Monday, December 05, 2005

Chapter VI: A Brief History of the Unspeakable

  • This is the chapter where Bill finally begins to let the truth about himself leak into his consciousness, or into his present-day existence anyway. It would never have happened without the colossal, laconic presence of Douglas Broadwood. This chapter has seemed to receive very good responses from those who have read it--no doubt because people think it's terribly autobiographical, but it is not.

Exactly what had the old dipso meant with her insinuations and implications? It was one thing if she thought Douglas Broadwood was queer--and it was clear that she did--it was another thing entirely for her to think that he was.

Bill sat in his room all the next day and into the night. It took that long for the cold feeling to leave his guts. Depending on the word he used—queer, fairy, sissy, pansy, nancy-boy, candy-ass, Priscilla, faggot, homo, fruit, swish, pouf, queen, cornholer, bugger, sodomite, turd burglar--he conjured up a different vision of sickening manners and affectations (not to mention repulsive activities) that were despised by all and persecuted by many. At best, they were mere objects of ridicule. Clifton Webb. Franklin Pangborn. Liberace. Fussy, prissy, pathetic, tiresome. When they were worse than ridiculous, as scout masters, guidance counselors and priests, they were a threat to the holy and the innocent.

Shit, even I believe in innocence.

And lesbians? Dykes? Jesus! Worse, far worse, in his mind. All he had to do was think of Gertrude Stein, and his cock played turtle.

He examined all aspects of homosexual perversion. He was a writer: nothing human should be alien to him. But it was. He grieved over his limitations as a writer and, less strenuously, as a human being.

I know I’m a shithead. I just wish I were a shithead who wrote better. And more pages.

He sighed. The little burst of honesty elated him a bit. He felt calmer, more hopeful.

He paced round the room. He poked at the fire Claire had lit for him in the interval before tea. He looked deep inside himself and tested his own actions, emotions, responses. Was he attracted to his tall, somewhat gloomy host with the melting green eyes? Hardly. If he were inclined that way, he’d certainly go for someone younger and better-looking. Not that Douglas is so bad-looking, actually. The 1940 wardrobe doesn’t do much for him, though. Get hep, big boy.

Bill paced some more. Not that it had anything to do with him. Douglas Broadwood was a lonely person, cut off from the main in this lousy little backwater. He dressed like a retired librarian. He pussy-footed around his own house like the upstairs maid. He always hesitated and second-guessed himself and said sorry all the time. All that self-abnegation was creepy.

What’s more, supposing Mr. Broadwood found him attractive? Well, he wouldn’t be the first. Bill admitted, under duress, to being a handsome man. His appeal crossed several boundaries. He understood it. It did not disturb him. He was self-aware.

He grinned into the little mirror on the mantelpiece. Goes with the territory, I guess.

So it wasn’t surprising--wouldn’t be to anybody--that he had experimented when he was in high school. What perpetually horny, curious youngster won’t try something once, only if to prove to himself that he doesn’t go for it? The scornful accusations of his ex-wife and the bitter doubts voiced by his mother blended with a chorus of voices and faces that had cast stones at his manliness ever since he was an undergrown boy. Even now it pained him to think back on his--what? His off-the-record episodes of humiliation and not because they had been exceptional: they had been frequent, a leitmotiv of public ridicule and shame.

He believed it--It being his secret history of shame--began early. He was a skinny, bookish kid with a big vocabulary and the la-dee-da vowels inherited from his father’s side of the family, which was close to a radio comedian’s parody of Brahmin accents with their drooping diphthongs. How many times had he been beat up by his schoolmates? How many schoolday run-ins with the caustic, snot-encrusted bullies who infested Merrimac Street, from the falling-down triple-deckers by the river? They had thrown literal rocks at him got up in a cunning little Eton-style suit (gabardine shorts, jacket, starched white shirt and beanie-like cap that made him look like an undecorated Mr. Potato Head). One famous time, led by the feared/mocked Booger Eaton, they launched a piece of granite that knocked him out and had him in the hospital for a week of groggy pain and stitches, of which he recalled snapshots of his tsk-tsking nurse, Dora’s restless nicotined fingers, and heaps of athletically themed presents that his father, portly, red of face and sour of breath, dumped on the bed before he split for a do at the Myopia Hunt Club or some other spot with éclat.

