Saturday, August 26, 2006

CATCH OF THE DAY, CHAPTERS 21 - 24

XXI. New Money, Old Skin

In his exhausted state all days were blurring one into another nothing but work and money and –

And, Douglas reflected, the whining of guests, ever more demanding and assertive all over Selene as the prices crept up and the wash of new money changed the visitors and the town that hosted them. It was enough to make townies like him wish the old days back, when their clientele was mostly a parsimonious, tight-lipped bunch of New Englanders like themselves—people who kept their mouths shut and let their discontents simmer at a low heat.

As he stood by the new front desk, the scene reminded him of some movie from the Forties where dozens of extras milled about some chic spot looking “carefree” and “glamorous” and strangely overdressed, and where supporting players bustled up to the hotel desk demanding the best room in the house, while Franklin Pangborne, all droll unctuousness, scrambled to accommodate them.

The Broadwood Inn–the designation of which was Carol Archambault’s brainchild, among her many ideas that were remaking the dowdy old place into something almost stylish in a retrograde, self-consciously regional way– the Broadwood Inn had never been more fully booked, or so full of people with loud voices and detailed critiques of the Great Issues of Our Time. So many of them appeared to hold contentious opinions and astounded Douglas by appearing, also, to believe that others should care what those opinions were.

Even now, when he would have thought they’d be out looking for a restaurant or going for a late swim, they packed the huge sitting room, talking, arguing, smoking and drinking. Lots of drinking. Aside from the scrolly-script sign that swung smoothly on its hinges, the most visible change so far was the makeshift bar that had been installed at the far end of the sitting room—no, no, the lounge, as Carol and some of the guests insisted on calling it. Fresh-faced college boys, whom Carol knew well and seemed easily to control, were busy serving beer and cocktails all the hours the law would allow. (He had broken down and bought a liquor license at Carol’s insistence. A few modest bribes to some of the town selectmen kept the application process from dragging on till 1960. His profits jumped 40% the first week, as Carol’s meticulous records showed. And the miracle was he had profits this season, enormous ones.)

“But I called you two weeks ago!” the chunky bleach blonde in the strapless dress and rhinestone sunglasses was shouting at him. “I told your girl that I wanted the Sarah Orne Jewett room, which your brochure said was the finest in the house, and she assured me it was available.”

Brochure? He had no idea Carol, the “girl,” had spent money on a brochure. Where had she sent it? And how had this deplorable woman from Cleveland got her hands on it?

Douglas smiled, hoping he showed no confusion or dismay, and looked through the reservation book. It was filled, and there were so many cross-outs and additions that he could barely read the entries for the week. Carol had indicated, in a code she had devised, a higher rate every time she crossed out one and added another.

He feared that next he’d see the Mortons’ names crossed out and replaced by short-term visitors at quadruple the rate. But the old couple’s off-season patronage was too important to throw them out. At least, he hoped Carol had realized that.

He started with a sudden illumination: Carol was calling people and telling them rooms were not available for some reason or another. Then she was able to offer the same room, at a handsome premium, to some other anxious metropolitan who had begged and begged for it. This would explain the concentrated flurries of long-distance calls that he had started to see on the phone bills.

I should be stern with her, it’s dishonest.

But then he thought of her eagerness to fix the place up and to make uniformly excellent suggestions that bid fair to get the highest return, and not just during July and August. She had ideas for year-round events and packages that would draw people even in the dismalest months of the Maine year.

“You know, Mr. Broadwood, these grounds are lovely,” Carol had told him the other day. “Think of the people who’d love to ‘get away from it all’ for a long winter weekend.” It occurred to him that she put the phrase in quotation marks because it was an alien concept—a marketing concept, something that she’d come across at the university. “This place is gorgeous in the snow—I’ve seen it. Of course, it might mean unblocking the fireplaces and sticking a bit of insulation in the walls. But you could get people up here from New York or Philadelphia for Christmas, especially Jews who’d like to do something traditional but not Christian. They can ski on Mount Selene, too, if they aren’t very hot skiers. Bunny slopes. There’s a market for you, Mr. Broadwood.” Carol had nodded sagely, looking very much the sharp-eyed French-Canadian who’d seen hard times and was determined never to see them again. “We could call that one the American Chanukkah Tradition package. We—you could even serve their special foods. I could research them and teach Aunt Claire how to make them.” Her eyes hardened. “You know, we have to get her some help. I love my aunt, but I don’t think she’s up to the new requirements.”

He stared. “You’ve got some interesting ideas, Carol.” Bending Aunt Claire to her will wasn’t the least of them.

She broke into a wide smile and cried eagerly, “Oh, I’ve got a ton of ‘em!”

Her laughter had a bit of an edge to it. “Take them seriously or you’ll be sorry, Douglas Broadwood.” She had probably already printed that Jewish brochure, too, in Yiddish. He wasn’t threatened. He was relieved. It was so nice to have someone to think this stuff up for him; God knew, he had never had a passion for it.

Douglas found himself smiling benignly at Mrs. O’Connor. He’d have to offer Carol a year-round job, if she’d have it. Maybe he’d give her a decent salary and a percentage. Well, a small salary and a percentage. It would not be wise to abandon all precedence and prudence.

He heard Bill’s voice in his head, and it said, “And what the fuck has your so-called prudence ever gotten you?” Indeed.

A grating Midwestern voice wrecked his reveries.

“Mrs. O’Connor, Maxine O’Connor, let me see that.” She grabbed the guest register and squinted till she found her name. “Here. I don’t blame you for not finding my name. This is a goddamn mess,” she grumped, shoving the book back at him. “And for the rate I was quoted, I should be able to stay at the Auberge!”

“You might try getting in over there, Mrs. O’Connor,” Carol said smoothly, slipping beside him. “I’ll take over, sir.” Pretty as Brenda Ballard and probably far more intelligent, she gave Douglas a dismissive nod and said brightly, “Mr. Broadwood, you’re needed in the kitchen. Cook requires your direction.” She said “Cook” as if her aunt were an amusing local character. This was their way of getting him away from tiresome situations in a hurry; Carol had assured him that guests wouldn’t mind if he left as long as they believed it would benefit their stomach.

“Thanks, Carol. Excuse me, if you will, madam.” A slight bow to mollify her, and to prepare the way for Carol.

“My pleasure, sir. Now, Mrs. O’Connor,” she began in a steelier voice.

Of course, he reflected as he headed for the staircase, the money was pouring in – the steadiness and magnitude of the flow astonished him. It would have actually appalled the old Douglas, fool that he had been: wasn’t there something unseemly about grubbing for bucks con brio? Perhaps—but this was where Carol was such a godsend, his messenger of economic salvation.

All very well, he told himself severely, but it will end. It will end.

The film company was due to leave town before Labor Day. Then what? Everything good ended, and quickly, didn’t it? Success, like love, was short-lived. He knew it as sure as Maine froze in winter. The silent poverty of the off-season would hit harder than ever now that he was getting used to something better. This halcyon summer was a freak. This golden age—tainted as it was by, so to speak, impure alloys—would leave him thirsting, unquenchably for better things.

Douglas heaved a sigh and went upstairs. The Mortons passed him on the way down. They wore a fearfully defiant expression and didn’t speak to him as they swept by in their fussiest summer tweeds. He felt a twinge of pity and guilt. Irritation, too; Mrs. Morton carried herself with an odd kind of haughty servility.

He knocked softly on the door of the Sarah Orne Jewett room. No one was in. He unlocked it and shut the door swiftly. The new maid—Carol’s sister Arlene--had done an adequate job, although he noticed the wastebasket still had bits of cellophane clinging to the sides, not to mention a film of cigarette ashes. He’d talk to her about it tomorrow.

Douglas looked around the room--mournfully, he thought, when he caught himself in the mantelpiece mirror. He slipped off his shoes and lay down neatly on the bed. He examined the new royal blue carpet, pleased at its plushness after the years of tattiness in this, his best room. He lay flat on his back with his hands behind his head and dozed, gently, gratefully, after twelve hours of non-stop running around and dealing with complainers who (at least) were paying enough to have their complaints tolerated. He smiled as he hoped for a winter with adequate heat and 75-watt bulbs for a change…meat more than twice a week, maybe even ten days in Florida. He fell asleep with images of plenty and comparative ease swirling around a picture, no, a feeling of himself in the arms of a beautiful man, heedless of any gnawing guilt.

He woke up slowly, still in the grip of the dream, the vision, warm and hard. He couldn’t move, then realized that a pair of arms were around him, hugging him tightly.

“Hi, you.”

“Glad you’re back. Hard day?”

