Monday, July 04, 2005

Third chapter, modest changes...the ones with big changes are coming soon, I hope

III. Religious Experiences

Bill spent little time in his room, despite the cozy fireplace and the private bathroom. For some reason, he haunted the streets and alleys of the little town all week. As if he was searching for something but had forgotten what it was. It occurred to him that he was burrowing in. He kicked himself for not going to Florida, since it rained or snowed or drizzled every day. Some days he couldn’t see three feet in front of him, so never mind the views his host had recommended to him. To his surprise, he didn’t mind. Bill was content to retreat inside himself, walk around and absorb as much as he could of the local color. He hit the pubs, picked up snatches of gossip that gradually began to make sense and did what people in godforsaken shitholes like this always did: get plastered.

“Hello!” A mellow baritone voice boomed at him a few yards from the package store. Bill snapped out of his reverie. “You must be the new guest at Douglas’s!”

Bill frowned and turned, peeved at the intrusion.

A good-looking old bird, well-built gray-haired man about his own height, dressed in clerical black and white, was holding out his hand. “Mr. Blake? I’m Russell Cobb, the Episcopal minister. Holy Apostles.” He nodded in the direction of the little Tudor-style church on the corner, which stuck out in these plain-jane surroundings like a raised pinkie. “My friend Douglas has told me about you. So, you’re a writer.” The man was all pastoral affability. His blue eyes were tolerant, worldly.

Bill shook his hand. “Yah, hi. Bill Blake.” He had had a few bottles of ale at lunch. Not enough.

“I’m waiting for my wife,” Mr. Cobb said. “I understand you two met at tea the other day.” He smiled as if to say, I have the goods on you, my friend. “They tell me you cut quite a figure. Evelyn in particular said--“

Bill saw fumes tooting out of an idling car’s exhaust pipe. He imagined the swift, painless release they could give him.

Mr. Cobb caught himself. “Evelyn seems to have interceded for you --” He stopped, considered Bill’s stony gaze. “I’m sorry. In my eagerness to win new converts --”

“Converts!” And what did Evelyn Lamb have to do with anything? He was not rising to that bait.

The minister smiled merrily. “I meant, members. Of the parish.”

“Not me.” Bill hoped that was cold enough.

Mr. Cobb pressed on, aiming at serious fun. “I have it on trustworthy authority you feel that religion is, ah, the opiate of the people.”

“I don’t feel it. I know it. I observe it.”

“And you’re a Unitarian, I’m informed. Well, Unitarians.” Bill had told Douglas nothing of the sort. The man was playing with him, and he was in no humor for it. Mr. Cobb raised his eyes to the dreary heavens, playing it up even more. “You see, Mr. Blake,” he said, in a performance of confidingness, “we need more Christians who are intelligent and not willing to be satisfied with easy answers. People who are willing to ask and seek answers for the big questions--actually, the only questions that matter. Why am I here? What is my purpose? What is my destiny? And so forth. Otherwise it’s all cheap grace.”

“Undoubtedly. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll go into the packy and incarnate my answers. Because I am here to go to the liquor store. My purpose is to get loaded. And so forth. That’s grace enough for me. Thanks for the sales pitch, though. Very Dale Carnegie Peale.”

“Ouch. I guess you owed me that one. But seriously, Mr. Blake, Douglas told me that you have a deep interest in spiritual matters. I think you’d be a great addition to our seekers’ group.”

“He told you that?”

“Of course. So--how do you like our town? It’s rather quaint, isn’t it?”

“Jesus!”

Mr. Cobb decided to home in. “We’re eclectic here at Holy Apostles. You know, there are some things that the High Church can teach us broad churchmen. Private confession. Stations of the Cross. Icons. Come join us next Sunday, you’ll find it fascinating.”

“You’re digging a deeper hole for yourself by the minute. And if you think you can cajole me into joining your merry band of Christian fruitcakes, you’re even more delusional than, oh, St. Paul.”

“That’s the sort of thing St. Paul–“ he pronounced it Simpole, which irritated Bill even more--“would have said before his Damascene conversion.”

“Not another word about conversion. I know your type: you get high on C. S. Lewis and run around expecting to be surprised by joy. Which never actually happens, though, does it. Well, you can take your muscular Christianity--“

Bill turned to go into the store, but the petite Mrs. Cobb came out lugging her bags of booze. He wasn’t surprised to see the wrecked lady with the fine cheekbones. “Hello, Mr. Blake. How nice to see you again. I was asking Evelyn about you this morning.” Bill turned on his heel and went toward the liquor store. “Well, dear,” Mrs. Cobb said after virtually no pause, “I’m all stocked up.”

