Saturday, August 26, 2006

CATCH OF THE DAY, CHAPTERS 17 - 20

“Getting muggy.”

“Need the rain.”

“I love summer. The hotter the better.”

“You start, Russell.”

“Shouldn’t we wait for Evelyn?”

“She’s always late. We’d be waiting till next Pentecost.”

“You look tired, Douglas.”

“Been burning the candle at both ends?”

“That’s me. The rake in repose.”

“Pass me the chips.”

“Better grab ‘em before Evvie gets here.”

“That’s uncharitable of you, my dear.”

“You’ve been full of snappy retorts lately, Douglas. I think someone’s having an effect on you.”

“Really?”

“Not that there’s anything wrong with it.”

“There. My first word.”

“H-A-H-A? Oh my lord, I thought I married a brilliant man.”

“Very funny. Ha. Ha.”

“What’s that?”

“An English garden building or something.”

“Oh, yes. I believe it has a hyphen. That violates the rules. Russell has a surprising tendency to break rules.”

“You should see the rotten letters I drew! All vowels except H, and that’s rough breathing. It looks like Hawaiian over here.”

“Forfeit your turn and start over.”

“It could be all consonants.”

“Let’s pretend there are no hyphens in the word.”

“I’ll stick to what I have, poor as it may be.”

“Thank you, Isaiah. Watch me go in for the kill.”

“I didn’t realize we were into life-or-death Scrabble. We generally don’t go in for kills, lovey.”

“It’s about time we did. Played for high stakes.”

“I guess Bill’s been working hard with his editor. What’s the slave-driver like?”

“I hear he’s a very nice-looking young man. His wife’s not here, is she?”

“Play your turn, Allie.”

“You’ll love this one. P-R-I-C-K-S. Add the points for H-A-H-A-S, too.”

”Do you get credit for the whole word?”

“You know I do. Want me to keep score?”

“I blush. And we’re in the rectory too. Here’s mine. C-A-S-H.”

“Been a good season, hasn’t it?”

“Thanks be to God. This town’s been struggling for a while.”

“We’ll always look back at 1957 with longing.”

“Is the future bound to be that grim?”

“No. But golden ages never last long. Everything afterwards seems wanting. A letdown of divine proportions.”

“If we veer into theology I will go and have a drink right this instant.”

“You were the one who brought up the Suffering Servant. And it was a low blow, if I do say so.”

“No more theology!”

“My turn. C-H-E-E-R-E-D.”

“The Good News by any other name.”

“He was trying to get rid of vowels--weren’t you? What’s your word?”

“R-E-R-E-D-O-S.”

“I did marry somebody brilliant! How did you ever think of that?”

“It came as in a vision?”

“Well! Look who’s here. Hello, Evelyn, how are you?”

“You don’t look so good. Is anything wrong?”

“Should we start the game over again for Evelyn?”

“And give up reredos? No!”

“What a day!”

“That covers a great deal.”

“Sorry I’m late. The store.”

“I sent Carol over there to help you out. She’s very good.”

“That’s Claire’s niece?”

“She’s all right. Pushy.”

“Her niece from Bath. She goes to the University of Maine. She’s been helping me out at the front desk.”

“You have a front desk? Since when?”

“Calls the place an inn. I suspect she doesn’t want to teach grammar school kids all her life.”

“Who can blame her? So glad we never had children.”

“What a thing to say. Having a baby is something every woman wants. Or should.”

“Do you? Time’s running out.”

“Evelyn, it’s your turn.”

“I know. Here goes nothing. E-X-P-E-C-T.”

“Too bad you couldn’t put the X on a double-point score. Not that many points.”

“Got any chips?”

“I am alarmed by our running through the E’s.”

”Pretzels?”

“How is your Mr. Blake doing? I haven’t seen him in his usual haunts lately.”

“He is most certainly not ‘my’ Mr. Blake.”

“Russell. Your turn.”

“I wonder whose Mr. Blake he is.”

“I heard from a reliable source that she saw him leaving that little blonde starlet’s room at 4 AM. With the hunky fellow from the crew who’s staying with you, Douglas. I mean, at your inn.”

“What was Nellie Dempsey doing up that late?”

“La dee da.”

“Early. She’s 84--gets up at 3 every morning.”

“The town should shut down that aptly named Dump of hers.”

“Really? When was this?”

“Thursday morning.”

“I doubt that. He came home worn out after ten hours with his editor.”

“’Home’?”

“And never left his room all night?”

“Oh my. How dark it’s getting.”

“We need the rain.”

“A rainy Sunday afternoon. Makes you lonesome.”

“R-I-P-E.”

“We ripe and rot.”

“The Broadwoods are relentlessly upbeat today. I’m of a mind to break my rule and offer you both a drink.”

“My name hasn’t been Broadwood for about twenty years. I guess once you’re branded with that iron…”

“Break it, darling. I will anyway.”

“The past couple of weeks have been very rough.”

Douglas?”

“I’ve been fine. What do you want me to say?”

“You look different.”

“He sounds different, too. A regular wisenheimer.”

“Me!?”

“Not so miserable and downcast.”

“As if you’re walking on sunbeams.”

“That’s why I edit his sermons.”

“It’s easy for Douglas to be happy.”

“Since when?”

“He’s content living in a dream world.”

“Your turn, dreamer.”

“C-R-A-P.”

“That’s not allowed!”

“Nasty word!”

“It’s slang.”

“Not in the rectory, what on earth do you mean by that?”

“I knew I shouldn’t come over here. None of you take anything seriously.”

“Stop it, Evvie. You’re acting like a spoiled twerp.”

“You can’t leave! It’s going to pour in a few minutes.”

“I’m going home to take a nap. I haven’t been feeling so good.”

“Don’t you want to play your turn?”

“Oh, leave me alone, all of you. You take my life and problems so lightly. You only care about your own pleasures.”

“I!?”

“Why do you to take it so personally?”

“He’s stung over losing Mr. Blake. Again I ask, ‘Whose Mr. Blake?’”

“It isn’t at all like ‘who lost China’!”

“You pervert everything you touch!”

“Please don’t go! Evelyn! What’s got into her?”

“I think she knows for sure now.”

“Evelyn, be well. God bless you!”

“Let her go. It’s about time she grew up.”

“Knows what for sure?”

“My turn again. I’ve got a good one this time, too. C-R-A-P-U-L-O-U-S. Cuts a couple of ways, doesn’t it?”

“What’s going on here?”

“Oh my God, Russell. You know very well. We’ve discussed it a hundred times. Some of it anyway.”

“That’s disturbing.”

“You know, true happiness is a form of redemption.”

“Or deception. In your moments of highest bliss, watch out.”

“Allie, darling, your cynicism depresses me.”

“And for one to be redeemed another must suffer. Funny old universe.”

“That doesn’t sound like you.”

“There are no secrets here. Even within families. You know it better than we do. N’est-ce pas, Russell?”

“The main thing is: Are you happy?”

“I am. Yes, I am.”


XVIII. The Film about the End of the World

Douglas walked to the center of town moments after the thundershower had passed through. The air was cool. The earth was exhaling its warmth like a perfume, he smelled it in the faint steam rising from the lawns and flower beds. The six-o’clock sun shone through the loosening clouds. In the stillness after the storm the birds were singing as fresh and clear as the dawn chorus; the tourists were still indoors, eating and drinking away their boredom. Their behind-closed-doors spending was a double gift.

Right on cue, a rainbow was forming over the bay.

Walking on sunbeams? Thank you, Russell. You continue to surprise me.

He smiled as he felt the water on the road seep into the soles of his loafers. Even though the air was turning warmer, he shivered as he changed his course to sit on a bench by the harbor. Shivered from the delicious half-secret that he carried with him. Which he could summon up at any time, anywhere. For the first time.

He saw Bill’s body as he lay on top of the sheets, deeply tanned except for the lighter skin of his small bum. The rake in repose. He was snoring a little, his hair a tousled mess of nearly black on the pillowcase. He stirred and turned on his side, revealing an imposing erection for such a small man. Eyes still closed, he reached out for Douglas with his right arm and, feeling nothing but the sheets, groped around with an expression of growing concern. His eyes opened a slit, and he smiled when he saw Douglas standing by the bed, ready to lie beside him again.

Douglas’s heart gave him an extra bump. He looked away, almost afraid to smile at what was, really (wasn’t it?) a commonplace sight. Enacted, he thought, a million times a day all over the earth? But never before in my life. He wondered if he’d ever known joy before. He had believed so, but those few, furtive old stabs at joy now seemed like the difference between dreaming and knowing.

It was miraculous, of course, because here he was, at 42, tickled pink to lose his second virginity. Second, yes, because the first deflowering--correction, his “first man-to-man fuck fest,” as his blunt little author phrased it--had been so long ago and the memory of it so suppressed that it seemed less real than a thousand solo fantasies. And the tarnished senses of middle age were bound to vibrate with the joy of new stimuli. When Bill cried out and shuddered and gazed blindly at him, he knew that Bill was as drunk with delight as he was, as overwhelmed by self-discovery.

And it was true that he was taking a revolutionary delight in his own body. He appreciated it for the first time, its size and proportions, its strength and ability to dominate a handsome, nicely endowed man who was about 10 inches shorter and 90 pounds lighter. Even more, he appreciated its pleasure-taking ability, the intensity of its responses and its uncounted erogenous zones, from his left ear to his big toes, especially the right one. Bill had found them all within a few sessions, and he exploited them deftly, rousing him to orgasm too soon at the beginning of every night. Except that Bill cozened more out of him, always more, and left him sore and spent and creaking the next day.