As usual, memory begot memory, and the glories of the night somehow dissolved in the endless chain of shame and self-disgust. He could almost smell that gabardine and feel its weave grate on his tender skin.

That fucking Eton getup. He remembered getting dressed for school one day when he was about 10 or 11, when he saw some hairs were already sprouting in his crotch. He started playing around in that forbidden zone discovered that his newly outsized cock looked bigger when he dressed on the right. It sort of stuck out. In the mirror he could see his dick’s head outlined in the gabardine. He liked this, and the fact that it seemed to be growing as he diddled and stared. It had gotten browner somehow, and the head was huge and purple. He stopped and put it in his pants, on the right. Shaking. Breathless, light-headed with a new sensation, a sick excitement. He felt his head was going to pop off, especially when he looked at the changed topography of his pants.

He remembered thinking, as he sat on his bed, I don’t like this. This is bad.

But he savored the thrill.

And now he remembered, appalled but magnanimous, Have I always been such a fucking little liar?

He remained on the bed for a couple of minutes. He forced himself to quit squeezing his thighs against his dink.

Fanny, then a sweet-natured young girl just over from a priest’s household in County Wicklow, cried up the back stairs, “Master William! Get your dear self movin’, my honey!”

In control of his breath, he went downstairs to grab his books and head straight for the beat-up classroom that looked like a Little Rascals set. But Dora came in from the kitchen, sipping a cup of coffee, dragging on a Chesterfield through her femme fatale cigarette holder. She inspected him a moment. He thought she was going to say something cloying and pleasant to his ears--so often she did. “The sun rises and sets on my Billy.”

Her eyes narrowed. She stuck the holder firmly between her teeth. Then she hit him, hard. He skittered backwards and knocked over the end table holding his books and a bowl, some family heirloom from the China trade. The books flew, and the bowl crashed into the baseboard. “Only wicked men dress themselves that way.”

Billy flashed to Betty Stevens’ piano teacher, Mr. Devane, who wore a floppy tie, talked in a drawling Dorchester accent and flattered one with his toothy smiles (“You have lovely strong hands, Billy. You’d make a very apt pupil.”). Now that she mentioned it, Mr. Devane dressed himself that way, and he must be one of the wicked men she had in mind. He had noticed this for a while now, and Mr. Devane let Billy know that he knew by flashing him a specially toothy smile.

Dora’s sharp tone made him jump out of his own thoughts. “Go adjust yourself properly. And clean up this mess.” She pointed to the coffee that she’d spilled on the Turkish rug. She didn’t seem to care about the bowl; it had come from her mother-in-law. She walked out, sipping at the empty cup in a pantomime of serenity.

He picked himself up, too shocked to cry tears or call out, “Mummy! Mummy!”

She went back to the kitchen. His face got red with anger and shame. He wanted to shout, How dare you! Instead, he went upstairs, changed into his play clothes, pulled $3 from under his mattress, and sneaked out the back door when Fanny and Dora were in the front sitting room, arguing over how to wash the windows. He walked downtown using side streets were he thought no one would report him to Dora, and he caught the first bus to the beach, where he spent his three weeks’ allowance on fried clams and French fries, ice cream, taffy, candy apples and thrill rides. When he was at the rocking top of the Ferris wheel he looked out at the rough gray sea and felt his gorge rise again and again. He held it in. He felt proud of himself for that.

He didn’t mind being by himself all day; he liked being with his thoughts, watching the people go by. His observations and desires were his alone.

When he got home that night, well after supper, Dora didn’t look at him or say a word as she read the evening paper, except, “I guess you don’t have to wear those silly clothes any more.” As close to an admission of wrong, or forgiveness, as ever issued from Dora’s lips. No questions, no prying. He thought, She likes being ignorant.

Lesson learned. It suited him to keep secrets, to hide them away in a place where even he often couldn’t locate them. Only once or twice before had--he turned restlessly on the bed, moaning from the old labor of holding onto thoughts in solitary.

