhabitants would be diluted by the throngs of prosperous outlanders who thought inbred New England backwaters were darrrrrling and so Early American. To him this place was Angleport writ small and even more down on its luck. It oppressed his soul. He walked around the workaday town feeling like a once well-off refugee, both glad to be safe and discouraged by his refuge.

Still, dinky Selene had its saving points. The state liquor store was a six-minute walk from gloom house, and there were five little eatery-taverns that served the fishermen and other rugged menfolk. Bill lost no time introducing himself to the bartenders and waitresses, leaving generous tips, spreading his custom and affable charm around. He thought he scored further points by not adding to the dreary banter they had to put up with every day: Drink, pay, leave. Don’t wear out your welcome. He never knew when the publishing house would stop the advances or when Dora Blake would cut off his allowance. He’d call in his markers at the right time.

After a busy morning and lunchtime laying the groundwork for his future well-being, he headed back up to 41 Armitage Road. In the cold, sunny light of midday the place lost its air of menace. There was a frowzy grandeur about it. All of wood, like a rambling dacha, it mixed classical and vernacular styles. Charming in its shitty way,” he told himself. “Really.” He tried to imagine the property in summer, when the trees and shrubs would add a jungly lushness to the place, when butterflies and genteel songbirds, not the repulsive starlings and jays that woke him up every morning, would flit about during the long honeyed northern days. He imagined Chekovian tableaux in which pale young women dressed like Gibson girls would sigh for St. Petersburg while the men drank philosophy and smoked revolution.

He smiled to himself. In July the place would still be a dump. Still a magnet for losers.

Bill huffed and sighed up to the porch. He saw the little Canuck cook or maid or whatever she was. Claire was shivering as she smoked a Pall Mall down to the last half-inch. She looked funny and gnomelike, wrapped in her employer’s cardigan, which hung down past her knees.

“Jour, M. Blecque. Comment ça va?” Her thick joual accent was more than his high-school French could manage.

“Je vais mal, merci, et vous?” he said in a hillbilly accent.

Claire laughed. “Ah ah ah ah ah!” She looked like a little smoke-belching anteater with her big Canuck schnozz. “Your French lesson for today, hein?”

“Claire, have you ever been to Texas?”

“Moui? Non, jamais. Why you ask?”

“You’ve got the damnedest accent I ever heard. Tex Ritter meets Edith Piaf.”

She laughed heartily, ending in a coughing fit. “Oh, M. Blecque! Quel rigolo!”

“Sure, baby, whatever you say. What did I miss at lunch?”

“Escallop potatoes and--“

“Smoked shoulder from yesterday.”

“Oui.”

“Well, I won’t get fat here.”

Claire laughed less mirthfully at this reflection on the house and, in principle, herself. “You got any cigarette?” she asked in a low voice. She’d smoked this one till she burned her fingers.

“No. I do a lot of nasty things, but smoking isn’t one of them. Je regrette, chérie.” He saw her hostile look but ignored it. He went inside.

“Oh, Mr. Blake! We missed you at lunch!” Douglas was running around with the Electrolux. Bill noticed that he moved swiftly, gracefully for such a big man. He chased down dust balls with eager determination.

“I had some business to attend to!” Bill shouted over the machine’s noise. “And you’re so industrious! I hate being underfoot!”

Douglas stopped and looked at him, concerned. “But you requested the American Plan!”

“Yes! And?” Bill struggled to hear over the machine’s racket.

“You aren’t getting good value for your money!”

“I don’t mind!”

“You don’t have to stay out of the house all day! You’re a guest here! Feel free to relax!”

Bill heard genuine worry, almost as if Douglas had detected a moral flaw somewhere, probably in himself. “Well, maybe tomorrow I’ll lounge around the parlor all day! When you’re not causing such a ruckus! You might change your tune then!”

Douglas smiled with a courtesy practiced over the years. “I doubt it!” He finally shut off the vacuum cleaner, unplugged it, and ran up the stairs two at a time on his safari for dust kitties. In a minute the machine made muted noise in one of the better guest rooms.

Grateful for the quiet, Bill sat down in the parlor. He fell to musing about how he’d got to this place, in all senses of the phrase. Mellowed by three-four glasses of Ballantine on draft, he considered it a blessing of sorts that he’d landed here in this remote place. A place that seemed cut off from the grasping world, where the pace of life was more 1907 than 1957. No Dora, no ex-wife and no mentally defective son to remind him of his “role in society” and his “responsibilities” and “growing up” and “child support.” No editor tracking him down to nag him about his progress in work and the obligation of the writer to those who sustain his meager style of life with mingy advances.