Whereas Bill himself, small as he was, having been lain upon, fondled, bitten and fucked repeatedly--three times to Douglas’s once--jumped up and attacked with brio his breakfast, his work, his Scotch and, at night, Douglas.

“You’ve a lot of élan vital.”

“Roll over, baby, it’s my turn.”

Douglas noticed that they were consuming the Vaseline at a scandalous rate. The staff at the Rexall were bound to talk.

“So what, Douglas. Isn’t it nice to know that someone in this town is getting laid every night? And that it’s you? You don’t know how lucky you are, old pip.”

Douglas didn’t know whether to be more astonished by the changes in himself or in Bill. These days Bill was a little more discreet and amiable in public, with less of the edge he’d exhibited before. And in private he was alternately fierce and tender, intimate and impersonal. He was more fully in command of himself than previously, and his confidence intensified both his desire and his desirability. As soon as Bill closed the door behind him and advanced like Sherman, Douglas surrendered.

“In love as in war,” Bill remarked, “the physical advantage of the adversary doesn’t necessarily carry the day. Remember Thermopylae.”

“Sssh. Please keep your voice down. Someone might hear you.”

Some things didn’t, couldn’t change.

“I’m already whispering, for Chrissakes. You want me to learn sign language?”

Douglas stifled his laughter in a pillow and Bill crawled up to lick his neck and toy with the light fur on his chest, lingering on his nipples.

“Kiss me. And actually open your mouth this time.”

Douglas smiled at the memory of it. Bill was still Bill. He did love that brash little monster.

But. But, while Bill understood the ins and outs of his wants, and God knew he was given to excess as a devotee of the Pleasure Principle, he didn’t grasp the meaning of their gratified desire any better than Douglas. Was it the sign of some slightly disreputable grace that was beneath the soul’s notice? Was it a spiritual attribute, a special divine favor that ennobled and transformed? And how did it relate to the everyday blessing that was bestowed, cheap as penny candy, upon legitimately married couples?

Surely, the divine favor reading seemed overblown even if it felt right at supreme moments (during and no more than two minutes after orgasms). And the blessings bestowed on Joan and Darby seemed too dull for male pioneers opening new physical and emotional continents.

Douglas reflected that, maybe, it was a middle way. He liked to believe they were the beneficiaries of a grace that an unexpurgated edition of God offered to adults. He never spoke of it, afraid to call down the wrath of God on them, presumptuous degenerates that they were. Afraid to queer it.

Douglas sat down on the bench farthest from the line of bars and restaurants; behind was a shady slope topped by houses belonging to well-born outsiders. Pleasure craft bobbed before him. At the end of the dock a girl with long straight brown hair was bailing out a dinghy tied to a 30-foot sailing boat. Her rhythmic motion and its delicate plashing sound soothed him into a kind of unafraid reverie.

The people who knew him well had figured it out--probably before anything had actually happened. They hadn’t changed their way of treating him, they hadn’t cast him into the hell of internal exile in his own town. To his amazement, they seemed to accept it. “Douglas and Mr. Blake have a particular friendship.” When he looked at it from the outside, or tried to, it had a Transcendentalist ring to it. Very civilized, discreet in that high-minded way the gentle classes had when they chose to give one of their own a break. He hadn’t seen--not yet anyway--any fire from heaven, or heard any oracular condemnations from the guardians of morality, or felt the rising damp of the townies’ insinuations and ostracism.

But the secret part was because only he knew what it was like to feel this way. He doubted that Evelyn knew what it was like to touch and taste Bill the way he knew it. And, he suspected, Evelyn had had no experience with Bill’s tenderness and professions of real feeling. He tried to pity her in the thankless role she played, but she’d always received all the pity and concern she’d demanded. Now it was finally his turn to get what he wanted.

My God, selfishness feels good. It was invigorating and--here was the odd part--it made him feel expansive and generous. He looked with humorous benevolence on his sad case of a sister, on the quirky Cobbs, on the loyal Claire, on the coarsest of the town selectmen and the most grating of the New York visitors.

So maybe it wasn’t selfishness after all. Rather, it was a feeling that was part of a type of experience for which he had no understandable category. He’d have to reread the great accounts of love and destiny in Western literature. Starting with the volumes that filled the bookcase in his study, although he worried that there were too many homosexual writers in that grouping. He admitted the need for balance, but he wasn’t in the mood for George Meredith yet. At any rate, maybe their ideas and sentiments and polemics would mean something now, maybe they wouldn’t be part of some vast cavalcade of incomprehension, like the Koran or the Bible. And, maybe, he’d have to invent a whole new set of rules for living. In a moment’s panic he realized that his entire upbringing was on the verge of being invalidated--tossed out like gaiters and razor strops. And carriage reins. Then he thought of Jack and Allen and that other, far more reprehensible William and that whole gang of bohemian troublemakers he’d worshiped and utterly misunderstood.

So THAT’s the work they’re about.

He shook his head. He felt like a nitwit or, more precisely, a large, slow-witted child.

He looked around and sighed deeply. Although the sun had come out in all its late beauty, there were few people out. It was supper time, and even visiting sophisticates tended to fall into the habit of early eating and late drinking. The bailing girl was still at it but in an abstracted way; she was gazing out at the dark clouds east and the fading rainbow in between.

He recalled Bill, one evening after supper, sitting in the private study, where they were sipping Port, dressed in their undershorts. Bill was explaining, sort of, his duplicity:

“I went after her because she was easy. Safe. I was bored. I was scared. I was pissed at you. I never promised her anything, though. I told her I never loved anybody.”

“And it was true.”

“I guess so.”

“You told me that, too.”

“I know.”

“You told me something--the opposite last night.”

“I did? Seriously?” He tried to joke his way out of it, but, to his credit, not too forcefully. “Yah. I did.”

“You meant it in the heat of the moment.”

“Mmm. One will do that.”

“I won’t push it.”

“Give it a while, Douglas.”

“I wish I could trust it.”

Bill took umbrage. His eyes flashed with real anger, and he was beautiful to behold. “As far as it goes, you can. I don’t know how I feel. Or I feel too good. Don’t demand a detailed analysis from me now, for God’s sake.” He took a long pull on his glass and held it out for more. Douglas poured it for him. “What can I tell you that will make you believe me--so you’ll know this is real? How’s this? I feel comfortable in my own skin for the first time in my life. Thanks to you. How’s that, Douglas? Does that suffice?”

He didn’t speak for a while. He had to bite his tongue to keep from badgering Bill about old boyfriends, his secretive lapses from marital legitimacy. He hated himself for it, but he said something almost as foolish: “I’m frightened, Bill. All this terrifies me.”

“All this scares the shit out of me, too. Still.”

“Does it? Still?”

“Of course. We both have reason to be afraid.”

“Yes. This isn’t Periclean Athens.”

“It’s not even Renaissance Rome. We’ve got fucking Ike in the White House and that shifty creep from California waiting with his talons out, praying for the old man to kick the bucket. But I don’t think it’s as scary as when it was purely an idea, a ‘tendency.’” He mused for a bit, seeming to forget the drink in his hand. “Funny how reality cuts fear down to size.”

“Does it?”

“Don’t you see that?” Bill laughed. “It’s a new thought for me, too. Quite subversive. Maybe we should send a telegram to Nixon. He could get Ike to deploy anti-faggot bombers.”

This silliness irritated Douglas. Take me seriously, damn it! “I’m still frightened. This--this has the power to…”

“Cause expulsion from Eden?”

“Bill, this is my home. I’m a fixture here in Selene Harbor.”

“Don’t kid yourself. You’re as expendable as a poverty-stricken Canuck like Claire.”

That one hit home and jarred him. “If you were at home--in your hometown right now, would you still take these risks?”

“You mean finally step up and admit what I am? I don’t know. I do know that once this Rubicon’s been crossed, there’s no going back. I happened to cross it here. With you, Douglas. Here and now. There’s the scandal of particularity coming into it again.”

“Bill, I love you.”

“Have you learned nothing?”

“But sex isn’t everything.”

“It is too.”

“What do you think we--where--“

“All right, you win. Sex isn’t everything.” Bill’s hand was already cradling his balls. He kissed his belly and licked the hair around the navel. “It’s all about love.” And he went to work on Douglas’s rising member.

At that moment it occurred to Douglas that Bill had done this before, and not merely once or twice. Nobody had such unerring instincts, not even perverts, who, he imagined, had a natural gift for unnatural practices.

“What’s the matter?”

Douglas didn’t speak. Bill kept at it. Douglas shuddered and let himself and his ex post facto sense of betrayal go. “It doesn’t matter,” he murmured.

Bill whispered, “What? What did you say?”

Douglas answered with a groan.

Later, when they both were worn out, he woke up in the dark and found Bill’s hand posed gently on his chest, over his heart. Bill was looking at him and whispered, “This is good. I love being with you.”

Douglas smiled and said, “I know what you mean.” And Bill kissed him delicately on the lips.

Douglas wasn’t smiling now. Now it seemed as qualified and at-arm’s-length an expression of love as existed. And the thought that Bill was far more experienced at this than he’d let on--that he’d betrayed his wife all during their marriage…

He saw the lightning fork downward over the water. He thought he heard the thunder some seconds afterwards.

He got up from the bench. The sun angled lower. The reddish light made the town resemble a set from a film about the end of the world. He walked toward Montecalvo’s, half expecting to see Evelyn or the Cobbs, if not all of them, heading there for a long Sunday supper of wine and spaghetti. He turned the corner and saw two men who looked like Bill going into the place, one animated and speaking with good humor, the other slump-shouldered and sullen.

“Bill?”