“Not as hard as this.” He pushed into Douglas’s thigh. Douglas wasn’t sure whether he felt it or not. He had gotten used to Bill’s endowment; Dave’s had surprised him in its exceedingly modest dimensions, although it gratified him to certify his own as the big one. “Miss me?”

“Oh God, no, I’ve been too busy to—“

Dave bit his neck and made him yelp. “Wrong answer.”

Douglas gave him a light kiss on the forehead and held him silently. He recalled the first time they’d officially taken notice of each other a couple of weeks after the little editor had spirited Bill away. Dave had come to him on the porch after breakfast one day and asked for directions to Freeport, which he could have figured out on his own.

Douglas had stared at the dark, manly specimen in a state of extreme confusion. Hatred and desire warred indecisively in his heart. “South on Route 1. You’ll get there in a couple of hours.” He had hoped it sounded as flat and minimally polite as he intended.

Dave had said, “Oh sure, of course. Thanks. ‘Preciate it.” Pregnant pause. “I guess you’re kinda lonesome these days.” Meaningful look, then a rapid swivel of the eyeballs to the garden.

“Excuse me, but I am very busy.”

Dave had looked at him a little hurt, a little sulky. He flexed his magnificent body and walked around the corner, giving him one last look as he left his sight.

They had ended up in bed together the next night. Douglas felt he was getting better at this business. More decisive, less hysterical, more willing on act on his own behalf, for his own needs.

They had been sneaking around for almost three weeks now. Even though they didn’t have a tryst every night, it seemed to be wearing Dave out. He was getting paler and thinner by the week--he fell asleep immediately after their intimate moments. His work was intense; often, he said, the crew worked till 1 or 2 AM. The director, a “pissy old Hungarian queen,” was a maniacal perfectionist.

“Then we go out for drinks. You know, to unwind some. I have ginger ale or something like that. You don’t mind, do you, baby?”

No, he did not mind. He did worry about him. Dave worked so hard.

Now Douglas turned around and faced him. He stroked Dave’s hair and traced his finger down to his neck. The line of demarcation between shaved and unshaved areas thrilled him in its contrasts. It was like civilization above and the selva oscura below. A dark, wild, somehow uncouth vitality marked Dave Tappino as one of—well, he reminded Douglas of Jack in a way. But Dave was far more physical and, always, blessedly sober. This made him the polar opposite of the small, smooth, bibulous Bill, who was dead to him now, since it seemed he had abandoned Douglas.

Anyway, Bill never came around. Dave was here. The choice was crystalline in its clarity, wasn’t it.

He found Dave so sweet and considerate, even deferential. He looked at Douglas with his melting dark eyes, and Douglas responded with tender concern. He’d felt such compassion when Dave told him about his hard-scrabble childhood outside Detroit as the son of a violent autoworker. He was a boy who didn’t fit in because he was a mongrel Italian-Slovenian. Well, he didn’t fit in for other reasons, clearly. Then he had gone into the service right out of high school and drifted to California with vague dreams of hitting it big in movies. “Then TV came along. Damn TV!” Dave had complained. Inexplicably so, to Douglas. Dave seemed to be made for TV, what with his Neanderthalish good looks and his rough and earnestly demotic airs...

It wasn’t love, he knew, but it would do until the real thing came along. Or back. Maybe, he thought, maybe I’m resigned to Dave. Or to a Dave-like creature.

He wondered at this. He tried to atone for this judgment by installing Dave in his usual fantasy of domestic bliss with a handsome man, and this time it was Dave who was lounging over a late Sunday breakfast in the off-season (reading Variety, or was it Argosy, instead of the Boston Globe). And Douglas saw him doing all sorts of useful things around the place—laying tile, mending the porch, glazing windows, knocking down walls--stretching his gorgeous body to do his bidding. Actually, it would be Carol’s bidding; but Dave would remain deliciously unavailable to her. Some things were well beyond even her formidable ability to engineer as she wanted.

Dave gave him a heartbroken smile and burrowed his head into Douglas’s neck. “What’s troubling you?” Douglas whispered. “What is it, dear heart?”

Dave raised his face to his, and his eyes were brimming. “I’m so in love.”

“You are?” More confusion: How do I feel?

“Dave, I’m not so sure I—“

“No, it’s OK, Douglas. Let’s rest, OK?” Dave disentangled himself and lay down like a child, resting his head on praying hands.

Douglas’s tenderness grew. He’d never seen such sweet innocence—or was it mere ingenuousness?—in any grown man, let alone a muscular demigod. He lay propped on his side, marveling at the second handsome stranger to wash up on his shore in a few months. And he marveled at his own appetite for sex, at his sexual aggression. And oh, how he loved Dave’s submissiveness! He loved the little cries of pain and orgasm that his thrusts tore out of him. He loved the way Dave clung to him afterwards. And Dave often brought him little gifts: a PaperMate pen, an autographed photo of Walter Baird, a pair of formal silk socks. The silliness of the choices touched him.

Well, if Dave wasn’t in love with him, he had quite a crush. Perhaps they’d come to love each other, really love each other, in time. He wasn’t going to make the mistake of falling for a man at first sight. It had happened twice, and he believed that he had finally learned his lesson.

Douglas felt his heart expand. A powerful sense of well-being and a sort of diffused affection bathed him. He whispered, not intending to be heard, “Are you so in love with me, Jack?”

Dave opened his eyes and stared, shocked, straight ahead.

“Sorry, did I wake you?”

Dave swallowed. Douglas, I’m—it’s…With him. Just like you.”

Douglas took a deep breath. He felt dizzy--was falling over because a guerrilla had shot his legs off. “This isn’t what I thought—“

“Didn’t you know who I—“

“Did you mean Bill Blake?”

Dave nodded, sighing. He gave him his melting smile again. “I’m sorry, Douglas. I sure don’t mean to hurt you. You’re a real nice man. You’ve been very kind, giving me this room and all at the contracted rate—don’t think I’m not grateful. I bet you could charge triple what you’re charging the company. And you and me’ve had some good times together. But I can’t stop thinking about him. I’ve never been in love with a man before, and I always had the idea that—well, you’d be damned to hell for it. To be in love, I mean.” His dark face reddened. “Know what I mean?”

Douglas went “Sssh” to cover his turmoil. Why is he telling me this? What does he know about love? What did he and Bill—

More to the point, when did this one and Bill—

“No, of course not,” he said glumly.

“What? You don’t?” Dave pulled away and looked genuinely alarmed. “We’re both in love with him. You can’t fool me: I’m not as dumb as you think I am.”

“Don’t be—“

“You know you’re crazy about him. Come on.” Dave hazarded a little chuckle. He tickled Douglas’s ribs. “Come on, don’t be coy. I can tell by the way you look whenever someone says his name. You die inside a little bit. Admit it!”

Douglas rejected his placating hands. He got up.

“What I’m trying to say is, I feel the same way! Douglas, come on, we gotta get him away from that little Jew bitch he’s hanging around with these days.”

What? It took a few seconds. Then the pompous editor flashed into his head. Oh God! Was there no end to the man’s betrayals?

“Hey, sure, they’re all over town together. Haven’t you seen them? She’s in some kinda dopey disguise, like when there’s a shitty wardrobe budget. Anyhow,” Dave sulked, “after he dumped Brenda—Brenda Ballard—dumped her and me—“

What?!? He had to sit down. Legs shot off again. He faced Dave from the arm of the sofa.

Dave turned away, at last smart enough to be shamefaced. “You really don’t want to know. Really.”

“No. No, I really don’t.” Douglas waited a few minutes to get his legs back. He got up, feeling no warmth or affection for this depraved moron. “Excuse me. Work to do.”

Dave tried to grab his hand, but Douglas fought off his grip and slipped on his shoes. “See you later.”

Dave sat up on the side of the bed. He looked ready to spring at him. “Please don’t be angry. Please, Douglas. It’s time we told the truth.” Dave seemed a bit haunted by his own words. He snapped to and looked hard at Douglas. “I’m sick of lies and bullshit. Please. One of us should get him.”

Douglas didn’t glance backward, but he did almost agree. One of us deserves him.”

He shut the door and smiled a greeting as Mr. Weisbrod bellowed, “Bawn swarrr!”

Douglas brushed by him, muttering, “I hope you’re enjoying your stay.”

Mr. Weisbrod pivoted and grabbed his arm. “This is a charming place, Mr. Broadwood, you’re making wonderful changes. I think more people should know what a gem you’ve got here. And this quaint little town!”