He let out a deep sigh and thanked God he wouldn’t be subjected to any of the lectures or disapproving looks about the amount and round-the-clock schedule of his drinking. There would be no stern talks from the minister about keeping up the AA meetings: “AA saved my life, Bill. It can save yours, too.” Bill knew very well that he was not an alcoholic--he was not one of those bleary-eyed crybabies who started every sentence as if they were saying, “My name is Shitface and I am an alcopukingholic.” After all, his pores were still small and undamaged, his face was free of the telltale redness and the broken capillaries and bulbous schnozz and so forth. His features hadn’t turned pudgy. He retained the clean, lean look of his youth. He looked 30, 35, not 40. And a pretty fit and trim 40, too.

A smalltown goodtime Charlie? Maybe he was that. But not an official, certified drunkard.

Anyway, he had left home, O paradox of obvious paradoxes, to stop running from whatever was tormenting him. He felt desperate much of the time--like the great pretender of the hit song. He didn’t know why. He dimly knew why. Yes, yes, he did. And he knew that a worm was feasting on the rose of his life. He wasn’t a complete fool: he realized that his sarcasm and anger papered over a bottomless fear that gnawed him at night and made the days a confused shambles.

He detested cheap psychologizing--all “psychology” struck him as a con game--but sometimes he wished he believed in it. In something.

He needed time and distance to work it all out. He needed long days to sit and think, to assess, to plan and, yes, to revel in his own being. He loved dolce far niente and having absolutely nothing to do. His own tendency to sloth did worry him a little, but he decided not to beat himself up over it; there were already too many people prepared to do that. This rustication would set him on a whole new course in life. Free of everyone and everything, released from care and distractions, he would write again. The long-dormant novel, Wry Beach, would arise in him, and he’d be raised to heroic heights as man and artist. He could sense it deep in his bones.

Really, he thought as he shut his eyes, this is like Nirvana--pure nothingness. Apathy. Detachment. No feeling, no upsets, no grinding guts of anxiety. Floating, floating. A new man will emerge here. At peace.

His thoughts were tinged with irony. But he congratulated itself on reaching this modest level of enlightenment without having to suffer for it. He tried to imagine where it would lead him. He was asleep in minutes.

Bill woke up at what was evidently the hour for afternoon tea. A china cup of Darjeeling had been placed on the table next to him. Mr. and Mrs. Morton, the old folks from New Jersey, were making polite background noise with a striking woman in wrecked middle age across the cavernous room. She looked like a drinker; and even from a distance he saw the cup and saucer shaking in her hands. The minister’s wife, no doubt. Did he have to wake up to this?

He looked to his right and was startled to see Douglas scrutinizing him. The big man was near, seated on crocheted Victorian cushions, blowing on his own cup of tea. He caught Douglas’s gaze, and the man’s green eyes went darting elsewhere. Bill savored this for a few seconds and looked to Douglas’s right. Sitting in another of those Victorian chairs there was a large, dirty-blond woman smiling at him.

“Hello, Mr. Blake,” she said warmly. “I’m Evelyn. Evelyn Lamb. I’m Douglas’s kid sister.” She had the same green eyes. She was buxom and dimpled.

“Nice nap, Mr. Blake?” Douglas wasn’t quite looking in his direction. “Sorry to wake you. But this is our tea time.”

“Was I asleep long? I don’t remember--“

“Oh, probably two hours or so.”

“Travel is so tiring,” Evelyn said. She was all smiles and interest. “I hear you’re from near Boston, Mr. Blake. Where exactly?”

“Angleport.”

Evelyn Lamb exclaimed, “How wonderful! That area is so lovely. Isn’t it, Douglas? I spent a summer in Angleport Beach, and it was glorious. So different from the shore we have here in Maine! Sandy. And so much warmer and sunnier.”

“Mmm. Just like Hawaii. Get off the bus and we lei you.”

A general intake of breath.

Douglas smiled rather wanly. “I think we should allow Mr. Blake to wake up before we try to bend his ear, Evvie.”

“Excuse me, please!” she laughed. “Where are my manners!”

At this hint Bill grunted and got up to shake her paw. He plunked back down and took up the tea. It was very strong.