“For tonight at least,” her husband said.

Mrs. Cobb tilted her head so that her aristocratic bones showed well. She emitted something like a merry sound. “Amusing Russell!”

Once inside, Bill looked back. Mr. Cobb peered at him intently; some sort of realization was washing over him.

* * * *

Like Mrs. Cobb, Bill was soon all stocked up on liquor. When he was on the way back home--he caught himself thinking that word and was amused--he looked forward to a week’s recreation without leaving the comforts of the Sarah Orne Jewett room. Oh sure, he would emerge for meals and retire with impressive taciturnity so that he could write, think and edit. He would enjoy playing the mysterious, cynically detached artist. He would pick at the tired food. He would say little or nothing to his tablemates, least of all the Mortons, who seemed bent on living up to the cliché of the Golden Years even though their joints continually snapped like dry twigs. He would make a sardonic comment now and again to Claire. To Douglas he would be studiously formal--keeping up the idiotic “Mr.” business--and try not to let him quite forget the insult of sticking him in the east turret room.

He took his packages up to his room. He set them on the dresser and noticed that a few crocuses had been put into a tiny art nouveau flower bowl. There was pollen on the pistils. He sat down on the bed and stared at the little blossoms. Only one person made up the rooms at this time of the year. His skin crawled.

He decided to go downstairs after all. He poured Scotch into a silver flask, went down unseen and sat by a window with a well-thumbed best-seller that he’d picked up months before and never gotten round to reading. Dora had put it in the bookcase in disgust. “It’s all about the filthy goings-on in some New England hamlet. And the problem with it is that it’s too tame. It’s no match,” she added with relish, “for real life.”

“Still, that girl is making tons of money from the thing,” he had said. “I sure as hell would like to write something lucrative for a change.”

“Please do,” Dora Blake had said drily.

“Ars gratiae pecuniae. Art for money’s --”

“Yes, Billy, I know what it means. I did manage to graduate from Smith. Back in the day when--“

“I know, Dora, when Cicero stormed your dorm.”

Bill smiled in his reminiscence. There was always an element of fun in even their bitchiest exchanges. Dora was a worthy adversary; he hasn’t sure he was.

Bill opened Yankee Landing and read the blurb on the dust jacket. He groaned and put it down. But he picked it up again. He skimmed the book.

The author, a young French-Canadian woman from Camden, had regionalist literary aspirations. Her heroine, oddly enough, was a high-school girl from a French-Canadian background--well, half, since her protagonist’s name was Maura McKillop--who delves into her hometown’s secrets in her part-time job a cub reporter for the local paper. Her mysterious father, held to be long dead, is rumored to be a pillar of local society, a truth often hinted at but never stated to the girl’s face.

Then there’s the best friend, Blanche Mortmain, a pretty and intelligent girl whose father is a mean drunk and the owner of the most tumbledown of the tar paper shacks that ring Yankee Landing. In a key scene she kills her father as he attempts to rape her yet again. So tormented is the girl by the thought of not fitting in or receiving any money for a graduation dress, she knocks him out with a whiskey bottle, then finishes him off with a heavy coal shovel, buries him in a shallow grave in the pig pen; she is discovered only when the pigs are seen digging up and tearing at the decomposed flesh when the truant officer comes looking for her little brother, Cletus. The girl is accused of murder, and the dreadful circumstances of her life are revealed in a trial, most sensationally the fact that she had been impregnated by her own father but was given a salvific D&C by the kindly town doctor. She is acquitted but not before the town gets a well-deserved lesson in compassion and social tolerance.

Meanwhile, the heroine befriends the high school’s designated pansy, Percy Chapplewythe, who goes to war and returns home to heroic acclaim, only to hang himself when gossips reveal that the high school drama teacher, Beau LeGrand, had been his lover since the boy was twelve. Mr. LeGrand goes to jail for his unnatural practices, where, Bill thought, he’d practice till he was perfect.