There was more, of course. He sat in front of the fire and remembered a carefree summer when he was fifteen or sixteen. One day he met up with a school friend at the beach, they got tight on some hooch he’d stolen from his father, and they necked--engaged in “heavy petting,” to be precise--on the cool sand under the arcade. They started out horsing around, then tickling like little kids, then so naturally a playful kiss, then another and another and suddenly the play had an edge to it, an aim. He closed his eyes and tried to recall the scene fully after 25 years. He sipped his Scotch and tried to taste the bootlegger’s rotgut.

He did remember the taste of Edgar Williams’ mouth and the mounting sense of power in his crotch, and that Edgar was responsive and whispered directly in his ear, “I like you, Bill.” His cock was much bigger than Edgar’s, and Edgar cooed and slid his tongue all the way down---

Bill got up and cursed at the memory. What the hell was I doing? Little fool!

He ignored his current state of excitement. He tossed back his drink and remembered something else.

It was a chilly evening. He and Edgar walked out to the open air sweating, disheveled, covered with sand. They must still have been semi-erect or something, because people gaped and nudged each other, some wearing hostile smiles. Bill overheard a young woman say to her boyfriend, “Look at them two”--she didn’t say “fairies” but she didn’t have to. He took off without looking back and caught the bus that was about to depart for home. Edgar was standing in the swirl of pleasure-seekers, and his face was desolate--abandoned, cast off--

Double shame. It hit him again as it had on his way home in the back of the jouncing bus. Cruel and a coward. He groaned. It had power over him even now.

Not that these memories and realizations were about to redeem him. Or make a better person of him? God forbid! Cheap grace, he thought with a sneer.

For despite the years of monkish self-denial, he’d always had these sickening little affairs of the heart. Edgar Williams--excessively gentle, tediously elegiac Edgar, who wrote him letters of confessional misery till he went away to college and never returned Angleport. After the war Bill heard that he died a suitable death for someone so sensitive and “artistic.” He hanged himself with a silk stocking in a Back Bay apartment owned by a prominent banker or something equally sensational and squalid.

Then there was that priest. That terrifyingly handsome Catholic priest at his in-laws’ parish in Haverhill, Father Purefoy. Bill met him after mass one Sunday with the Ross clan, and the shock of the man’s cerulean eyes and celestial beauty--no, the man’s steady gaze and knowing expression, neither coy nor insinuating--had Bill stammering and blushing to such a degree that even the self-obsessed Rosses snapped out of themselves and looked at him curiously. And he found himself saying, without transition, “Well, father, I must confess that there is something lacking--a spiritual dimension--in an otherwise full and satisfying life. I’ve even wondered if spiritual instruction in the Catholic faith might not be the thing for me.”

And what had Father Purefoy said, in his plummy, prep-school tones? “There’s always a place for the true seeker, Mr. Blake. But perhaps you’d better examine your heart more searchingly as to your motives for this important, eternally reverberating decision.” He hesitated, as if reconsidering his brusqueness, and he laid those godly blue eyes on Bill. “Although--yes, perhaps I’d be available one day to meet and talk of your discernment.”

Of course this pastoral rejection had its effect, and Bill’s desire flourished like rust. He began faithfully attending that distant parish of St. John the Disciple--a seemingly endless fifteen miles from Angleport--in a faith he’d been raised to despise. Gwynne began exulting to her relatives, “He’ll be a convert within the year!” She would come out of her disgrace with glory if she were responsible for the proper conversion of another soul and the father of her child.

But Father Purefoy finally rebuffed all his overtures and his stated hopes for instruction in the faith. He would gaze at Bill, shining his beautiful eyes and cruelly knowing looks at him, and he would shake his hand after mass with idiotic pleasantries that had Bill raging inside. “Lovely weather for March, isn’t it. So glad you could come. My, Mrs. Blake, you two look handsome together in your Easter best. How is your novel proceeding, Mr. Blake? I promise to buy a copy,” etc., and he would grant Bill the favor of these perfunctory comments each week. It never went any farther; Bill made an appointment to meet Father Purefoy, but cooled his heels in the waiting room, observed the snoopy, whispering, somewhat hysterical female volunteers, and went to a bar. He decided to pass on the Catholic faith.