Both men stopped and watched him approach. Bill nodded curtly and looked away. The other man’s eyes lit up and came forward holding out his hand. “Hello,” he said cheerily, “who might you be?” A look of recognition seemed to move over his face for a moment. Then he smiled and briefly, almost perfunctorily, shook Douglas’s hand.

“I’m Douglas Broadwood. Mr. Blake’s landlord. Is that the right word for it, Bill?” he asked jocosely.

Bill gave him a silencing look and said, “Douglas Broadwood, Don Wassermann.”

Don said, “It’s a pleasure, Mr. Broadwood. I hope you’re taking good care of one of my very favorite writers.”

Douglas gave Bill a curious glance. He replied in kind. “I hope we are, Mr. Wassermann. He’s a favorite with us, too.” Douglas felt like an oaf, in front of these two small, handsome men.

“He has a way about him. At times.” And Don nudged Bill, needling, affectionately eye to eye in the veiled way of little men.

Bill scowled. “Look, I’m starved. We’ve been at it since ten this morning. I didn’t even get to church,” he added, glaring at Douglas. “Did I miss anything?”

“Not really. Russell Cobb was walking on sunbeams, though.”

Bill shrugged and went inside, leaving the two of them on the threshold, where several parties came bunching out at once.

“Bill’s going to church these days?” Don asked in wonderment. “What’s going on here?”

“He was pulling your leg, actually. And mine.”

“Oh.” Don seemed let down. “So. How do you find him?”

“Excuse me?”

“In good shape?”

“He’s not drinking so much if that’s what you mean.”

“Then I wonder why his writing is so poor.”

Don had landed a verbal punch in his solar plexus. He stared. “What?”

“I worry. He’s lost the, the thrust made him special. An appealingly angry, unrefined voice. His latest work is excessively genteel. Too writerly. I hope it’s a temporary thing. We really don’t need another Updyke.” Don caught himself, gave him a wan smile of apology. “Forgive me. This isn’t right. You wouldn’t possibly know--“

“I would. I was the one who typed all his work and posted it to you.”

Don looked up at Douglas and went, “Is that right?” He pursed his lips for a second and then smiled. “Let’s eat. I’m famished myself.” He led them into the restaurant.

The place was emptying out, and Bill had got a table overlooking the lane that led to the water. Somehow he’d already managed to get his hands on a bottle of Chianti, and was pouring himself a refill. Both Don and Douglas made a clucking noise at the same time.

“So, tell me,” Douglas said gamely, “how’s the work going? A ton of rewrites? That’s pretty normal, isn’t it, Mr. Wassermann?”

“Shut up, Douglas.” Bill flashed him a look, then finished his wine and went to pour another.

“Not so fast,” Don said with his usual good humor. “Let me have some. You think I haven’t been working like a dog today?” He offered the bottle to Douglas.

“Please.”

Bill got the bottle away from Don and poured. “This is number three, Don, Douglas. In case you’re keeping track. Dinky little glasses, too, by the way.”

“I hope there won’t be too many more. We’ve a lot of work tomorrow, too, big boy.” Don grabbed his neck and shook him gently.

Douglas wondered if he knew how big a boy Bill was. He scrutinized Don for subtly betraying signs of effeminacy. He saw none and relaxed.

“I need a day off. I’m not a fucking factory hand. Like one of these poor slobs who stitches shoes in a fucking shoe shop all day long. Breathing in poisonous dyes, slicing their fucking fingers when they’re cutting leather for high heels. One little slip and you’ve got a reject and your pay gets fucking docked.”

Douglas gave him a startled look. When has he ever been anywhere near a place of work? Bill avoided his eyes.

“And even if every shoe is perfect, the fucking foreman will take the credit for himself and rob you of your bonus.”

Don wore an expression of polite bafflement, in part because he didn’t know from the New England shoe industry. He steered the conversation back to his job. “Mr. Broadgood--“

“Broadwood,” Bill corrected him.

“I’m so sorry! Mr. Broadwood, I was about to say that I hope you don’t mind if we talk a little shop at dinner.” Don smiled at him with the assumption that he would be acceded to.

Douglas nodded and murmured something agreeable, he didn’t know what.

Don went into editorial mode, again all business. “Now, Bill, I know you don’t want to hear this but--“

“You’re right about that, Donny. I’m tired and sick of thinking about that fucking book.” But the wine was having its effect, and he seemed to relax in time-lapse photography, blooming into ruddy bonhomie right in front of them. He winked at Douglas to show that he wasn’t peeved with him.

“OK,” Bill said tolerantly as he raised the glass to his lips. He said to Don, “What bug is up your ass, specifically?” He grinned at Douglas. “My editor seems to think my work has changed since I’ve been here. Imagine that.” Another wink.

Don looked from one to the other uncomfortably. He shifted his chair closer to the table and hunched over it, resting his elbows on the scarred and rather sticky wooden surface. He looked intently at Bill, smiling to cover his agitation. “Bill, I was starting to say earlier, the last three-quarters or so of the book is--well, it is so unlike you. I don’t hear your accustomed voice anywhere in the last two-thirds of this book. It’s as if you’re trying to turn it into a best-seller, or--I don’t know--another editor’s been at work. It may sound absurd but–“

“I don’t know what you’re telling me. What do you mean another editor?”

Don and Douglas got very still, surprised by the sudden tension in his voice. Bill furrowed his brow and lowered his head a little.

Douglas knew this mannerism by now. This isn’t going to be pleasant, whatever it is.

Don evidently knew it too. His manner eased a doit, became slightly more cajoling. “Bill, somewhere around chapter 6 I noticed that the syntax was changing--textual analysis was always my forte in college and graduate school. Lionel Trilling,” he began fondly, taking in Douglas as well. “He always told me--“

His heart did a strange little stammer. He looked at Don more carefully, and saw the gaze returned. “You studied with him? So did I.” Is this a good thing? Or a very bad one.

Don’s head wagged with the amazement of it. “I thought you looked familiar! When were you there?”

“Right after the war. PhD. program.”

Don covered his confusion with a jolly laugh, even though his face was registering something far from delight. “Isn’t it a small world?” He said it like a catch-phrase meant to divert from actual feelings, but Douglas didn’t understand the reference.

“I wish I could place you,” Don said. “I was there about ten years ago, too.”

Bill motioned to the waiter to take their order. “You know, I’m right here. It’s rude to exclude someone from the conversation like this.” They picked up their menus while the willowy waiter huffed over their delay. They ordered and Bill looked happy.

“Christ, I’m starved. Aren’t you? So, Donny, what’s this about the writing being different and all that? Whatever you were trying to say before the detour down Memory Lane?”

Douglas noticed that Bill was smiling, but the head was still down, the eyes still shielded by the furrowed brow.

“Ah, where was I again? Oh, yes, I was saying that the syntax changed and I felt the tone of the prose became a bit becalmed with it. No, it was more than that. The intense allusiveness--one of the hallmarks of your work--changed into something more, oh, buried or something. And the vocabulary--well, it became less earthy, less grounded in the physical world, more abstract and nebulous. Like suddenly being in a fog bank here in Maine.”

Bill narrowed his eyes and bent his head downward yet again. “Exactly where did this sea change take place in your reading, Don?”

“Chapter 6, as I told you.”

“Exactly what passage, Donald?”

Don sipped and sloshed wine around his mouth to give himself time, to assess and weigh before speaking. He gave Douglas a quick glance, as if asking for a spot of help. Finally, he swallowed with a big aaah! and smacked his lips. “Not bad for house wine.”

“Cut the shit. Where, exactly?”

“Oh, Bill, it’s been a very long day.”

“Some editor you are.”

Don colored a bit and said, “All right then, the sudden change is near the end of the chapter. That’s what was so odd about it. Here we are going along in one mode and then, all of a sudden, another style, another consciousness makes itself felt. At the very least it seems like an inept editing job.” Don was giving Bill of look of sad suspicion, almost of jealousy.

Inept editing job!

Douglas felt his heart squeeze in his chest, as if it were about to tear open the skin and send blood and muscle all over the restaurant’s red table cloths, red curtains, red lamp shades.

“The passage?” Bill persisted.

Don sighed and raised his palms in a sort of surrender. “It happens within the scene between Jimmy and Nora, when they’re celebrating the acceptance of Jimmy’s novel and they get drunk and start to make love. Then, after about five lines, boom. It’s as if we are forced to avert our gaze, and all the expectations we’ve been given for a steamy, emotionally complex scene are wiped away by a sponge--it becomes very pallid and emotionless. Tame and--small somehow. I was telling your...friend here that I was reminded of Updyke.”

“Updyke!” Bill fell back in his seat, unable to believe his ears. Too astonished to drink, too horrified to shout obscenities.

Douglas felt thirsty. He grabbed for a glass of iced water but got wine. He drank it down. This was the first passage he typed for Bill--the first that Bill had written, or perhaps rewritten, after arriving in Selene. He had been shocked by the coarseness of it, blaming Bill’s violently sexual prose on the alcohol and an overly vivid imagination fueled by frustration.

“Worse yet,” Don went on, sipping another glass of wine, beginning to slur his words, “the word play and the underlying humor were gone. I can’t understand it, Bill. What happened? Has Maine had such a strange effect on you?”

Bill had been glowering downward. He looked up now, and he caught Douglas’s eye. He smiled and slid his gaze over to Don. “Yes.”

They sat in their various states of confusion. Don, exhausted from a long day with his uncooperative author, looked from one to the other of them rather muzzily, unsure what to make of things. Bill kept a Mona Lisa smile plastered on his face, occasionally glancing around the garish dining room and prattling vacationers, as if to say--Douglas didn’t want to know or even guess.