The book spilled over 500 pages. Through it all contempt sparred with nostalgia. The author, Penelope Doucette, betrayed an earnest love of the sky and landscape if not the people. The epic reached its climax with the revealed identity of Maura’s father, Quincy Toddlecott, very much alive and about to run for governor before his illegitimate daughter does some muckraking and, naturally, in a tragic twist, gets mucked up herself as a bastard child. Her reputation ruined, she becomes a seamstress in the back room of the dress shop of her embittered mother, Harleen, and is destined to spend her life as one of the many living ghosts, real and fictional, that have flitted through New England towns since Hepzibah Pyncheon.

The mere skimming of the thing exhausted Bill, with all of its plots and colorful characters, all of its innuendo and steamy slouching around. Oddly, it was the prissiness of the language that surprised him the most. The absence of so much as a bitch or a bastard struck him as more unlike real life than the goofy subplots and coincidences. Every New England town he’d ever set foot in had resounded with those words, and many more earthy. Fuck, to be sure, had its staunch, rough-and-ready adherents. But the universal word of New England surprise, dismay, mild annoyance and all but the highest dudgeon was shit. It was the portmanteau word. Spoken in as many tones with as many meanings as could be had from Mandarin and Cantonese combined, exclamations of shit issued freely from the mouths of rosy-cheeked children and dignified codgers alike. No conversation or soliloquy was complete until at least one carefully expressed shit had given shape to the utterance and placed it in a broader context.

Douglas came in and sat down with a cup of tea.

Bill gestured at the book. “Did you read this thing?”

“Would you like a cup of tea? It’s just Lipton’s…”

“I can barely get past the dust jacket. Listen to this slop --”

“We have some raisin pound cake, too. Ann Page, I’m afraid.”

“I’ll never write a best-seller.”

Douglas was silent.

“I haven’t the popular touch. I can’t write some overheated soap opera about incest and frumpy clothes and illegitimate children and people living on the wrong side of the tracks. All shackled by the class system, misuse of past participles, and bad hairdos, blah blah blah. I can’t.” Bill was almost shouting. “When they make a movie of this piece of shit, they’ll have Lana Turner in it, for Chrissake.”

Douglas put down his tea and relaxed a bit. “Actually, you’re close. Alla Trotter. And Walter Baird, who is too suave and too British to play the governor of Maine, if you ask me. Big names, though.”

“Great. Dumb-bunny actors swimming through a soundtrack of the worst Russian composers!”

Douglas laughed.

“And they’ll film it in some back lot and try to pass it off as New England. Maine with tumbleweeds.”

Douglas smiled and shook his head no. “Then you haven’t heard the news.”

Bill shrugged.

“They’re filming it here this summer. The movie title is ‘Port Scandal.’ Right here in Selene Harbor. It should be good for business. The town may prosper.” There was wonder in his voice; that would indeed be a new thing under the sun.

Bill looked serious. He felt it. He pulled out his flask. “You may not drink but here.”

Douglas raised his eyebrows as if to say, Whatever gave you that idea? “What’s this for?”

“To celebrate.”

“Celebrate what exactly?”

“The arrival of material. My redemption. The source of more advances.”

Douglas looked rather confused. “This movie means so much?”

“I think so.” Bill sat staring into the middle distance, a sign that real thought might be breaking through. He snapped to and smiled at Douglas. “Yes, I do.”

“So--you’re staying through summer?”

“Yes, I will.”

Douglas took the flask. His shaking hand caused a little Scotch to dribble down his chin.

* * * *

The celebration began that evening. Bill hit Zeke’s and John’s Mariner Café (“the only outdoor waterside dancing deck in the area!” which baffled him even when he was sober) close to Armitage Street, then the Five O’Clock Club and the Clover Club (“ici on parl Francese”) halfway to Route 1, then Dempsey’s Dump, where he could always hear his favorite Johnny Cash and Little Richard covers mixed in with Big Band numbers. It was there that Bill had had enough booze to slither out onto the dance floor when “Honky Tonk, Parts 1 and 2” were playing and do the dirty bop with a blonde in her teens named Heidi Champoux, the kind of teen-age queen Chuck Berry was illegally slavering over; and where they threw him out at 11:30, well before he had spent all of the $20 bill he’d laid down on the bar with a flourish. Heidi’s boyfriend, a 21-year-old summertime cop from the next town, followed him outside.

“Don’t you ever, EVER fuckin’ touch my chick again, you hear me, you old fuck?” He lifted Bill by the scruff of his neck. “Huh? Huh? Huh? Answer me, you fuck!”

Bill stared at him without understanding. You fuck.” He pushed back.