A few months later he lay in bed one Sunday and told Gwynne, “Fuck your church. I’ll never set foot in one again.” Her perfectly made-up face suddenly was a mask of disdain, curled lip and all. She slammed the front door harder than usual, the gravel in the drive flew up when she jolted into gear.

Oh good for them, weren’t they smart. Well, let ‘em keep guessing. No one’s gonna hear a word from me.

They didn’t have to keep guessing any more, did they? Thanks to that idiot captain.

His C.O. in the Coast Guard, Capt. Parnell, whose favor Bill curried so ardently that the other men teased him, some with malicious envy. Captain William Parnell--the fact that they had shared the same commonplace name gave him an absurd thrill, as if they were members of a secret society, and only they knew the password to enter into the clubhouse.

Ah that Captain Parnell. He was a tall, blackly hairy man with a sense of command that radiated from a face like a Roman emperor’s, whose robust form Bill undressed secretly, every night, with reverential thoroughness while he lay next to the lactating Gwynne. Ah, Captain Bill Parnell, who once actually commanded Bill to feel him up--sort of.

“Damn it, Blake! I’m losing my hair! Feel this.” And he crouched down in front of him, guiding Bill’s hand to his ruddy forehead and pushed Bill’s hand into his scalp. “It’s receded a full inch since I came to this command. You guys are such a bunch of assholes, you’re making me go bald!” And he held Bill’s hand there for a minute, pressed it against his skin with a big hairy mitt, grinning at him as if to say “Imagine me fucking your cute little ass, Blake.”

And there was young Chief Blake himself, on full display in his summer whites and boxer shorts, hard cock poking down his thigh, straining against the fabric. The captain grasped Bill’s hand, squeezing it so tight he thought his all his fingers would fracture. A stain appeared at the crotch of on his uniform. Bill gaped at it, mortified.

The captain stood up. He inspected his subordinate with a sardonic expression and nodded toward his crotch. “At ease, Blake.” Parnell’s crotch was creating its own stir. Bill stared, mesmerized by the thick, treelike shape.

And that was as far as it went. Even though, at the time, he would have thrown away everything--risked everything--to spend time with the man, to go away with him.

Bill felt a stirring in his pants, but he ignored it by pouring a drink. Memories and imaginary trysts were safe and cost him nothing, after all. All this delving would be good material. If he could bear to write about such things. If he wouldn’t be anathemized from here to eternity. He imagined what the leading critics of the day would say about his work. And him if he wrote frankly about such things. Things that men did every day of the week, he guessed, but usually wrapped in a poisoned cloak of Shame.

Still, even if I am destined to be a minor footnote in the annals of American literature, he thought as he leafed through a collection of Cheever stories, I sure as hell don’t want to be known as a homo or a homo sympathizer.

Did he encourage those searching looks, as if Douglas expected him to be transformed into someone else? No. They’d exchanged some pleasantries but, in truth, he’d hardly paid any attention to the man. He’d been rude as hell to him. What kind of attractiveness was there in that?

As he relaxed a bit, it occurred to him that, if Douglas actually were queer, all he’d have to do is say, “No thanks, Doug. Not my style, old boy.” No need to get panicky or hostile or weird. No need to make the poor bugger feel even worse than he did already.

Well, sure, that’s it. He feels so bereft--looks at me that way--because he’s carrying the torch for some guy. Not me. Some other guy. Oh that poor old bugger.

Bill felt indulgent, merciful. Almost affectionate toward poor Douglas Broadwood, male spinster.

There was a light knock on the door. He opened it and saw his host walking quickly, almost on tiptoes, away from the door.

Douglas, wait.”

Douglas headed downstairs without looking back or saying good evening.

Sensitive, these fruits, aren’t they?

Bill picked up the dinner tray. His mail was on it. The first mail since he’d arrived. When he saw the familiar handwriting on the envelope, his heart skipped beats. He ate first. He couldn’t face the letter on an empty stomach. After another drink he had the nerve to open the envelope.

