Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Catch of the Day Chapter IV "Who Is This Man?"

I got a lot of negatives comments about the first part of this chapter. My notes for its reconstruction are numerous. But you know what? Fuck 'em. My readers wanted more local color and named characters in the bars, which was something I purposely avoided. Too predictable and corny--I could give a shit about all those "colorful" drunken schmucks. I'm really interested in just one drunken schmuck, and that would be me--oh no, I mean my protagonist.

If I had the energy to redo this book, that's not one of the areas I'd focus on. The middle chapters lose a little focus, especially after Bill moves out...No, I tell too much.

Anyway, flaws and all, here is chapter IV. If you read it and like it, let me know. Otherwise, keep it to yourself, please. Thanks.

As he nursed--and nursed--his wounded body and injured pride, Bill fell into a pleasant enough routine at Broadwood’s. He arose later than the few other guests--at this season, just the Mortons and the occasional overnight couple or traveling salesman--and ate his breakfast of coffee and toast in the parlor. He read the hick papers and leafed through magazines until noon, with his wool plaid robe over his undershirt and trousers (yes, and his shoes and socks). He would shiver slightly at the people outdoors as they made their way through sleet and rain and fog. It was delicious to loll in comfort while the world toiled on.

He imagined he made quite a sight: enthroned in an armchair, unshaven, pasty, hungover, his hair bristling greasily in all directions, with a gaze that would have chased the snakes from Medusa’s hair. His armor of slovenliness provided the hours of morning quiet that he required. Claire eyed him warily and kept silent. Douglas came and went with coffee and trays of toast and Scottish marmalades and barely said a word. Even visitors like Mrs. Cobb or Evelyn Lamb steered clear of him and looked away hastily if he returned their stare.

No idiotic chitchat, no social fakery. He was king of his thoughts, owner of his morning, and the very clocks of the house seemed to tick at his leisurely rate.

Not that he was indolent and without Interests every moment of every day. After a shower and change of clothes, he was off to the town for lunch (American Plan be damned, Broadwood’s provided Soviet-style grub as far as he was concerned) and a few ales at one of the honest workingmen’s places. This would take him to 2 or 3 o’clock, and he would make the transition to the late P.M. drinking schedule. This meant Scotch most of the time--Ahhhh, Glenlivet, one of my few self-indulgences, he thought. So. God does answer the occasional prayer.

Over the next couple of weeks, he became a constant enough presence in Selene’s watering holes to become a confidant despite himself. He began to plug into the goings-on in the town. He heard all about who did what to whom, the usual Grand Ole Opry tales of betrayal and heartbreak--which always involved sex or money or, in a few striking cases of intense emotional savagery, sex and money. He’d heard it all a thousand times before, and none of it got his blood coursing.

Ho fucking hum.

Still, after a few days in the hothouse atmosphere of Selene’s taverns and greasy spoons, he started to hear more and more about the Broadwoods, one of the town’s leading families for a century or two. Even though he initially had zero interest in them or their illustrious era as sea captains and beneficiaries of the Triangle Trade, he did pick up enough information about his host to envisage a rather tantalizing set of omissions and inferences. It was as sketchy a record of a life lived in a small town as could be imagined, and Bill felt as if some murky Federal agency was trying to expunge the record of Douglas Broadwood’s life and actions from some celestial police blotter.

It amused him to think of his bland, studiously inoffensive host this way. It was ridiculous, of course.

Assorted barflies, barkeeps and gossips of all persuasions gave him nothing to work with. To them Douglas was without blemish: a swell guy, a perfect son, and a square dealer in all aspects of business. The worst that was said about him was that he didn’t have a good head for numbers, like his father had possessed before the Crash broke his spirit; but this gang of losers saw financial ineptitude as a sign of integrity, a matter for praise. They even had a good word to say about his fidelity to the church--it was rumored he tithed, which caused equal parts amusement and horror, mixed with a kind of awe--although to them the Church, any church, was purely an institution for legitimized theft.

Bill felt he was in good company. People he understood even as he looked down his nose at them.

One day he said to them, “A privation of information, that’s what it amounts to. You don’t have a damned thing to say about Douglas Broadwood that they wouldn’t say in his obituary. Doesn’t that make you wonder? Blamelessness and boringness through silence. Sins of omission.”

“Well, I don’t really know,” they’d tell him with some irritation. “He was devoted to his parents. Worshiped them, really. Where’s the omission in that?”

“College?” someone else chimed in. “I think he went downstate somewhere. Colby? Bowdoin? Heard he did well, anyway. Smart boy. Good with words.”

“Kem hom to take carea Mar and Pa, God bless um.”

“He did love his father. Took care of the old crab like a daughter woulda. Shoulda too, but that fat Evelyn was off in Connecticut or someplace, living it up with some state senator’s son. Then he dumps her and she comes runnin’ back here. And I’ll be damned if her brother don’t buy her a house and goes on taking care of the father like Fatso wasn’t even around. She’d come over with that goddamn minister and his wife every couple Sundays, play Lady Shit, and leave Douglas to do all the dirty work month in, month out.”