Douglas barely registered any of this. “Thanks, it’s good to hear—“

Mr. Weisbrod and his bald head shone pink and beneficent. He clapped his hands over Douglas’s. “If you don’t mind, I have a friend at Holiday magazine—“

Dave opened the door. He had taken off his shirt and looked angrily disheveled. He caught sight of Mr. Weisbrod’s hands and Douglas’s abstracted confusion. “What the hell, Douglas? Are you with me or against me? With me or against me?” His imploring expression, once so effective, made Douglas want to disappear.

Mr. Weisbrod laughed gently. He gave his hand a squeeze and released it. “Don’t worry, Mr. Broadwood—Douglas if I may be so bold. The best innkeepers—well, they’re not like most men.” He winked, started to go downstairs, and turned around for a second. “I’ll call them tomorrow, all right? On your nickel, if that’s OK.”

“Yes. Yes, it is. Just ask Carol.”

“Ah! Carol! What a great hire for you, Douglas. That young lady’s a treasure!”

Dave stood in the doorway still, evidently waiting for something. Douglas glanced at him coldly.

“Shit!” Dave slammed the door.

He’ll be back in the turret room tomorrow.

And this was clear: Carol would be the one to tell him so.

* * * *

Mr. Weisbrod was one of those guests he’d always most dreaded: someone whose affability was matched only by his flume of constructive criticisms. Every day, at least once, his perfect teeth, cheery smile and tanned pate popped into view with an “Innkeeper, I’ve noticed…” on his lips. Douglas’s guts froze every time. It wasn’t so much that Mr. Weisbrod (“call me Arnie”) was so regular in his suggestions but that they were an insightful response to Douglas’s own inadequacies as an “innkeeper.”

In three tireless weeks of holiday-making, Mr. Weisbrod had created a formidable list, of which Douglas could readily recall only the last dozen or so:

1. Keep the light on the porch lit all night—less liability that way, and some of the late-returning revelers had complained about stumbling up the steps.

2. Dust the light bulbs in the sitting room. Maybe even change some of them!

3. Don’t serve Wonder Bread. It lowers the tone of the place. “Oh, yes, Douglas my boy, this place has tone!”

4. Install telephones in the guest rooms. “And charge the hell to use them to recoup the investment.”

5. Ditto TV sets. “But only in the better rooms. Charge extra for that, too, like a hospital.”

6. Grout the bathrooms. Immediately.

7. Paint the shingles.

8. Put a weathervane on each of the turrets, for a quaint New England look.

9. Give longer-term guests a room gift on arrival, like a fruit basket or locally baked goodies.

10. Fix the squeaky treads on the stairs.

11. Ask Claire not to be so gruff.

12. Confirm reservations in writing. “You’re pissing people off from your lack of organization. Thank heavens Carol came along! What a great hire!”

Douglas was sitting in his room after supper. His musings were made easier by a glass of Port, from the excellent 1912 vintage. It was a terrible splurge, but he could afford this much of a treat for himself, couldn’t he?

And more, because Carol had shown him the updated books this afternoon. He’d shown a greater profit in the past month than he’d posted, gross, all last year. Tiresome as Mr. Weisbrod was, he was heeding the man’s advice: more repairs and improvements were on the drawing board, like rewiring and rug repair this fall, the interior painted and wallpapered in the spring. And a real bar with water and everything.

As he sat at his desk, he felt a certain weight fall from his shoulders. He attributed it to the cascade of money that was already improving his life more than love or sex ever could. The prospect of a life without corrosive worries over money flooded him with a sweet warmth that had nothing to do with good Port.

He put down his glass and sighed with contentment. Contentment itself was a first, he noted. He felt an illicit surge of gloating.

Who needs love? Who needs an alcoholic little author to keep me up nights?

There was a knock at the door. He got up. It was Carol with the day’s mail.

She peered intently about the room. “Hi, Mr. B. You forgot this.”

“Did you pick out the checks?” he asked humorously.

“No! That’s really not my place, Mr. Broadwood. You’re the boss,” she added with as much conviction as she could muster.

“Well, soon, you’ll have every right to do so.”

“I don’t know what you mean.” She peered up at him suspiciously. It made her look near-sighted and much less intelligent than she was. He’d seen Weisbrod glorying in that gaze of befuddled admiration. Seemingly befuddled admiration.

“No details yet. But if you’d like to work here full-time after graduation, I would be willing to give you a percentage—a small percentage—of the business.”

Carol seemed to hunt for oxygen. “I—I really—you don’t mean—

“Why not? We’ll talk about it next week, all right?”

“Oh, Mr. Broadwood, I don’t know how to—“

“Look, we’ll talk later. I’m tired. Good night.”

Her step was light and quick. “Good night!” she called as she hurried away.

“You won’t forget to mention this to Mr. Weisbrod, will you?”

To her credit, she didn’t pretend. She gave him a delighted smile of complicity and headed straight for the gentleman’s guest room.

Douglas took the mail back to his desk, switching the light on a brighter setting. He sipped his Port. Most of the stuff was routine business correspondence, including a sheaf of reservations for leaf-peeping season. Interestingly enough, a number of them had Jewish names.

Besides bagels and brisket, what are their special foods?

Carol would again come to the rescue, with Weisbrod’s hidden help.

As he got to the bottom of the stack, he saw a typed envelope with no return address. New York City postmark. His heart raced to a stupid, accustomed conclusion.

Get a grip on your heart, my boy. Most unlikely.

He tore it open. His trembling hands dropped it when he saw the signature at the end of the short, neatly written letter: JK.

He picked it up, afraid to look at the words. There was no date. He avoided the body of the note, allowing himself to see only the salutation:

Dear Douglas,

He felt sick with fear and irritation. Why now, after all this time? Why at all, really? This was a complication that—

He turned the letter, the single sheet of the brief missive, turned it over. He put a paperweight, square of granite from the garden, over it. He got up and walked around, making odd fretful sounds to himself.

Douglas looked out the front window and saw Dave go by the lamp-post in the gathering night, saw the back of his head, saw the broad shoulders, the trudging gait of someone who was unhappy or had an unhappy destination.

He went back to his desk and, sighing, read:

Dear Douglas,

It’s been so long since we parted but the world and we have changed, and I fear we and it are going to hell on a sled. You always got angry at my Catholic guilt-mongering, I remember how your face curled up when you said those words, so I will cease and desist this line of thought.

I am writing to invite you personally to the party being held on September 7 to mark the official launch of On the Road, the book you inspired me to write even when I had given up on it or on myself or both. Somehow I always thought you would have made a good editor and all-round literary helpmeet and I benefited so much from your being my first reader.

Please say you will come, Douglas, some of the old crowd will be there and would love to see you, especially Allen, who wishes he could convert you to his true religion.

Yours,

JK

Douglas folded the note back up. He permitted himself a wry little smile at Jack’s forgetting to tell exactly where and at what time this celebration was to take place. He felt more rage and disappointment than he had ever felt.

[In the letter Jack Kerouac says that On the Road was being published soon, and that he hopes D. will join him in NY for the celebrations…”you were so important in helping me form this thing, and I’m very grateful for your ‘intercessions.’” – etc. I must study Kerouac’s epistolary style.]


XXII. Watching

Panorama. Sizzling noon in early August, the sea and islands to the east in hazy soft focus. Smell of ozone in the air, greatly enhanced by the motionless traffic in the town square below. White-thighed legions of vacationers squeeze like soft-serve ice cream into every inch of available space.

The ironic omniscient Author sits on the terraced porch of the elevated town hall sipping Coke as he sits at a little round table, viewing from on high and with bemused detachment the blighted hero and heroine of his Technicolor epic. There she is, hovering in front of some shop windows, “disguised” in a getup sure to raise the alarmed response of anyone glancing at her with intelligent awareness--huge smock, baggy dungarees, floppy beret, mirrored sunglasses—and, on the other side of the packed town square, there he is, oblivious, laughing, animated, haggard with the strain of a life suddenly devoted to Pleasure. The blonde on his arm causes every head to swivel and every tongue to wag, and he is both prideful and unconscious of their words, spoken and unspoken: “There’s Brenda Ballard! Isn’t she lovely! More beautiful than on the screen! Umm…who’s the lost-looking little guy she’s leading around?”

For, the Author notes with cruel satisfaction, the lost-looking little guy keeps looking across the square whenever there’s a break in the crowd—darting looks at the woman in the outlandish costume. At such moments she jerks her head in another direction and nervously paces around in front of plate glass displays of underdressed summer fun. The Author would be amused if he hadn’t been watching these two keep this up for a week already.