“Special tea,” Douglas said, breaking his own rule. “Fellow parishioners bring it back from Dublin. Still, it isn’t the same. The water must make the difference. Peat or something.”

“You’ve been to Ireland?”

“Well. No. But they tell me…”

“Mr. Blake, you look all in. I’m sure we won’t be offended if you go up to your room and finish your nap. You had a long tiresome trip on a bus after all.” Evelyn beamed compassionately.

“No. I hate my room.”

Evelyn was aghast. “You hate your room?”

The buzzing on the other side of the room stopped. Douglas squirmed, and his sister leaned towards him. Douglas, what room did you put Mr. Blake in?” Evelyn’s voice kept a merry tone, but her eyes bored into Douglas.

“The east turret room.”

She eyed Bill with fellow feeling. “You poor man! No wonder you hate it! It’s too cold now and too hot in summer. And it’s miles from the bathroom!” She reproved her brother. “Are you trying to drive him away, Douglas? You won’t even make Claire stay up there. She’d walk out if you did!”

“But the views, Evvie…”

“Oh, God, Douglas, who cares about views when they’re freezing to death. Is the Jewett room available--and don’t say it isn’t!”

Douglas looked chastised and rather alarmed. “Yes.”

“Come on. You and I are going to make up that room right now.” She got up and declared, “It’s the nicest single room in the house, with its own bath. And it’s got a working fireplace, too. A big sofa, bookcases--everything a writer should have to make his stay a happy one!”

“But we never—“

“Mr. Blake can use it if he wants to, Douglas.” There was steel in her voice. Then she smiled at Bill. “The writer Sarah Orne Jewett is believed to have slept there. So you’re not the first writer to stop in this house!” She was radiating personality all over the place. Her queen-sized golden beauty seemed to embarrass her brother. His face had turned red, and Bill could actually see the sweat beads forming on his forehead.

Evelyn got up, tall and busty, and gave Bill a conspiratorial wink. Then she turned and glared at Douglas. He sighed and dragged himself to his feet.

e

The brother and sister went upstairs together. There was a good-natured undertone of scolding until they reached the Jewett room. From his vantage point Bill saw that this prize room was next to Douglas’s. He received a reproachful look from Douglas before he followed Evelyn through the doorway.

The Mortons and the minister’s wife seemed fascinated and huddled among themselves for speculative conversation. They nodded in Bill’s direction and, after he turned away from their greetings, left him alone to sit and wonder. Not about the motives for Evelyn’s campaign but about Douglas’s for wanting him to leave in disgust.

By the time he’d drunk a second cup of tea, the Mortons and the minister’s wife had whispered out of the room. He took a good look around the parlor for the first time.

Just like home--the only real home he’d ever known, his mother Dora’s domain--but more hackneyed, of crummier quality. Unsuccessful pretension--sad and hateful.

The thing that set him off was a grouping of Wallace Nutting blossomscapes on the wall over the victrola. When he was growing up, no middle class home in New England had been complete without these rosy-tinted photographs of old houses and cherry blossoms, the Rev. Mr. Nutting’s vision of the rural good old days before such soul-corrupting atrocities as telephone poles, paved roads and indoor toilets. His mother’s house betokened a higher level of taste, but she hadn’t gotten rid of the Wallace Nutting pictures and furniture, just moved them up to the guest rooms. Though there never were any guests.

Then he saw noticed the inevitable William Morris touches, all the pseudo-archaism, from the wallpaper to the reclining Morris chair with its original upholstery. There was also a Rossetti-ish etherealism about the statuettes and angelic pictures on the walls, mixed with bric from North Conway and brac from Ogunquit. There were faded maroon-and-gold swags hanging like stalactites from the enormous windows. The worn, too-thick oriental rugs swarmed with ill-woven detail. On one dirty-looking walnut table there was a stereopticon with viewing cards depicting the industrial might of Lowell, Massachusetts, circa 1895. There were a couple of samplers inexpertly stitched by long-dead, sausage-fingered Broadwood girls, and there were decorative cushions of scenes from “Evangeline” or “The Wreck of the Hesperus” or some other unreadable, sentimental mess from the previous century’s inexhaustible catalogue of uplift.

The bookshelves were as bad. Lots of Emerson and Holmes, Henry Adams and John Greenleaf Whittier (Oh the horror of fourth-grade recitations--“Snowbound”--“Shut in from all the world without…”). Not to mention Bronson Alcott and William Ellery Channing, Jones Very and Margaret Fuller. New England worthies conducting the eternal Sunday school of the soul. Hardly anything published since the assassination of William McKinley.