Douglas felt short of breath and parched, and he reached for the water glass, draining it in one long swig. He is dangerous, dangerous tonight. Unpredictable.

When the waiter dropped the food on the table, Bill broke the tension by clapping his hands. “I love this wop grub!”

Don shot Douglas a wan look asking for his pardon. “I love Italian food, too. It’s the best cuisine--or should I say cucina--for everyday eating, don’t you think so, Mr. Broadwood?”

“Yes, I agree.” He didn’t agree, had never considered this before, but he was in no mood to add a gram of controversy to the scene.

Bill ate for a minute and wiped his mouth with a red napkin. Douglas almost believed that there would be foamy red blood all around his mouth, but as Bill took the napkin away, he saw a smear of oil above his chin. Bill sighed with good humor and said to Don, “I hardly know what to say. I think I still have my original manuscript around someplace. If you’ll excuse me…”

“Where are you going?”

“I remembered where I can find the original draft for you. I’ll see you tomorrow at 9 sharp, OK, Donny?”

Don nodded and went, “Sure, Bill,” but gazed at him, troubled.

Bill turned and made his way to the front of the restaurant. He bumped against the pine paneling once or twice. He went out.

Not a word. Not a look or a smile. Not one iota of acknowledgment.

Douglas felt sick to his stomach. He couldn’t eat his spaghetti and meatballs. He fiddled with a breadstick, breaking it in two. Don caught his eye, but he looked away and stacked the breadstick pieces in a kind of cross on top of the pasta.

Don turned to Douglas. He gave him a forced smile. “Bill’s a vulnerable person. More fragile and damaged than most. I love--I care for him deeply, in part because he is so different from me. I find his self-destructiveness and anger almost incomprehensible but somehow compelling. Maybe less baffling now that I’ve come here and met…”

Don regarded him coldly. “His talent is all he has to hold onto. You understood that about him, didn’t you? Take that away and, well…” Don made a fluttering bird motion and turned from Douglas. He rested his chin on his hand and seemed to be watching Bill shamble down the lane. A sigh that segued to a yawn. “There’ll be no work done tomorrow.”

Don ate while Douglas sat and watched.

“You don’t have to keep me company, you know.”

“No, I’d like to rest here a while.” Douglas forced himself to smile and adopt a conversational tone. “Running a tourist--an inn at this time of the year--well, it’s all-consuming. Nice to get away for a few hours.”

He shriveled at the thought of going home and encountering Bill’s wrath. Or finding that Bill had left.

Where would he go? Evvie’s?!

His heart thumped in his ears, and he couldn’t catch his breath. He struggled to keep a mask of slightly bored sociability. He heard Don speaking.

“Given everything that we know now, Mr. Broadgood, I think it would be wise for him to register at my hotel--L’Auberge du Capitain--until we get the book sorted out. I know you aren’t his keeper, and I’m sure you’ve done a bang-up job of helping him in his work, and even saving him from the worst of his self-indulgences. His drinking anyway.” Don gave him a sidelong glance that may have been accompanied by a sneer.

Then Don’s expression assumed a bland formality as he turned to him and said, with an almost humorous lightness, “I remember you. You were the one who was always going downtown, hanging around with that bunch of--coterie of extremists who called themselves ‘beat’. The Beats. Now yclept the Beatniks, a little shtetl humor from that Ginsberg character, I have no doubt. As I recall, you were somehow involved with that bibulous Kerouac. You had quite the crush on him--oh, yes, it was all over Columbia. Lionel used to laugh about it. Unrequited love is hard, I suppose.” Don gave him a pitiless look and switched off. Douglas was about to be dismissed.

Don looked at his watch. He said, “I do hope he finds those manuscript pages. He needs a real editor to look at them this time.” At pointed glance at him. Full of contempt and unveiled anger. “You kept them, didn’t you?”

Douglas felt his face blaze. His insides turned to water. He wasn’t a violent man, but this haughty little Mandarin was conjuring up visions of mayhem. “Of course.” He could scarcely speak, the blaze in his body had dried out his throat.

Don looked away and drummed his fingers on the table. He flagged down the waiter and ordered one coffee.

Douglas got up. He lumbered out of the place as if the nerves had been cut to all his limbs. From the doorway he saw that Don was sunk in some introspective morass, ignoring the waiter when he brought the coffee and asked with a moue if he wanted cream.

Douglas went out into the clean cool of the evening.

The sun was setting, crimson light and stiltish shadows were crawling everywhere. The film about the end of the world was coming to its conclusion: the red ball was going to balloon outward, outward, and it would first broil then crush this paltry earth and its foully unhappy inhabitants. God would have his Last Laugh; He would laugh best, relieved to be done with this collection of vermin, whom He had once intended to be in his own image. Even God would have to wonder what had gone wrong--how had He botched things so grievously? Why was happiness so rare, and once experienced, ripped away so quickly?

For an instant Douglas saw himself enthroned in the clouds like an engraving of Jehovah by the first William Blake, pondering the wickedness of humanity, then giving the nod to the sun: Go nova. Let there be too much light. That all things might be new again.

If he had any feelings left, it would have been both erotic and amusingly ironic to think of himself as a creation of William Blake, any William Blake.

He made his way up the hill to Armitage Road like a disembodied spirit, or a spiritless body. It should have been a familiar state, even a comfortable one, but it was like being sent back to hell. What had he done, or left undone, to deserve this hell on earth?

Passers-by called his name and cried out what a glorious evening it was. He ignored them. He felt ill. He never felt ill, but he did now.

Funny. I want my cardigan. So cold.


XIX. Hard Landings

He had stopped short of his house and turned around and made for Evelyn’s. It was already dark, and when he got there she still hadn’t put on any lights. He knocked at the kitchen door, as always. There was thumping and the sound of someone – no, more than one someone – dashing down the stairs. He thought he heard the front door slam, but his state of mind was such that he almost discounted this until Evelyn, out of breath, jounced into the kitchen and switched on the light over the stove. Through the six-paned window he saw her tug and smooth her dress so that it covered her slip. “Coming, Douglas!”

Couldn’t wait, could he? Bitterness warred with the sting of another betrayal. Hurt was winning over anger; he realized that it had always smothered any other emotion, no matter how warranted anger or, say, contempt actually was.

Douglas, what are you doing here at this hour?” She looked uncomfortable and showed no hesitation in expressing her irritation.

“How did you know it was me?”

“You’re about the only one who knocks at the back door. Anyway, I saw you kind of looming in the shadows.”

“Well. Sorry. But it’s only about eight-thirty, Evvie.”

“So?”

“He was here, wasn’t he?” His voice shook. He was relieved that there wouldn’t be a confrontation after all.

She blanched. “Who?” She stepped aside to let him in and shut the door soundly.

“That faithless, gutless little – “

“Oh, stop it, Douglas!” She put her hands to her ears and burst into tears. “I can’t take this!”

“What? What can’t you take, damn it?”

“None of it! What do you think?”

Close to tears himself, he sat down heavily in a flimsy wooden chair that creaked under the sudden load. He stared at the Jackson Pollock linoleum; it was none too clean, and it reminded him that Claire’s work had been rather lackluster of late. Evelyn shuddered, composing herself. She went to the sink and poured water into the kettle.

“Smells like you fell into a vat of wine. Stomping grapes with Lucy. I’m making us some tea.”

“Coffee would sober me up.”

She lit a match to one of the gas burners and stood back from the woosh of blue flame. “Well, coffee doesn’t agree with me these days.” Her voice had a tremulous, self-righteous tone to it. It reminded him of their mother’s, and of his own much of the time.

He felt soberer already.

Evelyn threw the match in the sink and sat down at the other side of the table, which looked out into a private, tree-ringed back garden. She sniffed back the runoff of her tears and looked curiously at him. “What’s happened? You look like shit.”

“Evvie, really.” He hated it when she swore. It sounded defiant and childish coming from her, for some reason.

“Oh, forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.” She softened her harsh tone with a rueful smile. “Tell me. What did he do to you? Was it with that petite bitch, Brenda Ballard? Oh, they’ve been --”

He wasn’t prepared for that one. He said quickly, “He turned on me. Sided with that pompous little editor against me. Negated all the work I did for him – accused me of betraying him. Said he was moving out.”

“Where to?” Evelyn brooded, looking out at the darkness. “Leaving Selene?”

“No such luck.” Another unwelcome thought, another shock to his nervous system. How many horrifying ideas was this stupid girl going to plant in his brain, anyway? He was regretting his announced goal of sobering up. A clear mind, an objectively assessing head was the last thing he wanted right now. “No, he’s moving in with the editor at L’Auberge. God knows what they --” He caught himself, his turn to turn white, and avoided her eye.

Evelyn aimed her derisive green eyes at him and gave a bitter laugh. Hers was the clear eye right now, and what he saw in it was the worst vision of all: that his future was going to be exactly like his past.

Then she said, “Douglas, why are you here?”

He opened his mouth, but the kettle whistled and she got up to prepare the tea. He faced her broad back. “I needed to talk to someone who understands what it’s like to…”

She said nothing. After a couple of minutes she set a mug of Lipton’s in front of him and sat down, blowing on her own tea. “Say it.” She didn’t seem at all like his deferential kid sister right now. There was a cynical look in her eye. A slight curl of the lip registered her contempt.

“Listen, Evvie, about this afternoon – I’m sorry if I –“

“Save it. You don’t have to start pretending you care now.” She sipped the tea and burnt her mouth. “Shit!”

He wondered if she’d always been this tiresome; maybe he’d been seeing her through a haze of fraternal duty and solidarity against the wretched parents they’d been cursed with. He got up. “This was a mistake. Sorry.”