“And never a word of complaint, nor a look of martyrdom about him, ever.”

“During the long years of the old man’s decline. Ugly, ugly--the old man was a terror.”

“That’s right!”

And they went off on their usual toot of praise and sympathy, always in the same terms, almost the same phrases.

Douglas’s role as the Patient Griselda took on a fake and compensatory odor to Bill.

“Surely he must have had some fun? Sowed some wild oats, done something crazy?” Bill said. “I mean, come on, nobody spends all their time in dutiful service. Do they?”

The barflies looked at him bewildered, then got angry. “Douglas Broadwood is a wonderful person! He’s a fuckin’ saint.

This stunned him. In forty years of New England life he had known only the town retard to be defended so strongly.

Maybe I’ve overestimated my host. Or underestimated him.

Bill wondered who might spill some dirt. He sighed and figured his curiosity was worth satisfying even at the expense of an evening in the Holy Apostles parish hall. Maybe there was material in it for him. He couldn’t sit around waiting for Alla Trotter and her tight sweater for three months, could he?

* * * *

“Why, hello! What a nice surprise this is, Mr. Blake.” Evelyn Lamb lit up with genuine pleasure to see him. “Come in, please!”

He gawped around her little shop, which was tucked away on a side lane near the water. It was crammed with items no one who lived in Selene Harbor could ever think of buying or owning. Tourist stuff, an odd and expensive mixture of nautical and country-cute gewgaws, which made him feel as if his eyes were being attacked by adorable insects.

Needless to say, business was slow. It was the first week in April, and the forecast was for snow the next day.

“What do you think of my little domain?” She beamed, waiting for a cry of appreciation.

“Charming!”

“It’s all thanks to Douglas. I have to give my big brother credit for setting me up here. Without him, I--well…” She smiled wanly. “You’ll never know. Nobody ever will.”

Bill thought a moment. “No. I had no idea. He really is a good man, isn’t he?”

“Yes!”

“I hear it all the time, Evelyn--I hope that’s not too forward of me--“

“Oh no!”

“Then please call me Bill.”

Her cheeks turned pink with pleasure. “Bill it is.”

“I hear it all over town. What a saint he is. How good. All that.”

“It’s true! And you won’t hear anybody say a bad word against him! And if they did, they’d have me to answer to!” Which was a formidable image, since she stood nearly six feet tall in her bare size twelves and was built like a brick shithouse. She shook her mop of dirty-blond hair. “I’d clobber anybody who breathed any criticism of Douglas!”

Bill looked up at her admiringly. All she lacked was one of those Brunhilde horned hats. “I’m sure of it. He must love you and your loyalty very much.” Shit. No debunking from this quarter. “Well. That’s great. Listen, I just stopped in to say hi and…”

“I’d love to go to lunch with you, Mr. Blake. I’ve been dying here all morning, not one customer has come in all day. We all hate the summer people, but we can’t do without them, unfortunately. We can go to Montecalvo’s--over by the police station, two lanes over. I’d love some spaghetti. Doesn’t that sound good on a raw day like this? Maybe even some wine, why not?” She laughed a bit too gaily.

Bill opened and shut his mouth.

She threw on her pink topper. He followed her up the lane meekly, resigned as she chattered and preened.

Bill had low expectations for the lunch, and not just for his desanctification project. Evelyn spoke in italics with everybody and kept giving him significant looks. Heads bent together in lively whispered conversations and peeked at them every once in a while.

He ordered a large flask of Chianti right away. Evelyn’s glass had to be refilled three times in the first ten minutes, twice more than his. They both relaxed. They smiled and chitchatted about the weather, the Suez Canal, Khrushchev and his peasant wife, nuclear war and the impending demise of “I Love Lucy.” They ate salad and bread, had more wine. Spaghetti with clam sauce. Garlic bread. More wine. Evelyn had a healthy appetite.

Must outweigh me by 50 pounds. She can tank up and not get blitzed. This’ll cost me a few future drinking opportunities.

Bill smiled encouragingly, even though he begrudged her the price of the wine. He drank very little. The sacrifice seemed worth it; soon he had her talking freely about her brother.

“I eloped with a boy at college,” she told him. “He was from Connecticut. I thought--I was late, you see, so I thought I was…” Bill nodded understandingly. He’d been the guilty party once. “Well. Gary Lamb was a charmer at first with a lot of money but, when you got to know him, he was an abusive, mean drunk—“

She froze but Bill waved at her to go on. That comment doesn’t apply to me, dear lady.

“Well. The marriage lasted a pretty long time. Longer than anyone thought it would. Me included. Ten years almost. Not a good marriage but it was something, I guess. But when Gary ran away with his father’s secretary.” She paused and gave him a deeply significant look. She whispered almost inaudibly. “His male secretary. I was devastated. Floored. A mess. That’s when Douglas dropped everything in New York, where I think he was happy for the first time in his life. Well, maybe not happy. Less unhappy and lonely.