He might as well never have left Angleport. It was an ill-remembered nightmare revealing itself in tiny, hideous flashes.

He needed more than a few ales.

“Jesus Christ,” Bill said aloud. “He should rope the dump off and charge admission.”

Douglas was standing in the doorway with a bland expression. “Actually, I do, Mr. Blake. Your room is ready. I’ll move your things down now.”

“Oh. Thank you, Mr. Broadwood. Very good of you.” Bill got up and trailed after him to the foot of the stairs.

Douglas went up, shoulders hunched, and into the Sarah Orne Jewett room. He said something to his sister, who responded with an accusing tone and then could be heard clomping down the back stairs. Bill heard her speak curtly to Claire and slam out of the house.

Peculiar people, he thought. His curiosity deserted him at this point, although he reflected on the physical similarities between the pair--the abnormal height, the unruly blond hair, the summery green eyes. And, yes, he considered the differences, too: Evelyn’s relentless enthusiasm and Douglas’s secretive, beaten-down quality.

Bill went back to the parlor, lay on a sofa with his shoes on, and leafed through the latest Saturday Evening Post. He shrugged mentally, putting their Maine oddness out of his head. I’m a writer, not a psychiatrist, he told himself. Local eccentrics aren’t my line of work.

It occurred to him that self-pitying artistic types with an exaggerated sense of their own desirability and importance were his subject, hatched from a rancid romanticism celebrating decay and squalor, expressed as a stylish hopelessness and cynicism. It was the pose of the period, he knew, and he took some pride in spotting its self-indulgent stupidity and even subverting it. He wanted to have his literary cake and eat it too. Which was precisely the sort of thing Dora always told him about his attitude toward life. “Guilty as charged,” indeed.

Bill believed that the heralded scribblers of the age were hedge-betting phonies whose very cynicism was based on a fearful conservatism--who believed in the old verities they pretended to loathe. In his estimation they were (and he was) unable to add anything substantial to the old constructs, so of course they (and he) had to make a show of pissing all over them.

I could always blame The Bomb, he thought with a laugh. But he wasn’t that earnest a poseur. He couldn’t give a shit about McCarthyism or the Rosenbergs or any of that crap. Booze had insulated him from some of those lost causes at least. Self-destruction as self-preservation. He appreciated the paradox, even if it was a facile one. He saw a future in that particular position. The arrogance and dishonesty of it amused him, and he sensed that the culture was ready to accept it, even embrace it.

He got up and mounted the stairs to his new room. Douglas was in there, putting out towels. He nodded when Bill came in. “I hope you enjoy…” He got out as fast as he could, as if was ashamed to be caught there with Bill.

Bill closed the door, feeling vengeful. The room was a surprise, as beautiful and well-appointed as the turret room had been bleak and Spartan. But he wasn’t in the mood to lounge around, even though the fireplace was ready to be lit and the late afternoon miserably damp. His little bursts of “honesty” always gave him new vigor and gave him an itch to get out and about. He bundled up and was out the door in five minutes, off to toast his own ability to beat others to their condemnation of him.

Still, as he walked along he felt oddly uncomfortable. Something made him almost turn back and seek out Douglas. Something nagged at him even after he’d had a couple of highballs at Dempsey’s Dump, a place inland by Route 1.

Remorse--such a rare emotion he couldn’t separate it from his usual shame for a few hours--hit him when he was listening to “I Walk the Line” for the seventh or eighth time. He tried not to let it interfere with the pleasure of hearing some big lardo of a truck driver go on and on about whether Elvis Presley was a faggot. Bill tried to imagine how the sentimental clergyman Wallace Nutting would react to the topic, to the truck driver and to Elvis Presley himself. It cheered him up a little. Then he remembered Douglas Broadwood going up the stairs, looking so solitary and forlorn, like the mountain that slumped behind the town. The uncomfortable feeling hit him again. “Another, barkeep.”

“Another what?” The pockmarked skeleton behind the bar obviously hated being called a barkeep. “I got a name, too. Rick.”

“Surprise me. Rick.”

The guy snarled a little--though not enough to justify leaving him no tips--and poured a straight vodka. He smirked at Bill as he shoved the glass toward him. Bill drank it all absently, mind’s eye full of Douglas’s big shoulders and the way he slowly turned his head and gave him his sad reproachful gaze. “More,” Bill said.


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