After the hard right to the solar plexus, Bill was on the ground and inches away from his own smell; the contents of his stomach were distributed over a sizable stretch of the parking lot, steaming in the chilly air. Big rigs rolled by and Bill looked up at the sky, in which twinkled a few stars amid the clouds.

* * * *

It was late. He’d been up since 5 AM and would have to do it again in five hours. The new lodger had finally gone to bed. He had been sprawled on the club chair and listened to the handsome, drunken visitor stumble about next door, stub his toe and curse violently. His toilet flushed, the bathroom door slammed.

Douglas actually heard the sound of body hitting bed.

If he knew his writer-drunks, this one did not always undress. He might sleep with such alcoholic soundness that when he awoke, his hair would not be mussed and his clothes would look neat enough to go out and start the day with a pot of coffee and breakfast at a greasy spoon. He would not have removed his shoes. Ready for action.

Douglas smiled. He did indeed know his drunken writers. And his junkie writers. And his crackpot political activist writers. He loved them all. He just couldn’t stand to be around them anymore. Better to love them from afar.

Now the quiet ticked like an atomic clock. He sat by the fire in the large room that had been his father’s; his mother’s room was the one that Mr. Blake occupied now. It had a study lined with bookcases from floor to ceiling, filled with books that would never be seen downstairs. Hawthorne and Melville (“Pierre, or the Ambiguities,” not “Moby-Dick”), Thoreau, Jewett, Dickinson, Whitman, Swinburne, Wilde, Crowley, Gore, Cheever, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, Corso, Kerouac, Burroughs, Henry Miller. There were James Baldwin, Hart Crane, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Truman Capote. Grove Press books by the dozen. In the bits of spare shelf space stood framed photographs, and on them several authors had scrawled their greetings to him.

On the desk there was one unsigned photo of a serious, young, handsome man with dark hair. In the picture he was wearing a flannel work shirt. He was looking gravely at the camera. He had an unfathomable face. His eyes foretold his destruction.

Douglas sat at the desk and looked at it for some time.

Douglas snapped on the desk lamp, unscrewed the cap of an heirloom fountain pen and began to write.

Dear Altar Boy,

Forgive this intrusion into your life. I hear you’re working very hard on your new book. A very owlish poet has told me that it is a revolutionary work. More revolutionary than you, you poor Catholic peasant. I pray that it will be the source not of “success” but of the recognition that you crave and deserve.

Douglas read it. He shook his head with self-disgust and crumpled the sheet, adding it to the balls of paper that threatened to overflow the wastepaper basket. With less hesitation he wrote:

Dear J.,

A man who looks so much like you--like you he comes from well south of here, not too far from your original and everlasting home--a littler you with a few of the rough edges worn off--he arrived sodden and sodden Sunday night, and I stared like a fool when he appeared at my front door. I thought he was you at first. My heart was in my mouth when I saw him standing there.

When I heard the knock I thought it might be you--I always think it might be you.

I don’t know this man well. He claims to be a writer. He hasn’t your soulful depths or your disastrous loyalty, but he is an interesting drunk, perhaps as interesting as a talentless drunk can be.

Douglas tore this one up and flung it across the room. Too much about Mr. Blake. Too close to a revelation of his privatest opinion of Jack’s gifts.

Dearest Jack,

You spurned me yet there is another writer who came here in the dark of a rainy night like someone from a fairy tale or the Invisible Man, I don’t know. It’s late, I’m very tired, and the world turns around me, and I am still so still so still I feel like a memory of the dead in this quiet place, a place so quiet that God Himself has turned his back on us and left us to our own devices & desires and expects us

Oh God, Jack, to hear the sound of your voice, call me and say Hi, how are you? and I will be content to hear you say those banal words to me

Your cruelty your indifference they

Still you once gave me a look--we were in some dive on Sullivan Street

One by one he balled up the sheets and tossed them around the room.

He sat staring at the embers in the fireplace. He got up and went around collecting the papers. Perhaps he missed a few, but he was too tired to care. He stirred them into the dying fire. It flared yellow and bright for a minute, then fell into a sobbing sort of red light. Paper ash levitated up the flue.

Douglas took the poker and broke up the lingering cinders in the fire pan so that no trace of decipherable writing remained.

Mr. Blake cried out, “You fuck!” in the Jewett room.

Douglas went over and lay on his bed, watching the final shadows of the fire flicker on the ceiling. “Jack,” he whispered.

But as he pulled down his pajamas, it was Mr. Blake’s hungry face that appeared.


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