Bill was leaning against the pedestal of the statue to the Civil War dead in front of the town hall, and he let go a mighty belch after swigging a bottle of Coke. He wondered if Don and Elaine would ever have their big fight and make up or break up, whichever they felt like doing or whichever the fates or Yahweh or Elaine’s mother decreed. He sure as hell was sick of tagging along after her and regretted calling her up to Maine to “save your marriage.” He’d wanted Don off his back and morally coerced to do his bidding; he hadn’t bargained for this. Elaine commandeered much of his time with her nutty spying, weeping and raging. She tracked him down if he didn’t follow as she shadowed Don and Brenda (predictably, “that Hollywood whore”) from hotel to set to restaurant to shop to bar to hotel. After a full day’s spying, she would sit across from him in some restaurant in the next town, where they would go in her rented Corvette to assure their privacy, and there she dissected Don’s every movement, every expression, every overhead crumb of conversation. “I should leave him, I should take him for every penny. I know that. That’s what my mother says. All my friends tell me. That’s why I went to Saks and spent four thousand dollars last week. All on me. I’ve never done that before. It felt wonderful!” she cried. And then she really cried, so Bill deduced it wasn’t so wonderful. He asked her why she didn’t get drunk: “It’s cheaper and intensifies one’s sense of injustice.”

Elaine gave him a contemptuous look and said, “That’s not our style.” But he drank ginger ale that evening as she got smashed on gin and tonic. He drove her back to her motel on Route 1 in Selene, and he walked the sober mile home. She was on the phone early the next morning, demanding to know when she could pick him up. “If you’re in any condition to go out,” she added with jolly belligerence.

He pitied her effort to keep up appearances. He felt guilty enough to keep going out with her. It made him anxious to waste his work time collecting evidence against her husband. The almost-completed novel weighed heavily on him, it gave him a full-to-bursting feeling that was like the overcharged sensation that distracted a man until he had an orgasm.

Don’s inattention was as irritating as Elaine’s attention. It surprised and disconcerted him that Don didn’t pester him about edits or new pages. Whenever he brought them up, Don brushed them aside and paced around the room sniffing like a drug addict.

Bill had hoped to reveal Elaine’s presence. He had planned a mysterious build-up and then imagined Don would cower and beg for aid in placating her. He had looked forward to their tearful reconciliation, and to their grateful indulgences, which would be expressed with glowing looks and squeezes of the hand for each other and a publication date timed for the gift-giving season to reward him. Don’s reaction was not at all what he had envisioned.

Don—who was not one to shout—Don shouted, “Go back to your damned novel and leave me alone! I know Elaine’s in town, do you think I’m blind and moronically moronic? I do not care. I see her lurking about in her clown clothes and I know damned well you put her up to it!”

“I try to talk sense into her!”

“Don’t insult my intelligence. You summoned her up here to begin with. I discovered you placed a call to her the day before she zoomed into town in that ridiculous two-toned sports car.”

“It’s a Corvette!”

Don laughed at him as if to say, What a hick.

“Well, fine. Be a prick to me. But what about Elaine? She’s desperate to have you back.”

“She can’t stand the shame, that’s all. Her pretentious mother fills her with venom. How I hate those people!”

Bill recited, “My mother, my mother, my mother.”

Don laughed bitterly.

Bill held out his palms. “Well? If she’s desperate to have you back…?”

“I’m not. I’m not crazy enough to have her back. I’m bored with her. All her Upper West Side certitudes and Herr Professor Mein Vater and the whole Karen Horney bit—“

“She fucking loves you. Does Brenda?”

Don smiled. “Since when did love ever enter into the equation for you? Or is it ‘love’ when you hit the urinals?”

Bill opened his mouth to reply but didn’t know how to. Take that one lying down, he told himself. For the book. It was noble, turning the other cheek. It pissed him off, though.

Don pressed on. “Oh, pardon me. I went too far, didn’t I, my scribe?”

“Don, you should know about Brenda.”

“I know enough to know that I am in love with her.”

“She’s depraved.”

Don gave him a withering look, then turned away. “Brenda’s no whore, Bill.”

“No, she’s not. A real whore would take her payment and split. She wants to suck you dry and throw you away.”

Don’s face assumed a smug expression. He relaxed his shoulders. He said with a quiet joy, “Brenda’s asked me to move to California. She’s going to get me a job at the studio.” He paused and added in a hushed tone, “We will be together. That’s what she wants, too.”

“Not really.”

“Really.”

Bill sighed, shaking his head, and gave Don a look of angry pity. “Doing what at the studio? Fetching her highness coffee? Musclemen from the beach?”

“That’s your bent, not mine.”

“You have no idea.”

Don sighed and reached out to clasp Bill by the shoulder. Bill shied away. Don tried to smile. “I hate this, Bill. We’re not enemies. Far from it. But you have to realize that Brenda’s changed my life. I feel more alive with her. Pleasure is more pleasant, reality is more real. Life is more—everything. Her love has opened, is opening, new vistas and perspectives—“

He went on. Bill tuned the words out and examined his editor’s rapturous face, the exaltation in his eyes. He heard the crooning intonation in his voice.

He’s a fanatic. Lost. Past the point of no return. Nice doing business with you, Donny boy.

When Don fell silent at last, Bill said, “What shall I tell your wife?”

Don had an exit line ready. “Tell her to go regulate some other schmuck’s life.”

That’s a good one.

Now here it was the next day and Don was still playing cat and mouse with Elaine. He seemed no closer to leveling with her. And she was as paralyzed as before.

Brenda caught his eye and gave him a triumphant smirk. He followed her gaze as she turned toward another corner, the lane that led to the water, where Evelyn Lamb’s shop stood open to the throng. Dave was leaning against a clapboard wall, wearing sunglasses, palpating his own triceps, eyes never off her. The expression on his shaded face had nothing of the puppy-dog friendliness he habitually displayed.

Bill spotted a trash can and threw the Coke bottle in. He leaned over it and heaved up his breakfast toast and coffee. A tourist in a halter top hurried by muttering, “Dirty drunk!”

Once he would have shouted something back. He let the impulse subside as he took the long way back to his hotel. He avoided the direct route, right through the town square, because he had no desire for encounters with the unmoored dinghies down there.

As he walked around the center of Selene Harbor, he decided to check out of the Auberge. First, though, he needed something to soothe his nerves. He took a detour for some spiritual uplift.

* * *

Russell Cobb sat before him in glassy-eyed astonishment. He assumed that’s what it was, because the man’s mouth was hanging open and his spectacles reflected the light from the gauzy curtains at the windows of his office. Russell got up and shook his hand across the surprisingly messy desk. “Bill, I—well, this is quite the—“

“Allie wasn’t at the door, so I came in. I didn’t see your secretary either.”

“I had to let her go. Collections are way down.”

“Oh. I hope that’s a temporary…” Bill’s voice trailed off.

Russell pointed to a chair. They sat. “Well. Well well. Bill? What can I do for you?” He spoke in a quieter tone than usual, and when he took off his glasses, his intrusive gaze seemed to be turned inward.

Bill relaxed when he sensed no looming onslaught of Christian bonhomie. For once Cobb wasn’t flexing spiritual muscles or doing evangelistic hand stands. The man was preoccupied and let Bill take his own time to divulge whatever had brought him there.

Bill cleared his throat and sought to begin in a light tone. “I haven’t seen much of you two lately.” He noted a tremor in Russell’s cheek. “This has been a crazy summer, hasn’t it?” Still nothing. “When is that party of yours, exactly?”

Russell stared into the middle distance. “Is there a problem you need to talk over?” His voice was soft. His attempted smile was a miserable failure.

Bill was torn in two. He wanted to know what had finally shut off the evangelizing dynamo. But he really didn’t want to hear why.

What the fuck. Put yourself out for once.

“Are you all right?”

Russell moved his mouth but paused before he spoke. “No. Are you?”

“No.” Bill thought about his reflexive pessimism, his automatic nay-saying. It didn’t work any more, at least not at this moment. He felt good. He felt free of something that had weighed him down and curdled his moods. He watched Cobb put his glasses back on. The reflection of the white curtains swayed in the two ovals of glass. He mugged and grinned. “I don’t know. Maybe.”

“That’s great. Great. God speed, Bill.”

Bill sat there for a minute, gaping at the man whose outside seemed, unexpectedly, to have turned inside. He got up and tiptoed out. Russell was still reliving some non-liturgical scene. He closed the door quietly and stood on the stone porch, which was back from the street and looked onto a U-shaped courtyard. It was cool and still. He was puzzled. Things were changing all around him.

He’d stepped offstage for a few minutes, it seemed, consenting to watch others act out their own stupid dramas, and he’d come back to a world that had shifted somehow in that short absence. Even the Cobbs were at odds: Russell was shocked into silence and Allie nowhere to be seen. When had that happened? What was that all about?