She got up and reached out to him, came into his arms and rested her forehead on his shoulder. Big sobs wracked her. He stood with his arms at his side. “Put your arms around me, damn it.” Then she let loose, tears spilled out of her till his shirt was soaked. Her nose couldn’t stop running, and she had to sit down with a fistful of paper napkins to finish shedding of some of her water weight.

Douglas.”

“What.”

He knew what was coming. The horror of it – her scandal added to the shame of what he’d been up to! He was thrown into a state of angry confusion. Before she spoke, he was ready to believe the worst and was exceedingly skeptical of her claim.

“I – I think I’m pregnant.”

It was one thing to hypothesize, another to hear the ghastly words tumble out of her mouth. “That little bastard.” He said “Bahstad.” He fell into the local speech patterns only when he was in great distress. He sagged forward and put his hands over his face. He waited for the explosion of rage against the randy little weasel, the two-timing (three-timing? four-timing?) sneaking worm. “I’ll kill him.” He was ready for it and he wanted to join in. He put his hands down and glanced at her. “He won’t be allowed to stay in town for long.”

But Evelyn was calm, wearing an odd expression, one that seemed almost sly. “Evvie? What’s wrong with you?”

She sighed and sipped her tea. “Douglas,” and a nervous laugh for punctuation, “since the movie crew came to town, people have been getting kind of wild – they’re doing whatever they feel like doing.”

This was hardly a new observation, but he felt newly flattened by Bill’s restless appetites. “Whom are you trying to exonerate? Him? Yourself?”

She grimaced at whom. “You’re not good at the real, actual world we all live in, are you? Always hiding in some fantasy world of books and, oh, what? Daydreams.” Never had daydreaming sounded so deviant. “Father knew about you. Everything about you, Douglas. You think he didn’t know, but he did, and he spoke about it to Mother. And me. He despised you for your...” She gave him a malign smile as she airily waved her hand. An alien thought was taking hold. “Evvie? Who’s the father of your putative child?”

She shrugged her big shoulders, laughing the way women do when it’s a stand-in for crying. “I really don’t know.”

“I believe you.” Despite his anger, he was touched by her impulse to protect her latest homosexual lover – although, to his mind, the big, slovenly, rather ugly Gary wasn’t as repulsive a human being as the handsome little Bill.

“Thank you.” She was being ironic and not the least grateful. She yawned. “It’s been a hard day, Douglas. Do you mind going back to your house now? I’m kind of busy.”

“Good night.” He got up and kissed her tangled mop of hair.

She didn’t move. “Good night. Don’t mention this to Bill, please.”

“Evvie, I admire your desire to shield him but –“

“No, don’t, Douglas. You’re more than enough for him to deal with.” She blew her nose very wetly into the fistful of soggy napkins. “I admit he had me going for a while. Bill, I mean. But I’m not the big dumb ox I look like. I knew about you two, and I was happy for you. Really I was. For both of you. I saw the change in him and you and – well, you shouldn’t be stupid about your pride. Anyway, it’s pretty damn late for you to be finding your pride, you know?” She looked up at him, smirking like the Greek who discovered irony.

“Or my balls? Isn’t that what you meant?” Douglas felt very wicked and worldly saying this to his own sister. He almost thought he heard his father rumbling about in the background, preparing to burst through the door with his razor strop in striking position. Thank God the old monster’s dead and cremated. It occurred to him that ghosts didn’t bother coming back if they’d be cremated. Too much work involved.

“Oh, them too,” Evelyn said breezily, waving a dimpled wrist. He began to head for the back door, but she said, curtly, “Front door, please. You’re not the yard man, are you?”

He went to the front door and watched her looking past him and out the living room windows, clearly hoping the cheating bastard would be popping back in as soon as the coast was clear. “Who do you think the father is, Evvie?”

Her sly look again. She assumed a childish pose with her head tilted to the side. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”

“You’re really a stupid one, aren’t you?”

He slammed the door and took his time walking home. As he walked along, musing and comfortably melancholy, he imagined the future when cold and snow and galelike drafts penetrated the house, blowing away even the memory of his touch, his kisses, his alcoholic sarcasms, his short-man overcompensations.

Douglas saw himself sitting by the kitchen stove in a rocking chair, warming himself with the oven door open, cardigan well buttoned, staring at nothing as a March storm tossed sleet at the ineffectual windows. This made him much less comfortably melancholy.

He resolved to let Evelyn take care of herself. She was almost forty, and it was time she got herself out of her own messes. Maybe next time she’ll latch onto a more suitable host. And suck the life out of him without all the petty drama. Worse than this soap opera they’re filming.

“Why, good evening!” boomed the hearty voice of Russell Cobb. “My, it’s gorgeous, isn’t it?”

Douglas started a bit. The street was dark and its houses were hidden behind high shrubs. This wasn’t a place he expected Russell to be walking on a Sunday night. “You startled me.”

Russell threw back his head and tried to get out one of his robust guffaws, but it came out wrong. Douglas cocked his head and said, “Where’s Allie? Is she…?”

“Not a bit of it, Douglas. She’s – she’s chatting on the phone. In fine condition, too, I might add.” He looked up at Douglas somewhat defiantly.

Douglas realized, suddenly, after five years, how short the minister was. He had always seemed so manly, athletic and vaguely intimidating. Now Russell seemed like a distracted little old gent. He was chagrined to think that Bill’s attitudes had infected his perceptions of good friends. Or, he reflected, friends as good as he deserved.

“Well, Russell,” he said in a more kindly fashion. “I’d better get home. You too?”

Russell stopped and looked in the other direction. Then he said, slowly, as if unwilling to change his plans, “Well, sure, I guess I’d better. It’s been quite a long day.” He tried putting his arm around Douglas’s shoulder, but the disparity in height and Douglas’s fidgety discomfort ended that attempt after a minute or two.

Douglas could only think of Bill’s touch, his neat body and large veiny hands, and of course the hard penis pushing against his nether parts. But, as he and Russell walked toward the center of town, with light from the street lamps and restaurants, he noticed the man’s taut, muscular body. And he had to admire his strong profile – not exactly handsome, but virile and attractive. Russell Cobb reminded Douglas of an uncommonly well-favored boxer dog.

Douglas began to speculate on Russell’s endowment but blotted out the thought with shameful recollection of the priest in his vestments and the cadences of the creeds and the smell of prayer books and candle wax. He saw himself, ashamed before the Eucharist, kneeling in an abject position – deserving abjectness – at the altar rail. Cast into a new awareness of his corruption as he heard the cloying strains of the boy choir in all their supposed prepubescent innocence.

He laughed softly at the image of his penitent self, tonsured and all. “But not really.”

“What? You seem to be lost in a fascinating interior monologue.” Russell was more subdued than usual.

“You know, Russell, I was. I was thinking of the difference between – between conventional –“

“Ah, here we are. Home sweet home.” Douglas thought he detected a sarcastic note, but Russell trotted up the steps to the rectory and turned around, waving and calling out “cheerio.” He lost no time getting into the house.

* * *

The days passed in a kind of sober trance. One after another, indistinguishable and at once torturous and skimmingly peaceful and productive in Don’s custody. It was a kind of house arrest, Bill knew, but he didn’t mind it too much. Don was leading him back into the raw originality of his vision, assisted by the breathless, echt scribblings in the notebooks retrieved from Douglas’s meddling – no, traducing--hands. Don handled the notebooks reverently, with only the slightest irony in his earnest face. Bill could see the light of true belief once more in his eyes, which he hadn’t seen since the first book, and Don’s belief induced him to believe too. The renascence of Wry Beach felt like a time-lapse movie sequence, where a tulip pokes a leaflet above the earth, springs up and does a heliotropic dance before it blooms, all in ten seconds.

Don had hired a professional typist, who of course did nothing to compromise the integrity of his vision, Bill’s vision, as patted and shaped by Don’s knowing touch.

Well, Bill, reflected, wasn’t Don an artist in his own right? He had listened to the whole impassioned, wheedling, cajoling, evangelistic performance that Donny made on the phone with Mr. Greenleaf. “He’s got enough material here for two novels – maybe three! They defy categorization! This bids fair to become a seriocomic sweep of New England history, ending with the ironically decadent present day in all its Republican corruption and torpor! This series of novels will make Cheever’s work look like the half-baked drivel it is! In Bill we have – finally, and I know it’s been a long wait, sir, yes, Mr. Greenleaf, I acknowledge how you’ve footed the bill for a long unrewarded time – but now, now we have the American Joyce…no, the American James! Well, really American, unlike the effete James, who went dawdling away half his career in E. F. Benson territory!” Don went on in this curiously inaccurate way for over an hour, employing more exclamation points than Bill, sober, had used in ten years. The result was that he had won a publication date for the book; a marketing budget (two fractional ads in the Times Book Review); and a $5000 advance. With this windfall, Bill opened a savings account, and he swore Don to secrecy; Dora and the indulgent Selene tradesmen must never learn of his ability to support himself.

“Bill, you’re a character,” Don laughed. This was one of the highest accolades he could have given Bill, who basked in it until Don made him tackle the supremely difficult eighth chapter once more. In this 70-page monster, Bill had the protagonist of the present day (the boozy but brilliant and spiritually honest Jim Sweet) and his wife (the beautiful but vile, materialistic Violet) engage in sex scenes that beat out anything in Henry Miller, if not the Marquis de Sade. The unhappy couple made a religion of sex and, using that as the launching pad, the chapter digressed into foul-mouthed philosophical musings on the trajectory of American history as seen through the natives of a town similar to Hawthorne’s Salem, minus that author’s coy, hoop-skirted allusions to matters of the flesh. Ah no, the sex was graphic and physically specific– very raunchy, as the New England term had it. But it was also exalted and rapturous, an expression of Higher Things, in another and not unrelated New England manner.