“He came back to Selene. He got me back on my feet. Then Father had a stroke and poor Douglas had to stay. I wasn’t the one to take care of our father, oh no. It was always ‘Douglas, Douglas, Douglas, my pride and my joy, my heir and my life’ with Father. He was even more--dismissive of me than my mother had been, which is saying quite a lot. He wouldn’t let me do a thing for him. Hardly spoke to me after the marriage to a crummy state senator’s son busted up--can you imagine? No matter how I was hurt--wronged. Wronged. That’s how cruel and --” She snapped back a glass of wine and then poured her own refill. She polished off that one, too, and, after a minute of reflection, her eyes defocused a little. She calmed down and smiled at him nervously.

“It must have been hard for your brother. If he was happy in New York and had to come back here--bury himself, so to speak…”

“It was awful.” She was in her poor Douglas mode again. “He went into a real blue period. Just read a lot of weird books and wrote long letters to a couple of his close friends down there. Writers. He did a lot of moping in private--to be honest, he wasn’t always so nice to Father, not that he was such a treat either, of course, even to his beloved son—“

“So these friends--did they ever come up here? You know, to escape the heat and tell their friends that they’d sojourned in quaint olde New England? Or were they too, oh, disreputable to fit into a place like Selene? Too bohemian?” he added suggestively.

Evelyn grew silent. She shook her head. She eyed her wine glass with alarm.

“Hm? A bunch of radicals? Worse?”

“Look at the time!” She struggled to get out of her seat. “Thanks for the wonderful lunch, Mr. Blake.”

“Bill!”

“Yes, I’m sorry. Bill.” She looked guilty and afraid. “I’ve got to go to the shop and order for the summer. I’ve been putting it off for weeks!” She smiled and wasn’t quite able to focus her gaze. “No, don’t get up. Really, I’m fine—“

“Evelyn, wait.”

But she was out the door, rushing back to the shop her brother had bought for her.

Bill was disappointed. Then angry. She hadn’t offered to split the bill.

But he reflected in tranquility, and it occurred to him as he polished off the bottle of Chianti: Douglas dissembled. Douglas was not who he appeared to be. Douglas had secrets.

The desanctification of Douglas Broadwood is under way.

* * * *

Douglas, he had to admit, was far less exalted a person than his legend made out. The man claimed no special status for himself. Unassuming to a fault.

On several evenings after dinner--which Douglas sometimes still called “supper”--they had pleasant conversations in the parlor. Although he was as about as widely traveled as Bill (not at all), he was obviously bright and intellectually curious. He seemed to be a formidable reader. And he was starved for similar company, as eager to talk about books and ideas as any freshman in Cambridge.

Bill felt a kind of affectionate pity for him. He’d sigh with the contentment at his generosity as he settled back into the sofa with a glass of port and Douglas played Debussy or something slurpy on the phonograph.

Douglas sat down and smiled at him. “Cheers.”

“Cheers.”

“This is nice, Mr. Broadwood. A nice discussion entre nous.

Douglas smiled again, looking a bit shy. “It is. I seldom get the chance to talk with someone about things that deeply engage me.”

“Books and so on?”

“Yes.” Douglas stifled a yawn. “And so on. Sorry. The days are long in this business.”

“That’s OK. I get your sleep. I use it well.”

Douglas laughed and raised his glass in a salute.

There was a companionable silence. The changer released a new record onto the turntable. Moonlight Sonata.

“Did I tell you I had lunch with your sister today?”

Douglas stared. “What?”

“I was meandering around and went into her store. Your store. We went to Montecalvo’s. Very nice. Interesting.” He wagged his head. “I thought for sure she’d have told you.”

“Good. That’s good of you. She’s terribly lonely. No, she didn’t say…”

“Have you talked with her since then?”

“Oh yes. She phoned.”

Bill looked at his closed expression. He seemed like a different man in a few seconds. “She worships you, of course.”

The music came to the forefront. Mr. and Mrs. Morton stopped in, full of hale good humor, to say good night after their evening constitutional. They assessed the situation and almost tiptoed out, twigs snapping.

“Yes, she would say that. Evelyn knows which side her bread is buttered on.”

It was Bill’s turn to stare. “Look, I’m sorry if going to lunch with Evelyn—“

“No, of course. It’s a free country. As they say.”

Bill thought before he spoke. “You seem to carry a great burden. Of some kind, Douglas.”

“Everyone does, Mr. Blake.”

“Not me. I let other people do the toting.”

Douglas smiled. “I can see that.”

“You disapprove.”

“Not so much. I envy you your—“

“Selfishness.”

Douglas was still. “That’s one way of--I don’t mean to criticize.”

“I’m not quite the buffoon you think I am.”

Douglas sat back in his chair and looked him in the eye. “I don’t think that, Mr. Blake. Not at all.”

Bill sipped at his port. “Well then. If you’re going to be so good-hearted, it’s about time you called me Bill.”

Douglas held up his glass. “To friendship. Bill. If that isn’t too forward.” He looked happy. His face blazed with it.

Bill winced inside. Too much happiness for so little reason.


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