As for Don and Elaine, two of the most intelligent and sophisticated people he knew, they had disported themselves with so little sense and decorum that he was actually ashamed for them. He considered the hypothesis that he’d never known them at all; either their New York intellectual veneer was false, or they were not the superior people he’d esteemed them to be. You think you know people, the thought began. But he couldn’t finish it. This truth was so elementary—such a foolish cliché—that he embarrassed himself by even starting to articulate it.

Of course I don’t know them. I don’t even know myself.

This was another cliché, of course.

He stewed about it for a minute. Then his inner vision fixed on Douglas, and suddenly Douglas filled his thoughts. Douglas in all his falsity, Douglas the seeming old maid, Douglas the apparently grateful recipient of his own offhanded attentions.

His mind ran a newsreel. Critical images of Douglas, dreary hangdog Douglas, the crypto-sensualist with the enigmatic Archaic Era smile. The outwardly naïve, inwardly corrupt Douglas pornographically photographed in grainy black and white, Douglas the secret manhunter, always pursuing—in his mangy cardigan and threadbare khakis—some new hypermasculine specimen, desiring only the conquest and, after throwing away the actual man who was fool enough to fall for the sad act about his loveless, spinsterly life. Alas poor Douglas, who desired only the delicious regret of another disastrous romance, he was prompt to cast himself anew in the tragic role! Oh this was the Douglas who had always been and would always be, dry-as-dust Douglas, dead head Douglas, Daddy’s dutiful Douglas, whose destiny was an unsung life, an unappreciated life spent in implosive self-devouring obscurity.

Seething, Bill approached the over-manicured grounds of L’Auberge du Capitain. He realized now he much he loathed Douglas Broadwood. It wasn’t for Douglas’s uncovering the queer in him. No, he actually might thank the man for that—the realization of it had brought a new lightness and good-natured detachment into his writing. He had to admit that Douglas had, in fact, helped him in the one part of his life he didn’t treat as a sort of sour joke.

But at long last he allowed himself to see what he had given to Douglas—how much Douglas had extracted from him while appearing to cater to his every need. He recalled the changes in the way Douglas had looked and dressed and acted, from March to July, and he recalled the progress of their amatory art (Some metamorphosis!) from their hesitations and fumblings to the weeks, two short, encompassing weeks, of sensual delirium. And that experience, wonderful as it was for him, wouldn’t have happened unless he had taken charge and forced Douglas to act—to waken him from his tortured realm of fevered dreams.

Douglas had got from him something no one, man or woman, had ever got. A total surrender of his whole self. Or at least of his body, which was to say something like the same thing. William E. Blake, Jr., was no believer in the body-soul dichotomy. Take the body and you get the soul. Whether you’re ready for it or not.

Douglas, it occurred to him, hadn’t been ready for that. Douglas still had air-tight compartments in his soul. He liked keeping body and heart and soul separate, Bill thought, because he could go on evading the truth of his life, not to mention some perception of the truth about the world itself.

So, he thought as he trudged up the granite steps of the hotel, there were a lot of reasons for hating Douglas. He was a coward, an inconstant whore, and a hypocrite. A smarmy deceiver. A truth-evader whose lifetime of resentments had poisoned all of his transactions with the world and all of his relationships. The man was unworthy of his friendship and affections. He was unworthy of Dave’s for that matter. He deserved to live and die in his little sealed terrarium, where even the rain was composed of his own recycled piss.

Bill laughed a little at this ludicrous image. He was standing in the lobby contemplating the front desk, where a prissy faggot in an Ivy League suit was sternly informing new guests of the rules of the house.

I really don’t need this bullshit. Or Don. Or Douglas. Especially.

He went up to his room and packed. Within ten minutes he was checking out.

“Is Mr. Wassermann taking care of this?” the clerk snapped.

Bill said yes, he was.

He went out and felt light, light and free.

* * *

He rented a room in a shipshape little Greek Revival house in an unkempt section of town. It was close to Dempsey’s Dump. He had seen the sign in the front window many times. ROOM F R RENT. The missing letter had probably lost its glue a couple of years earlier. The place was cheap. There were no meals provided. It was just a room. Bare but large, clean and well-lighted. He paid cash a month in advance after he saw the window-side writing table. Mrs. Shaw, the sixty-ish proprietress, said that she would give him a cup of tea if she was having some. In her Dublin brogue, the thin, severe woman in the Kresge’s housedress told him, “I don’t care what you do as long as you pay your rent and don’t trow up in the wastebasket. do it quiet. Oi loike the quioyet loife,” she added with a touch of drawling grandeur.

Mrs. Shaw introduced Mr. Uccello, who barged into the front room without knocking. He was a roly-poly barber Bill had seen in town. He spoke with a strong Italian accent. “Francesca, is lunch ready?” Ees lahnch rrready? Mr. Uccello was about fifteen years younger than the landlady. He had the glint in his eye. Bill thought maybe he should leave.

He got up and looked at Mrs. Shaw.

She smiled grimly. “I feed him because he lives here.” She turned her head to Mr. Uccello and snarled, “Hold your horses, Cosimo. Can’t you see I’m dealing with our new boarder?”

She got up and went to the kitchen, muttering about men. Mr. Uccello gave Bill a merry nod of recognition. “Benvenuto.” And he headed abruptly for the kitchen. A few seconds later Bill heard a slap and “Jaysus, Cosimo!” followed by their smothered giggles.

After Bill went to Dempsey’s for a sandwich and a ginger ale, he holed himself up in his attic scriptorium. He liked the scrubbed simplicity of the place. It was quiet under the sloping roof. There were spruce trees at the end of the yard, and there was a maple tree near the house, and through its shade dappled sunlight played on the broad wooden expanse of the writing table. A light breeze scented with spruce washed over him and with it a deep sense of well-being as he opened the notebook containing his latest work. He had scarcely looked at it in two weeks, and his momentary dread of what he might find became a sort of astonished joy. The insights, the felicity of phrasing, the deft revelatory touches of each movement and speech of the characters—the last pages were better than anything so far, he felt, and he foresaw the inevitability of the climax and resolution of the book. The end beckoned to him, and for once he didn’t approach it with something like the horror of death. This time he wouldn’t be tempted to sabotage it, or delay it any longer. This book would end simply and well. Resolved but not wrapped up in a big red bow. There would remain enough tension and ambiguity to suggest the characters’ continuing, secret existence in a kind of alternate universe. The reader would desire this and be given enough hints to imagine it for himself. The conclusion would be satisfying aesthetically, morally, dramatically.

He started working in mid afternoon and was surprised to have the setting sun trouble his sight. The waving dappled light made him feel as if he were on a bobbing boat. He shielded his eyes with his left hand and kept going till it was too dark to go on. He set the pen down and stared at the purple sky beyond the black silhouette of the maple. He was within striking distance of the conclusion. Perhaps a week’s work to write and polish the last part of the novel. He’d arrange for typing in the morning. He knew where there was a small secretarial service—on a side street near Mrs. Shaw’s, in fact.

And then what?

He sat in the deepening twilight and wondered. He felt calm and steady. For once there was no underlying panic. “And then what” included the writing. What would he write about next? What would be his approach, style, attitude? He wasn’t sure, but he did know that another book was in him, and this certainty was a new thing. What about the other part or parts of “and then what”? Here his certainty deserted him. He had no idea, no vision of what his life might be like, or where he’d settle.

Now the sun sank behind the line of spruces, and the breeze was stilled. Without the glare he could see more clearly what was in the room and the yard below. Mr. Uccello was in an Adirondack chair, trying to read the paper in the dusk, sipping resignedly at a cup of milky tea set on the arm of the chair. Mrs. Shaw was trimming her roses. The only sound was of her clipping. A last glimmer of sunlight brushed her dress from between the dark spruces, and then it was extinguished as the sun sank to the horizon. She paused to watch a lightning bug fly close by her wire-framed glasses. She smiled at it. Mr. Uccello look up from his paper and murmured something to her. She gave a laugh, replying, “Well, to tell you the trut’…” They murmured on, in a languid way, for a while. He caught only their cadences, an easy, light-hearted tone, with an occasional soft laugh. All unguarded love and companionship.

Mrs. Shaw picked up the cuttings and passed near Mr. Uccello, patting him the head. In the late dusk he tried to catch her arm, but she had moved toward the house, out of sight.

For some reason, Bill thought of Douglas.