March 29, 1957

Dear Billy,

You will forgive your poor old mother for tracking you down and sending along this enclosed missive from your editor, the ever-patient Mr. Wassermann. Don’t ask how I managed to find out where you were--but you have to give me credit for perseverance if nothing else.

Well, that dreary business aside--not simply the dreary business of your vocation and ability to make a living, I mean--I did manage to clean some of the taint you smeared over your family on the 10th. Gwynne invited me to visit her and Harold B. in Cambridge. They have moved to a beautiful house, which her parents are outfitting at enormous expense. It seems that the handsome Harold has been given tenure at Harvard after the success of some book on an obnoxious Irish novelist whose name escapes me--it is making his reputation. The ways of Academe are not my ways, I can tell you. Anyway, Harold was, as always, gracious, charming, and sensitive. He is also the soul of responsibility. He dotes on your son, for which I am no less grateful than the boy’s mother, and he told me that Gregory’s autism isn’t so severe a case that he can’t, one day, lead a fairly normal existence. Harold has had some of the top specialists in the country examine the boy, and they are optimistic about his future. Shock treatments may be called for. His mother, of course, is thrilled.

They were all generosity and kindness, which surprised me, in light of the recent fiasco. Besides, I wasn’t all that good to her when she was married to you, and I regret it somewhat. Harold even told me that I reminded him of his own mother.

Coming from a gang of pushy Hibernians as she does, I believe that Gwynne really is a good sort of person, and she looks absolutely glowing in her new marriage. Well, so would I if I had a man like Harold Blumberg, despite the name, to wake up to every morning.

With all of their prosperity, you are still legally obligated to provide child support. Of course you knew that. You tend to overlook unpleasant facts, though, don’t you?

On that note, I strongly suggest that you do not ever, EVER again communicate with the person who was here on that horrid day. I blame myself, Billy, because your father was nowhere to be seen when you needed him.

All is not exactly forgiven, but here is a check to keep you going for a while. You’d better get cracking on the new book. Publishers don’t hand out advances like Christmas candy at grammar school, you know. I will do my duty by you (my above and beyond duty, in reality) until you start to produce again. But even my generosity has its limits, and I can’t afford to keep the checks flowing as I did in the past. I have been dipping into my capital of late, because I may have lived a little too long and, incidentally, suffered too much disappointment.

I had rather hoped you might be home by Easter. On further reflection, that wouldn’t be a good idea. Too much shock and anger have rattled by old system--I am looking Seventy hard in the eye, as you may recall--so I will spend the holiday with Gwynne and Gregory. They won’t drag me to Mass, though. I’ll stay home with Harold and sip grands crus classés; he has a lovely cellar of clarets. They’d kill for it at Oxford, I imagine.

They have the kind of life I had years ago--before the Crash and before your father ran off to Santa Barbara and so forth.

Who cares--all ancient history. Woe is me, etc. I have been alone over 20 years now and will always be alone.

I will keep in touch with you even though you probably won’t bother get off your derriere to write or call me. Cashed checks will tell me that you are still alive. The banking system--a mother’s unexpected friend.

Goodbye for now, my dear. Despite all, you know I miss you. In a way, I wish you were still living here. I am simply covering my pain. None too successfully, I fear.


Your loving/ Mother,

Dora W. Blake

P. S.--That person called for you a couple of days ago. I told him that you’d gone away and I believed you’d gone to New York.

He read the whole letter only once and the P. S. five or six times. Then he balled it up and threw it in the corner. He was almost hyperventilating. But he carefully set the check--a pretty generous one--on the desk. He’d be able to live well on it for weeks, months.

His shame wasn’t so complete or irredeemable as he’d feared. Money meant approval of some kind. A cold war instead of a nuclear holocaust--that wasn’t so terrible, was it? It meant he could go home eventually.

He poured himself a small drink of celebration, an abstemious finger of Scotch.

Pretty soon it’ll be as if the captain never existed.

And in a sense, he hadn’t. He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.

He thought about it for a few minutes, twirling the meager quantity of amber liquid in the tumbler. He thought, Maybe I should get back to work. Get cracking, as Dora says. Deeds, not words.

He didn’t delve into the humor of that statement.


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