Partway through this clotted chapter, the character of the novel changed. From a swift, comic, deftly realized, regional comedy of manners and pretensions it metamorphosed into something that outRussianed the Russians in its sardonic, narcissistic despair. “These are very heavy matzoh balls you’re serving up, Bill. We’ll need a hell of a lot of work to ideate a lighter recipe. If not, you’ll sink the book.”

Somewhat cowed by ideate, Bill held his fire, sort of. “But I worked so hard on this, Donny! There’s a lot of great writing here!”

“But, Bill, it’s something of a farrago –“

“No, damn it. I’m not cutting this out. I’ll revise it – some--but it’s got to stay. I’ve given in to you all over the place, but not here.” Bill thumped the table to demonstrate his adamancy. Then in a non-sequitur that had Don’s mouth hanging open: “The problem with American fiction is that it’s, it’s not political enough!”

“Since when is narcissistic pornography political!”

Bill seethed. “For your information, Mr. Trend Seeker, we are living in an Age of Narcissism! Ever since Hemingway! And Norma fucking Shearer!”

Don went “ugh!” as Bill slung himself to the other end of the room, into one of the big chintz armchairs. He was out of Don’s line of sight. He looked out on the mountain with its featureless mantle of green. His gut was fluttering; something was giving way inside, and it felt like a kind of grief. Not only anger. Grief too. He composed himself and said in a cold tone, “If people think two hundred pages of fucking whale zoology is so fucking fascinating, they can put up with my fucking obsessions for a couple of pages.”

Don groaned. “When I hear the triple fuckings, I know I’m licked. So have it your way, my scribe. You’ll see my point before too long, I’m sure. You always do. Meanwhile, I remind you that, despite your tantrums, the book has been pruned down to a reasonable length and focus. It could actually sell, William. With the right promotion. If we ingratiate ourselves with the right people.”

“Like Columbia people?

Don smiled complacently. “We all could make some money for a change.”

“Shit!” He remained there, arms crossed, raging inwardly that Don had won his point so many times and even now had to act superior in the expectation that Bill would bow to his wisdom before day was done – presumably, before the thing was published and Don and the Eboracum Press were suffered critical – and let us not forget financial--humiliation for his puerile excesses. Still, he’d played ball, hadn’t he? Hadn’t Don had persuaded him to save the “fine work in the long section set in the eighteenth century” for another book? Bitterly, Bill realized that this other, embryonic book would never see the light of day if Herr Doktor Editor prevailed. And so here they were at an impasse about three-quarters of the way through a brilliant yet readable novel (“I think this can hit big, Bill, America’s had enough of bloated soap operas”) of raffish charm and verbal élan; Bill continued to dig in his heels so stubbornly that even he was puzzled by it.

Then that weird sensation of an upwelling sadness – no, a specific grief – overwhelmed him again. He tried to quash it, but the upwelling didn’t subside; it threatened to overspill his metaphorical banks. It stupefied him, because he couldn’t remember the last time he cried.

A lost life and wife, a family he’d carelessly destroyed – was that it? Homesickness for the brittle security of the ancestral manse? Was it that he missed the pampering – having his messes, literal and figurative, picked up by his female acolytes? Did he pine for the sense of privilege that had always shielded him from the callousness of the sneering world – privileges that would quickly vanish when – if – it was discovered what sort of bird he really was? He tried to imagine himself back in Angleport, lounging around the old house, expensive drinks in hand, aromatic wood fires brightening well-lit rooms crammed with beautiful things, sumptuous fabrics caressing his sleek form, etc., etc., etc?

Christ, no. No, no. Just thinking of it in those terms made him laugh out loud. Absurd!

No no no no, he mused, furiously banishing those images of blessed indolence. He stared out at the mountain as Don beavered away at the manuscript behind him and thought that none of the old comforts and security mattered in the least. He congratulated himself, because he may have actually grown up a bit since he’d come here. He felt like the same man inside, alas, but in letting some things go, he’d allowed others to take their place. And, well, shit, he had to be honest with himself. He had to admit it. He missed Douglas. He heard the Edith Piaf song in his mind’s ear, Tu es partout. He saw Douglas’s face smiling up at him from the pillow. He remembered the way he felt when Douglas grabbed his arm and pulled him down, whispering, “Don’t leave,” caressing him with infinite tenderness. And of course he’d fucked that up royally, hadn’t he, weak-willed little turd that he was. Always caving in. First to Dora, then Don. And everyone else. Screw ‘em.

It occurred to him – now, at 40 years of age, a couple of gray hairs on his head – that no one had to live his life but him. It seemed a bit like a revelation, more embarrassing than exhilarating in its anticlimactic lateness.

So Bill thought, wording it very explicitly to himself, I need to see Douglas. I need to--

He said to Don, “I have to go.” He got up and caught Don’s eye.

“No. No, Bill.” Don’s gaze was like a searchlight into his consciousness. “You don’t.”

“Now I know the way of out the dead end – the book. I get it now. I need to…” He needed to see Douglas. Needed. Because the fact was that only under Douglas’s roof had he been able to break out of his self-made bonds. Douglas had compulsively tidied his work, but the original notebooks were here, full of their raw demotic vitality or whatever bullshit Donny liked to spout. He felt desperate to go to Douglas and throw himself on his mercy, move back into the Sarah Orne Jewett room even if someone had to be turned out (he could afford to fork over Douglas’s gouging rate now), have his trays delivered and fires laid and all the rest of it. But with none of Dora’s caustic editorials, the perfect example of giving with one hand and taking with the other.

And all of it without the incessant checking up and assessing and nagging that Don subjected him to. He even stopped by Bill’s room and sniffed the air for alcohol every evening after dinner! It was insupportable! He’d never experienced such hateful control before! Such shameful lack of trust! Such smug self-control and the absolute conviction that he, Donny, had all the answers and was alone able to guide his gifted but weak scribbler to a joint success for which Don would broadcast his own decisive brilliance and persistence!

Don got up and stood in front of him, blocking the light from outside as he leaned forward and peered into his eyes. “No, Bill. Douglas is – he’s bad medicine for you, Bill.”

Bill sulked, looking past Don to the view outside. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Don played his trump. “He’s bad for your career, Bill.”

Bill almost flinched but said with arch irony, “Too bad. He’s a great lay.”

Don had his own version of the hooded, dangerous look that Bill used so effectively. Bill absorbed Don’s expression of disapproval. And his disgust.

After an uncomfortably long time, Don almost whispered. “If this or any other book is to be published, Mr. Greenleaf has demanded – demanded – one more thing of you, Bill.” He stood there giving Bill a hard look.

His guts clenched. “If he expects me to quit drinking –“

“Not that. Although I think it would be a good idea. But no. Even Mr. Greenleaf has the romantic notion that writers’ creativity is fueled by the alcohol they consume.” Don sighed. “He chided me for staying here too long. I have neglected my duties, for all that this was a working holiday. Emphasis on the working.” Don seemed lost in thought. Bill peered at him, waiting for the next shoe to drop.

He tried laughing it off. “I suppose he wants me to have a chaperone twenty-four hours a day.”

Don’s face lit up with a smile. “Exactly. You have to move to New York.”

What?

“We’ll find you a place on the West Side. Far from the gin mills downtown. Very far from the likes of the Beat crowd,” Don said wryly.

“But I want to stay here. In Selene Harbor. I don’t want –“

“What you want isn’t always what you need, Bill. You know I’m right about that. What’s more, old boy, it’s already in the works. My assistant is working with a friend of Elaine’s who’s a real estate broker–“

“No, Donny, what the fuck is this, anyway?” He jumped up and faced Don eye to eye. “What are you – no, who are you characters to ‘demand’ this of me? Am I your goddamned serf? Your chattel? Lincoln freed the slaves almost a hundred years ago!” He tried staring Don down but blinked first and looked away. “I’d fucking belt you if I didn’t need this book published before I’m truly and universally written off. Thanks a fucking heap, my buddy. My pal.” He pushed Don out of the way and made for the door.

“Bill, if I were you –“

Bill was churning inside, and as much as he loathed both Don and his employer right now, he did allow himself to imagine New York vignettes. Drinks in storied clubs, staying up late every night surrounded by wit and revelry, the New York party that didn’t end at 10:30, like when the last double feature ended at the Strand back home. Or when the dumps in Selene ejected their last drunk on the good side of midnight. Hell no, in New York it was just getting good around midnight, you had hours to look forward to. You could even order a meal if you wanted to, that’s how different New York was from these dull-as-ditchwater New England burgs!

And in New York he could…explore, was that the right word? --yes, explore the new territories that Douglas and he had started to open together. Away from the prying eyes and censorious mouths of small towns, of narrow-minded New England with its festering secrets. Oh, at last, he thought, at last he would be free, really free, and none of the stifling moralism of Mr. Greenleaf or the self-seeking Don Wassermann would stop him.

For once I can do what I want, unfettered. At last I can live like a human being.

No, he couldn’t, actually.

He didn’t know the city or where to hook up with anyone or what the local ground rules were. He’d be another middle-aged failure, wandering around the colossal heartless place pathetically seeking illegal and despised pleasures, pleasures that wouldn’t be pleasures at all when his sense of self was being annihilated and his stubborn attachment to his own talent lost its grip – as he lost his will.

And he had to face it: he was a hick New England boy, scared shitless even in Boston, which was a pokey little hole next to New York.