* * *

The week went by fast. His routine was simple. He was prodigiously productive. He was usually awake before six and well into the work by the time Mrs. Shaw knocked on the door with his small pot of strong coffee at seven. She also brought a glass of Donald Duck orange juice and a piece of toasted Wonder Bread with half an inch of sweet butter smeared over it. A small dish of expensive marmalade sat next to it on the tray. She nodded briskly and said, “Mornin’” and left. She didn’t seem to mind that he grunted at her and kept his eyes on the page, fiddling with some bit of dialogue or paring down a descriptive passage. She didn’t ask him for additional money either. Even this modest breakfast had not been part of the deal.

He would work in a gloriously concentrated state until twelve or one, then look out the window, see the sun beginning to shine from the west, and realize he was exhausted and starving. He’d shave, shower and walk to one of the little eateries nearby, where only townies ate. Diner food. He packed in everything they gave him, even the parsley garnishes.

Then it was on to Dempsey’s Dump or another little dive du quartier. He allowed himself two drinks, no more. He’d stroll around the edge of the town in the late afternoon, taking care to avoid the places Don, Elaine, Dave and Brenda would go at that time of day. More than once he found himself strolling along Armitage Road. On the very first day he caught a glimpse of Douglas on the porch, chatting with his guests and directing one of the college students who was hefting luggage. Bill’s heart went into his mouth and he ducked into some bushes at the side of the road.

Douglas looked good. From a distance he looked prosperous, casually but stylishly dressed, thinner than he remembered him. He had a tan. He looked country club. Far cry from the reference librarian look he used to sport.

Bill turned and went the way he had come.

Today he was walking the same route, satisfied with the progress he had made on the almost-completed novel today, with maybe two-three days’ work left. He had worked from six until two. Then, spent, he went to a late lunch and had two beers at Dempsey’s. He felt light-headed from fatigue and the powerful sense of accomplishment, which had been building in him all week. He was determined to finish the thing and move on to a new book right away. He had other things to write about now—more honest things, he told himself. If no one would publish it, that’d be OK too. Some things had to be said. Somebody had to write the truth about certain subjects; he figured he might as well take the chance. What else was there for him? He had to level with himself and the world, and not merely in his own head.

What the fuck. Blat it out. Better out than in. If they reject it—me—then…

When he glimpsed Douglas, it didn’t occur to him to duck into the bushes. It didn’t immediately dawn on him that it was Douglas or that he was so close.

Douglas was driving the old station wagon in the direction he had just come from, heading toward Route 1. He slowed the car, passed him a few feet, then stopped. He peered out the window, craning his neck, waiting for something to say or be said. Bill gaped at him, not quite aware of what was happening.

Douglas?” His heart lurched a little. He felt suddenly exposed, as if he had been caught stalking prey.

“Bill? What’s wrong? You seem out of it.”

Bill turned and went toward the car. He stopped about four feet from it. “I wrote for eight hours straight today. I’m preoccupied.”

Douglas smiled wistfully. “You look a little tired. But healthy. Happy, even.”

“Do I?” He supposed that he was. He wondered why Douglas’s saying it was so made it so.

Douglas looked around, as if checking for spies. He asked in a low voice, “Where are you staying?”

“How do you know I’m—“

“The editor was here looking for you. Very upset. Almost frantic.”

Bill smiled. “Really? I’m surprised he noticed. That I’d checked out.”

Douglas grinned. “Me too, to be honest.” He looked away and said, “Need a ride somewhere? You can sit in the back seat.”

Confused, Bill squinted inside and saw one of the college boys who tended bar. He was a big blond kid with blue eyes and an aquiline nose.

“You remember Bob, don’t you?”

Bill ignored Bob. “Where you off to?”

“The liquor wholesaler in Bath.”

“OK, then.” Bill gave him a little wave.

Douglas hesitated. “Well. Good to see you.”

“Same here. Bye.”

“Bye.” Bob’s low voice echoed. Douglas paused, looking ahead. After about half a minute, he turned the key and went slowly toward the highway.

Bill watched him go, observing that he needed to change the oil. He followed the exhaust fumes, feeling much less tired and out of it as he thought of Douglas, of what he had said—no, how he had acted—the look in his eye. The tone of his voice. There was no anger or bitterness. He seemed glad to see him. He offered a lift.

But something rankled. Was it his game to torment him with Bob? Had Dave faded from the scene, to be replaced by an even younger, bigger, handsomer specimen?

No! It was genuine. He was glad to see me. The kid’s his employee. Straight little Irish-Catholic arrow.

Bill walked faster. He was tempted to run after the beat-up old woodie and try to catch up to it at the tangle of traffic and lights that would delay Douglas as he tried to get on Route 1. His heart leapt up. He didn’t care whether or not the kid was in the car. Let the young fool try to figure out the code they would speak in, who the hell cared.

Bill slowed down. A voice urged caution.

Wasn’t Douglas ever the “nice guy?” Ever helpful and neighborly in his constipated New England way? He was always offering to do things for people, when he was hoping they’d refuse his offer. That shy, glancing manner of his meant—it meant nothing much, actually. That was Douglas, in and out of love and lust. He was probably feeling up big Bobby right now, stirring that golden bush of his, getting a rise from a stubbily stubborn pecker. Got a girlfriend, Bob? Not really; I love ‘em and leave ‘em, ha ha. A man has some needs, Bob, that a woman can’t…Gee, Mr. Broadwood, I never expected this. (Coy giggle, spreading his thighs for a better exposure of balls.)

“Fuck!” Tears of rage filled his eyes. Whether his fury was aimed at Douglas or himself was something he wasn’t in a position to figure out. There was a way to help him clarify all. Of course.

Bill marched over to Dempsey’s and ordered a straight Scotch. Which he vowed would be the only one as he puzzled things out. “Don’t Be Cruel” was playing on the jukebox. He celebrated. He mourned. He wouldn’t be writing much tomorrow. What was a book compared with life? His shitty, thwarted, pointless, sick and tired life?

“Welcome back,” said the sardonic bartender. “Got a five? Here’s quarters for the juke.”

“Still got ‘I Walk the Line’?”

“Shit, no. You wore that one out. What about ‘Walkin’ After Midnight’?”

Bill slid him a fiver. He found “I Walked the Line” in its usual location. “I’m Walkin’” by Fats. Patsy Cline. All songs about walking, going someplace, finding a way back to the lover. About being lonely, obsessed, tortured, loftily fucked up.

The well-being of an hour ago seemed like some impossible condition of a fictional character. He was sure of that when he returned to his seat at the bar. At his place, neatly lined up, were four new shots of Scotch. The first one was, somehow, all but gone.

He screwed up his mouth and looked at them as the bartender watched from the end of the bar. Johnny Cash was singing I keep my eyes wide open all the time.

* * *

“He seems like a nice man,” Bob said perfunctorily.

“I suppose so.” Douglas smiled as he checked the rearview mirror; Bill was gawping after the car in the middle of the tree-lined road. He looked thin and pale. He had dark circles under his eyes, but clear skin, so it was from exhaustion and not drink.

“Mind if I put on the radio?”

“Here.” Douglas reached out and turned the knob as Bob tried to do the same. Their hands touched. Bob jerked his back as if it had been scalded.

“Sorry!” Bob’s face got red, and he looked out the window, embarrassment distorting his features. “Can I pick the station?”

“Yes.”

Bob put his hand out, gingerly, to adjust the right-hand knob. After sliding around the dial, he stopped at a station on which the small-town DJ, with the goofy voice and slightly fruity delivery they had all around the country, was jabbering through some commercial. Then he announced the next song, “Big big hit of the summer by the one and only Elvis the Pelvis!” “All Shook Up” came on.

Douglas laughed. His spirits, high already, soared higher. “I’m itchin’ like a man on a fuzzy tree…You might ask me how I got such luck…I’m in love (grunt) I’m all shook up.” These rhymes! They’re so ridiculous! But the feelings are so true!

Douglas felt modern and demotic, listening to and appreciating such stuff. Bill liked it, too; he knew that.

“Sorry,” Bob muttered anxiously. With polite dread he added, “They were playing ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’ on—“

“No, leave it on. It’s wonderful. Wonderful.”

Bob reached carefully to turn the music louder.

Douglas smiled. The Sarah Orne Jewett room was available in a couple of days.

* * *

Bill paid for the shots and left as “I’m Walkin’” was playing for the second time. He left the undrunk drinks for the bartender, who funneled them back into the bottle. He emerged into the sunny early evening and gloated as he considered his sobriety and his strength. He’d write tomorrow after all.

He was halfway to Mrs. Shaw’s, mellow and content, indulgent toward Douglas and himself. The yellowy flowers of the season shone against the brick foundations of the old houses. People were cutting their small patches of front yard with push mowers, modestly dressed in out-of-fashion clothes, and it felt like his boyhood.

He paused to cross the street and was looking sharply to the left when he noticed a station wagon approaching. It was a new model and had “L’Auberge du Capitain” stenciled on the side. It pulled over to the curb. The rear window slid smoothly down.

“Never mind, driver. It isn’t the person I thought it was. Proceed.”

Dora smiled at him malignly. She threw a cigarette butt onto the sidewalk.


XXIII. The End in Sight

He awoke to the sound of the noon whistle. The sun was making dapply patterns on the writing table. Mrs. Shaw had left a breakfast tray there. He surmised that the coffee was cold and the juice was hot. He crawled out of bed and leaned over it on his knees in an attitude of abject prayer. And he prayed now that the vision he had seen was a vision and no more. A product of his exhausted mind, the dregs of the creative imagination when it had been well used up.

No work will get done today.

It was an admission of failure and weakness.

He got to his feet, assisted by his arms pushing down on the mattress, and he made halting steps to the tray. He poured coffee, spilling some, and drank it, cold as it was. The caffeine worked, cold or not. He drank down the pot as he stood there, thinking about the horrific dreams of the night. He wondered if he really hadn’t seen Dora at L’Auberge last night—if they hadn’t had a nasty argument, with unfettered name-calling on either side. He wondered if he had hit her so hard she fell down and stared up with those spiteful eyes over a dislocated jaw. If that had happened, the police would be looking for him. There’d be a scandal and he’d never get to finish the fucking book, unless he wrote it on strips of jailhouse toilet paper.

He stretched and swung his arms around a few times to get the circulation going. He finished the coffee. He even ate a piece of hard, burnt toast. Mrs. Shaw was down in the back garden, weeding her vegetable plot. Mr. Uccello was off shaving children’s heads. He had the house to himself for a while anyway. He went to the bathroom down the hall and felt more rational after a good dump.

After brushing his teeth and shaving, he sat down at the table and pulled out his work. Blearily, he looked over yesterday’s pages (that made 20 closely written pages he had to take to the typist), made a few edits, and consulted some notes about the conclusion of the novel. By the time he had to go to the toilet again, he’d written another eight pages.

I’m on fire!

Twenty-eight for the typist—about 55 or 60 double-spaced. He had one short chapter—maybe two-thirds as many as what he’d written today—and he was done. The end was in sight.

The end in sight is like a death, I guess. Like coming to the edge of a cliff. Then you—

He pictured a body falling over and over toward the bottom of the Grand Canyon and tried to imagine the final thoughts, the sensations of such a horrid awareness.

He consoled himself by switching to scenes of editing. It would be tedious and so forth, but it wouldn’t be the hard labor he’d been at all summer. Don would manage the process as efficiently as ever, whatever turmoil he was going through—and he knew Don wasn’t going to live in California, not now or ever. They would hammer out the edits, probably in New York, and he’d be back in Angleport by Thanksgiving.

The falling sensation returned, and he fixed his gaze on the pages before him to protect himself from panic. He couldn’t imagine himself back there--there was a blank page in his mind’s eye when he tried. There was no quality of home about it now.

He brushed away crumbs from the table’s surface as he vowed to start the new project right away, no matter what. Even if he had broken Dora’s jaw last night.

When the landlady came indoors, he changed into his bathing trunks. He planned to spend the rest of the afternoon alone in Mrs. Shaw’s back yard. He sprawled out, sunning himself, and it delighted him to think that no one knew where he was or what he was doing. Don may have finally waked up to the fact that his scribe had vanished. Dora wouldn’t even know where to start looking. Maybe Douglas had an idea, but he’d never intrude—he was too polite and respectful of the artistic process for that.

He had dozed for a time when Mrs. Shaw’s sharp voice called from the kitchen door. “Telephone for you!”

Falling!

“Who is it?”

“Douglas Broadwood.”

Now the sensation was one of joy, like an expanding tickle in his chest. “Who?”

She repeated the name with irritable precision, doing something Irish with the D’s in Broadwood. Broadh-woodh.

Bill scampered up the steps and into the cool kitchen, which smelled of tea leaves. He grabbed the clunky receiver from her. “Hello?”

“Mr. Blake?” Douglas said slowly. “This is Douglas Broadwood. Of the Broadwood Inn.”

“Yes, I know,” he laughed. Then: “Who’s there? Not—“

“Yes. There is a Mrs. Blake here.” Douglas sounded shell-shocked. “She has been searching for you all over town.”

“What about the cops?”

Long pause. “Excuse me?”

“Is her jaw broken?”

“Uh, no.”

“Too bad.”

* * *

Dora remained unmoving, perched on the edge of the Morris chair, which she had regarded with shivering distaste when he’d motioned her to it. “Well? Is he coming or must I hunt him down myself?” Her voice oscillated between hauteur and quavering plaint.

Douglas approached her and sat on the sofa across from her, conscious of his distrust of this tiny, wrinkled woman in the summer-weight woolen Hattie Carnegie suit and Chanelesque yards of jangly chains. It occurred to him that she was too old to be arrayed in this way. Some time in the past year or two, she must have passed the threshold from brisk, prosperous, authoritative middle age to a caricature of it, complete with slow, spotted hands and neck wattles. Perhaps she relied on her son to alert her to developments concerning herself.

Diminished or not, Douglas still didn’t trust her. He saw images of Bill’s defiant pain whenever he spoke of the woman. He had heard it a second ago.

Dora gave him a sourly assessing glance and busied herself with a platinum cigarette case in her small black leather purse, a real Chanel. She posed with the cigarette (no holder in sight), and held the pose until he had lit it. She let the smoke stream slowly out of her nostrils without inhaling. He thought of how Bette Davis would look when she hit seventy.

Douglas cleared his throat. “He hung up.”

Dora bleakly grinned. “How like him. Always running away from the inevitable.”

“Are you ‘the inevitable’?” Douglas asked.

She returned his sang froid. “Like death and taxes.” She regarded him with, he thought, a slightly less low opinion.

Douglas sat back and said, “How was your trip up here? I take it that you flew from Boston to Portland?”

“You take it wrong. I hired a plane in Angleport and flew to the strip at whats-it.”

“That must have been exciting.”

She looked away, irritated by his failed attempt at irony. “You can take me to where he is staying.” Douglas didn’t move. “I’ll find out sooner or later. Sooner, actually.”

Douglas smiled vaguely. “Why don’t you wait for him to find you? He’d know where you’re staying.”

Dora looked around and sighed, pantomiming contentment. “Your place seems charming. Full of Downeast touches. I can see you’re doing a good business.” She spoke that last sentence without irony; she respected money too much.

“It’s been a good season. Exceptional, in fact.”

“So I understand.” She was bitter as she said, “I saw Billy last night, you know. He was walking around in some lousy neighborhood. I’ve never seen him look so well. Something here must agree with him.” She changed her tome as her expression softened. “He looked as though he’d been writing quite diligently. He always has a glow about him when the work’s going well. It pleases me. Very much. Donald Wassermann thinks he has a best-seller on his hands. Even that wretched old Greenleaf is a believer now. Finally.”

He stood there and said, “You know, I don’t see him. He moved out of here a while ago.”

“You knew where to call him, though, didn’t you.”

“This is quite a small town.”

Dora craned her neck to get a closer look at him. “I wish you’d sit down. You’re so tall. Billy comes from a short family, alas. I nevertheless think of us as commanding. I am anyway.”

He sat and she looked him over. “By the way, I’d love a martini.”

He motioned to Bob, who was at the bar, and mouthed martini. It was in her hand before they spoke again. Douglas tried to see the place through her eyes, but it was harder than he’d expected; tense and watchful though she was, Dora wasn’t quite the snide monster Bill had described.

Maybe he created a character. “Dora Blake” inexpertly played by Dora Blake.

Douglas looked at her with renewed and even sympathetic interest.

“Tell me, Mr. Broadwood, do you own this place outright or do you have a mortgage?”

Before he could stop himself he said irritably, “I own it, of course.” Dora sipped and nodded her head in agreement like a sage old woman.

“Mmm. Good. I mean the martini, and the point. I like your place. Victorian white elephants aren’t really the thing, but this is less hideous than most. I assume it was the family manse before you opened it up to the polloi. Like a stately home in England.” She laughed at the comparison. “Spending down the capital, taking desperate measures not to be homeless. I am familiar with the situation, having been in it once myself. I pulled myself up by the bootstraps after Billy’s father scampered all the way to California about the time of the Crash. You seem to be doing the same. Good for you. I applaud your doggedness.”

Douglas inclined his head to accept her praise. He kept his eye on her; she was a little less horrible than he’d been led to believe, but not much.