Bill stood by the door. He broke out in a sweat. “Donny, I –“

“Bill,” Don said soothingly, approaching him, “it won’t be so terrible. In fact, I think it will be the best thing that ever happened to you. It’ll get you away from Dora, at long last. You know I adore her, but, well, she’s pretty…”

He felt paralyzed. He wished he could walk out the door and be free, even if it meant spiting himself and destroying his chances as a serious writer, for once and for all.

He looked at Don, who’d put his hand on his shoulder. “You fucking win, damn you.” He shrugged him off, in too much turmoil to explode. He made an attempt to smile, giving Don one of his hood looks. “We need good reviews, Donny. Can you get them for me?


XX. Doors to Temptation

Miss Ballard was holding forth on Acting. Charming, almost clever with a glass of white wine in her exquisitely manicured little hand, she held the room in thrall. As one of the top supporting players in the cast, she was enthroned in the worn main parlor of Broadwood’s Olde Yankee Inn (new sign out front, what had possessed Douglas to come up with a name containing Olde? And for Douglas Broadwood to part with a dime on something that didn’t involve the plumbing…!), holding court with the supporting players in the life of the little town. Alla Trotter was doing likewise with the visiting magnates at L’Auberge du Capitain, glass of straight vodka in her even more exquisitely groomed little hand; like Miss Trotter, the magnates were gilded outsiders of lowly origin who’d invaded the place for the season.

This was a collection of townies, as Don muttered to Bill. The Cobbs—Russell, anyway--were paying homage to semi-stardom, as were half of the doctors and lawyers in town who hadn’t sneaked into the Trotter audience (fellow parishioners and regulars at Douglas’s Sunday dinners). Even a puffy Evelyn was sitting way over there by the bay window in rueful solitude, studying the backs of her hands. Douglas was nowhere to be seen, of course. Bill imagined him in his sanctum upstairs writing one of his idiotic, unsendable letters to Jack Kerouac, in which he’d be satirizing the whole celebrity-besotted town and all its new-money airs. “There is no true vision, there is no art anywhere in these traitorous days, my darling,” and God knows what other high-minded horseshit. I can fucking imagine the sanctimonious garbage he’d scribble, the big martyr!

“And they told me,” Don went on, “that even though I was a paying guest at that pretentious ‘auberge,’ I was not invited to remain. Can you believe that! Well, Alla Trotter is hardly a talented actress, is she? More of a mammary phenomenon, and of course she’s slept her way to the top, if top is what that precarious perch is.” He paused. “In person she looks like a sagging old tart.” He sipped his ginger ale. “Which she is. Frightening facelift and all. Those Hollywood doctors are dreadful quacks. Serves her right, the --”

Bill grinned as the townies next to them went shush and Please! He loved seeing Don lose his sang froid, which didn’t happen much. Unlike Bill, Don wasn’t used to being slighted, dangling on the B list. Or on no list at all.

Then, with something of a jolt and a sudden flush that had him sweating, way in the center of the room he saw Brenda smile at him and move her eyes back and forth between Don and himself. He shook his head No. Brenda smirked as if to say Oh, you think so?

Don caught the last part of this face language. He whispered, “You know each other?”

There was a pathetic eagerness in his manner. God help Elaine. Bill kept looking at Brenda, who was graciously fielding questions about the differences between film and stage acting from the audience, as if she’d know, and nodded. “We’ve met.”

He hadn’t had the heart – or was it the temerity? – to tell Don that the reason for his ill-tempered exhaustion some days wasn’t the amount of work or even the amount of booze he’d sucked up the night before. Sure, Don checked on him early before toddling off to his own well-regulated slumber. Then, six or seven times in the past few weeks, since leaving Douglas’s, Bill had headed for Brenda’s lodging, where she and Dave would be waiting, martini glasses in hand. What else was he going to do with his free time? Hadn’t Douglas himself said, “You have a lot of élan vital”?

When he got there, Dave always had a glass in each hand and passed one to Bill as if it were the communion chalice. Dave was always naked; Bill was surprised to discover how small his cock was. They would sit around sipping with a sort of tense deliberateness, Brenda watchful and smiling her peevish Mona Lisa smile.

The first time, Bill looked more at Brenda, stealing the odd glance at Dave’s hairy, muscular perfection, and his adorable little dick. But after a couple of these sessions, he made no show of preferring her. He allowed himself to acknowledge that Dave was the bait Brenda had set out for whatever satisfactions she was going to get; and that she really did expect Bill, Mr. Fruit Writer, to find his excitement in the dark, hairy man. Well stimulated, he was expected to finish perverse little her off at the end.

If fucking the starlet was the price he had to pay for an hour with Dave, he was willing to pay it.

By the end of the first threesome, they’d worked out their M. O. When Brenda disrobed, Dave would set down his untouched drink, advance on Bill and roughly undress him. Nowhere nearly as tall or massive as Douglas, he was still considerably taller and far stronger than Bill, and Bill learned not to fight him too much – only as much as enhanced the game. Brenda would watch with mounting excitement as Dave stood with Bill pressed against him, and poked him in profile to Brenda. She got to see Bill’s bigger cock swell and throb purply as Dave did his work.

Then, prostate well stimulated, Bill would mount Brenda. Dave moved to the top of the bed; his dick got lost in her golden hair, and he stroked both dick and hair. Dave never came. Bill struggled not to shoot his load within a minute or two of getting inside.

He was surprised that Brenda was so tight after her years of experience; he rather liked feeling that she was so petite and thoroughly invaded by his cock. She moaned a little and came. He could feel the warm wash of it, and he let it go, yowling with frustration until Dave lunged over the bed and sucked the air out of him. Dave’s lips had a calming effect, and he could have stayed hard for hours with Dave’s saliva washing into his mouth.

Once, in the middle of things, he opened his eyes and saw her pouty smirk below him. Her right hand was playing with her hair, and with Dave’s dick.

Then she asked for a cigarette and another drink. “Brenda needs a ciggie.” She reached to the night table and rattled the ice still in her glass. Dave jumped up and fetched for her. Bill labored on until he’d done what he’d been summoned to do.

It was an efficient procedure. In and out in about an hour. “Better than going to the headshrinker,” Brenda once said. “Cheaper, too. And Brenda doesn’t have to rehash her si triste childhood.” Then, as she toweled out her hair, she started talking about her career. Bill suspected was his cue to leave. He was happy to oblige.

Dave never got dressed. He stayed. He always gave Bill a smile that spoke of either a relieved gratitude or a budding love. He could never tell. But he did know better than to proposition Dave directly for their own twosome.

“I wonder if, to some degree, all emotion isn’t play-acting,” she was saying to the crowd. “I mean, think of it this way. The world is a system of conventions. You’re scripted as much as I am when I’m in a movie. We’re all expected to feel certain things and react in certain ways, in any given situation. Delight. Disapproval. Longing. Terror.” She made silent-film faces to illustrate, and everyone was content to see the artist mock her art’s conventions. “So, you see,” she said, leaning forward with a playful earnestness, “we all act to some extent. As an actress, it’s my job to be aware of it and to give it a slight twist – to play it up and, perhaps, to acknowledge the ever so slight mendacity that we all share in expressing our feelings.” There was a wink at this, and a muffled chuckle of discomfort.

“Oh, gosh!” she cried, gauging the effect of the last remark. She shook herself winsomely, as if coming out of some acting trance. She all but winked at the crowd, and she grinned as they seemed to come round to her again. “I have gone on and on. I really should be going.”

A chorus of No’s and Please don’t’s.

Brenda bowed her head in gratitude, making no attempt to get up. “Oh, the life of a movie actress isn’t as glamorous as you think. I have to get up at five for a six o’clock call.” She groaned. At this she did get up and accepted with a genuine show of delight the thanks and good nights of the people closest to her, Russell Cobb first among them. He pumped her hand as if she’d pledged a new organ to the parish. Allie Cobb stood to the side, polishing off another highball, regarding her husband with sour indulgence. Evelyn stared at them angrily; her gaze met Bill’s, and she looked away, blushing, confused.

Brenda caught Bill’s eye, too, again with a nod toward Don. He shook his head, but she stood up. In a few seconds she managed to break away from the others and came to him. “Mr. Blake, it’s nice to see you here tonight. Your old lodgings, I believe. Where is that tall landlord? He reminds me of Raymond Massey in Arsenic and Old Lace. Please introduce me to your very handsome friend.”

Snide bitch.

He wanted to slap her. Douglas was no Greek god, but he sure as hell wasn’t that creepy. He quashed his own awareness of, even dissatisfaction with, Douglas’s vast, unexceptional body and long horse face. Now he had Dave to compare, and there was really no comparison: Dave was a Greek god – a living statue of Hercules, miniature meat and all--while Douglas was a tired fuddy-duddy with a pot belly.

“Miss Ballard, it’s such a pleasure!” Don gushed. Bill saw the big eyes she was giving him, and he saw Don falling, falling off a precipice. Don wore a dazed expression in his star-struck joy. For possibly the first time in his life he looked stupid, which gave Bill a certain malicious comfort.

Don twitched, as if he were about to grab her hand. He restrained himself with difficulty.

“This is my editor, Brenda. The taskmaster I told you about,” and he laughed with a Ballardesque consciousness of everyday play-acting. “Don Wassermann. Don, Brenda.”

“Charmed!” Don beamed. “I loved you in…” He stopped dead, and they were all aware that he’d probably seen her only in Life magazine.

Brenda tossed back her head and gave a short, lusty laugh. She was doing Bette Davis in All About Eve. “Oh, I wouldn’t feel too bad, Mr. Wassermann. I surely wouldn’t expect a man of your attainments to follow the film career of someone who – well, someone like me. Ooh!” She contrived to twist her ankle and stooped swiftly to remove her shoes. Now she was able to look up at Don, laughing like a school girl caught writing her boyfriend’s name in her notebook.

“Call me Don.” He beamed down at her, elated at his elevation to taller man. “Please.” He steadied her and held her free hand, playing with her knuckles.

“Don. I know you’re an intellectual, and you probably go to foreign films. Or revivals of lefty Warners pictures. Yes?”

“Yes!”

“That’s fine. My tastes lean in that direction myself. The Bicycle Thief.

The Rules of the Game.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

“The Blue Angel.”

“Red Dust.”

The Black Legion.”

Marked Woman.

High Sierra!” they cried together.

“Well,” both of them sighed, rapturous. Whether Brenda’s enjoyment was real or simulated, Bill couldn’t quite tell. The Ballard Method in action.

Then Brenda said to Bill, “Really, I feel as if I’ve met my soul mate.” She winked to indicate her overstatement, but she took Don’s hand and held it for a good half-minute. . “So handsome and soooo smart. Mr. Wassermann. How delightful to meet you. I hope to see you again quite soon.”

She must think people in publishing talk like this. And hadn’t he caught her doing a subtle riff on Marilyn Monroe meeting Arthur Miller for the first time? The mobile lips and the breathy, little-girl voice all of a sudden, quite different from her usual deadpan delivery.

“Please! Call me Don.”

“Don.” She did a lot with the unassuming little syllable, he had to give her points for that. Straight out of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. A minute more of this and Don would be looking like Bernini’s Teresa.

“You too, Mr. Blake. When will we be graced with your presence again?”

“Don’t know,” he said with a shrug. “So busy. Busy busy. Right, Don?”

“Oh, well…I – I don’t know if we’re,” Don had to take a breath, “all that busy! It isn’t every day one gets to enjoy the company of so charming a lady.”

Bill decided to play along with the idiocy of the moment. Assuming what he thought was a George Sanders tone, he said, “We have an early call tomorrow as well, don’t we, Donald? I’d leave by myself, but I fear the mischief that you’d do, Brenda.” Murmurous laughter all around.

Don sighed. “You happen to be right, William. But soon, Miss Ballard?”

“Brenda. Always Brenda. For you.”

To Bill’s horror and, at the same time, his gratified amusement, he saw Don become an idolater. Right there, in front of his amazed eyes. The good-humored, even-tempered, utterly responsible editor, that pillar of Morningside Heights, looked like a hop head grooving on bebop, capable of robbing and killing to get more of the drug. (I’ve been reading too many scandal sheets!)

Even so, it was plain that all the temptresses of the Bible had nothing on Brenda Ballard for promises of grace and ecstasy.

Don didn’t seem to notice his perdition, or Brenda in her of her favorite roles, Jezibel. He laughed with a ravished idiocy and left the house singing “Libiamo” in what seemed, to Bill, flawless Italian.

Bill followed him and turned to see Brenda’s triumphant smirk. She kissed him good-bye. She gave him the finger, too.

* * *

Bill knew the novelty of being the responsible one would wear off fast. And it did. All Don could talk about was Brenda, her air, her wit, her beauty, her freshness and – “But surely I’m mistaken in this!” – her suggestion of wantonness, tantalizingly mooshed in with all that flaxen-haired purity.

The day was rainy and cool, for once. All the location shooting would have been postponed, and there weren’t many interiors being shot in Selene. Brenda would be free. If Dave was free, she would find errands for him to run, such as an emergency trip all the way down to L. L. Bean for something she required, like a camp stove or a pair of moosehide slippers. Just the thing for those orgies with jigs and chinks.

“No. You’re not mistaken. She’s a whore and a sneaky, conniving little bitch. She’d sell her turds to Hearst if it would help her career.”

“Bill! That’s a harsh thing to say!” Don got up and paced about in his new frenetic manner. “I don’t think you should talk about Miss Ballard that way. What has she ever done to you?” He kept peeking at his watch. He appeared to have an appointment soon.

Bill bit his tongue. “Aren’t we supposed to be working on my book? Our book, I mean?” He didn’t know if he was happy or not about Don’s presumed cascade into adultery.

“Oh, we’re doing all right. We’ve made blazing progress. We don’t have to work like slaves each and every day.” Don stopped pacing around in his needing-a-drink way and tried smiling as if he were still in command. “Well, time is of the essence. Why don’t you tackle chapter 8 while I go for a walk. You know,” he added, as if having an epiphany, “I’ve been here weeks and weeks and have still seen very little of this town.”

“Chapter 11, actually.”

“Yes! You’re right! We’ve really made great progress, haven’t we, old boy?”

Bill grinned sourly. “Yah. Anyway, I could use some unchaperoned time to write on my own.”

Don checked the time again. He laughed, “Wonderful, my scribe! Don’t wait up for me,” and left. Bill heard him skitter down the stairs.

He sat in the chintz-rich room for a while, knocked about by a wild variety of emotions, visions, desires. It was as if all the Seven Deadly Sins – really, he thought, the Seven Basic & Necessary Emotions for Survival in This Nasty Universe – were banging on his chest at the same time, demanding action to suit each one of them. (Well, sloth was taking its usual nap.)

He seethed with righteous indignation as he imagined the self-righteous Don, in direct violation of his Code, fooling around with the meretricious Brenda.

He ached with lust as he imagined Dave, alone and cast out, lying naked in his own room back at Douglas’s. He tried to imagine what Dave was thinking and feeling, but he couldn’t quite believe that Dave was capable of thinking thoughts and feeling emotions on his own.

Maybe that was why Dave kept becoming Douglas; suddenly the thoughts and feelings came in a flood, and he realized Douglas was sweeping him away.

He struggled some but gave up and allowed Douglas to take over his imaginings. Some old helpless feeling, a kind of terrible ache in his balls, took over his senses.

The flood of emotions swirled around a center of loneliness and betrayal. He knew his own loneliness – the resentment he felt – in this separation from Douglas. The pain of his own shame as an accomplice in Douglas’s betrayal actually made him sit up ramrod straight and gasp. He was alert now, peering into the middle distance. Douglas,” he whispered. Douglas, I’m—“

Jesus, the full force of what he’d had--Douglas’s warm touch and fearfully hopeful green eyes—his long strong body and cradling embrace—even of the flowery scent of Camay soap and the bitter taste of Breck shampoo when he kissed and licked his neck—Oh, yes, and let’s not forget the heat of his questioning mouth, his delicate tongue.

The full force of what he’d tossed away in a fit of pique—a mean-minded, faggoty access of spite—pressed on him like a two-ton boulder named Evelyn. The “kid sister,” by the way, who’d always manipulated poor Douglas with a pretense of loving and caring about him. Hers was the closest to a reciprocated love that poor bastard had ever gotten, wasn’t it?

Bill groaned with remorse as it occurred to him that nobody had ever loved Douglas before. No one had ever returned so much as his lust, never mind anything more personal and pleasant, more sustaining. He thought, Well, sure, he never permitted it. Always afraid, always living behind his barriers. Never trusting anyone. I sympathize, but it’s so fucking sad.

Bill got up and went to his own room as soon as the self-serving nature of these thoughts began to intrude. He studied his ruddy summer face in the mirror of his bathroom. No hangovers for a while; relative sobriety showed in his face. He grimaced at himself and opened the toilet tank and, fishing out a pint of Scotch, dried it on a towel and took it into the bedroom, where there was a glass and a water jug by the bed. He mixed a finger of Scotch with half a glass of water. He sat down on the bed and sipped at it.

“Shit.” He slugged it back and poured a more customary ratio. After closing the blinds and drapes, he undressed and lay naked on the bed in the cool afternoon darkness.

Do I “love” him?

He’d allowed as much to Douglas, although he’d never, ever uttered that deadly phrase, not even in the privacy of his own brain. How many times had he said, “I’ve never loved anybody,” and said it with a bravado that now seemed like the pathetic defense that it was?

And he blamed Don for it, Don and only Don.

Fear, anger and contempt for Don warred within him. It was all Don’s fault, this sense of isolation and falsity. Finally he had begun to live authentically, hadn’t he, and Don swept into town and started playing nanny and truant officer without letup. Always preaching and attempting to set a good example, blah fucking blah. The Code. The Arts. Litrachah.

“My scribe.” What crap! Self-serving son of a bitch!

Ah, how he had always envied Don’s money, sophistication and self-assurance, his achievement of the perfect life, or something akin to it. And how he despised him now for his willingness to risk it all for a piece of Hollywood ass. And, by the way, for leaving “his scribe” alone to soldier on by himself.

He imagined the money and fame – no doubt modest but far greater than anything he’d realistically expected for himself – if he cravenly stayed the course, shut his mouth, played ball, etc., etc. All this self-interest sickened him almost as much as it drew him in like some powerful gravitational force.

As he brooded, Bill glanced at the end table next to him. On it there was a butter-colored telephone, which matched the warm glowing paint of the walls. He picked up the receiver and stared at it. Then he called the inn’s operator. “Get me Mr. Wassermann’s home number in New York City. Please.”

He had never felt so sober in his life. He felt light and joyous.

He felt mean. It felt good.

Bill saw shipwrecks and biblical plagues coming, and he thought, I don’t give a shit. Don would soon see how willing he was, still, to take risks in his writing and elsewhere.

Elaine picked up the phone and spoke in a lonely voice. “Hello? Donny, is that you, sweetheart?” She sounded as though she had been crying.


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