Dora was taking stock of the large room more carefully now, conducting an inventory of similarities and differences to her own house. “I have Wallace Nutting in my house, too. Not on the main floor, though.” She shook her head resignedly at the braided rugs.

Douglas caught the echoes of Bill.

Dora smiled with a hooded expression, another echo. “We’re not altogether different.”

“I’m sorry. Who—“

“Oh, you know who. Where is my boy really staying? Have you hidden him away here? In one of those turrets perhaps? Rapunzel, Rapunzel.” She was alert as he showed his surprise at that hit, mistimed though it was. She said, “I wish you’d call him again, wherever he is. I need to see him. It’s a matter of extreme importance—a family matter—one of some delicacy, actually. Poor Billy, he’ll be…” Dora’s gaze turned inward for a moment, wandering in halls of woe. She brightened and put on a face of good-natured raillery.

“You’d better phone him again and tell him to put on some long pants. I don’t want to see his knobby knees and toes sticking out of his sneakers. You’d think he didn’t own a stitch of good clothing.”

“How do you know the way he dresses here?”

“I’ve had reports.”

Douglas thought of the little editor and his tattle-tale ways. “You know, Mrs. Blake, Bill—your son…he grew to like it here.”

Her glance hardened. “So I’ve heard.”

“He began writing again when he was staying with us.”

“With you.”

He felt himself coloring. “As you like. But the fact was, he wrote prolifically and well. I helped him. I tried too hard, perhaps, to vet his pages before he gave them to the editor, but—“

“Then why did he leave? Simply to placate Donald Wassermann?” She seemed to find that doubtful.

Douglas tried his best not to shake. He struggled to keep a bland face turned toward his beloved’s hostile mother. My beloved. The phrase hadn’t come to him in weeks, and it calmed him. It was the source of his strength at the moment. A tide of happiness flooded him at the very thought of Bill, and he smiled generously at the anxious little woman.

“Well, I have a million things to do.” He got up.

Dora’s face registered a peculiar mixture of pleasure and displeasure. Douglas followed her glance toward the entrance and saw Don Wassermann come in. Don looked around and rushed toward Dora with an exclamation of delight.

“I’m not done with you yet,” she told him as she stood and raised her arms in welcome.

Don and Dora did a minuet of mutual appraisal. They exclaimed over how well the other looked, chortling at the devastations they did not mention. Douglas watched the editor’s face struggle with the effort not to betray how badly he thought she had aged, and how much more like the Duchess of Windsor she appeared: bitter, frail and shriveled.

And Douglas observed Dora hold back tart comments about the editor’s dissipation, his thin pale drawn face and the dark pouches under his eyes, and his hanging clothes, which were shockingly loud, unstructured and resort-y. She arched her eyebrow as if to say, “I must find out the story behind this transformation.”

Douglas got Dora another martini and stood near by with the drink on a little tray.

He stood over them like a figure on Mount Rushmore, noting that Don seemed to have lost more hair in the past month. He had never studied the pompous little man all that closely, but more pate did now seem to shine through the carefully combed strands of fine dark hair. He had an impulse to pick them up and set them in the front yard of L’Auberge du Capitain, lawn jockeys of affectation.

“You look so comfy, Donald. I wish I could unbend and dress like a Middle-Western tourist.” She indicated for him to sit where Douglas had been sitting.

Don laughed stagily. “Dear Dora, you couldn’t be anything but the great lady you are. The Dowager of New Angleport. Of all New England!” He sat opposite her and returned her riveted stare. “What a joy it is to see you again.”

Bridling at the dowager crack, she recovered enough to reach across the space and grab his hands. “It’s been too long, dear boy. What a pity it’s another scrape of Billy’s that brings us together.” She sighed and smiled an appeal for help.

Don didn’t hold her gaze. He looked away wistfully.

“Is he nearly done with the book? How is it going? When do you think it will be published? Donald, is it really good?”

Perhaps despite herself, Douglas thought, she was ever the interested mother, eager for the glory of her only son. Her jaded eyes glittered with an avid hope.

Don murmured, “It’s very good, Dora. I promise you we’ll publish as soon as we can. It will require a lot of editing yet,” he added sternly. “Bill’s gone off into new territory—you know what that means. More reflection, more revision, more time.”

Dora wasn’t pleased. She took away her hands and sat ramrod straight. “You’re saying you haven’t a clue, Donald. Are you actually paying any attention to him? What are you about these days?” She leaned back and frisked him with her eyes. “You are hardly yourself, it seems to me.”

“I might say the same of you,” Don retorted.

Her wattles shook a bit. “Would you like a drink, Donald? I’ll have that martini now, thank you.”

Douglas proffered the tray, but Dora ignored him. He set it on the side table as she was saying, with just-discovered anger, “You can well imagine my dismay when I arrived last night and did not find my son at the place you said he was staying.”

Douglas noted the querulousness of age; there were no teeth in her complaints.

Don wore a sickly expression on his face as he looked up at Douglas. “I’ll have one of those,” nodding at the martini. “He’s been working very hard all summer, Dora. He’s actually quite well. You’d approve. The novel is his best work by far. I think it will sell. Sell. Like Cheever or better.”

She was white-lipped with anger at him, but this comparison pleased her. “If that little worm of a Cheever can do it…”

Don added smugly, “I’m sure there’s a Hollywood deal in it for us, Dora. I’ve been making contacts.”

“Really, Donald? Isn’t that wonderful! Is there much money in it for a writer like Billy? I mean, he’s not exactly one of those best-seller sausage machines, is he?” Dora was all intensity. “Would he have any type of artistic control, or would he be another literary DP out there? I can only grieve when I think of F. Scott. Not to mention that sad case of the Southerner—Faulkner, I think it was.” She turned a 200-watt smile on Don.

Douglas was beginning to admire her tirelessness. If it was truly on Bill’s behalf, Bill must fear and love her, despite his angry disparagements.

He left to order the editor’s drink and told Bob to serve it. He beckoned to Carol, who was in the hall saying goodbye to Mrs. O’Connor, who was weeping at the prospect of returning to Cleveland. Carol saw him and efficiently hugged the departing guest. She was at his side in ten seconds.

“Uh-oh. What is it?”

“Who’s got the Jewett room the next couple of nights? Those people from Albany?”

“They canceled. Mrs. O’Connor had it for tonight. But her boyfriend wanted her home a day early. God knows why.”

“Can we move people around—reduce their rate or whatever?”

“It won’t be easy. I’ll manage something.” Carol looked shrewd. “Is someone coming back to us?”

Douglas shrugged. “Maybe.” He leaned forward and murmured. “Guess who.”

“Oh,” she smiled, “there’s no doubt in my mind.” She looked up at him with affectionate pity. “By the way, Mr. Broadwood.”

Douglas.”

Douglas.” He could tell she loved being treated as an equal. “The writer from Holiday will be here the day after tomorrow. Everything will be shipshape for him!”

Douglas nodded and pointed at Dora and Don. “See those two? They’re running a tab. Tell Bob to pay special attention to them. The old lady’s just getting started.” He nodded ever so slightly at Dora and Don.

“Should the drinks be on the house?”

“No!” He dropped his voice further. “Eavesdrop as much as you can.”

“Don’t worry. I remember the guy. When Brenda Ballard was here that night.” Carol looked sharply at them under her professional smile. “I’m glad they’re not staying with us. There’d be no pleasing them. Especially the Duchess.”

Dora was watching them out of the corner of her eye as Don was delivering an oration of self-defense. Her expression revealed her mounting displeasure.

He idled at the reception desk before leaving. He heard Dora exclaim, “Of course I’d like to meet her! You must think I’m a fatal prude right out of The House of Mirth. Dear Donald, if you are happy, then I am. Marriages don’t last for ever. Not now and not ever, if truth be told!” She grasped the grinning editor’s hands again and glanced at Douglas, holding his eyes for a few seconds.

He made a little bow to Dora, who returned it with, he suspected, a succinct commentary about the editor.

As he went across the drive to the station wagon, Douglas contrasted the Dora he had just met with the woman Bill had described. The Dora of repute would have eviscerated him in about ten seconds. This conflicted old lady was formidable in her way, but he felt some sympathy for her. After all, she clearly loved Bill, too, and it was a hard job for anyone who took it on.

Still, he wanted above all to protect Bill. From her, and from that preening little dictator Wassermann.

As Douglas turned the key in the ignition to drive the four minutes and many social leagues to Mrs. Shaw’s, he wondered if he was the only one who hadn’t hitched his wagon to Bill’s literary star. He wondered if he was the only one who cared about Bill the person.

He drove very cautiously down the road, past the wooded lots of grand houses on the way to the cheap part of town. His vision was obscured by tears, tears for the very purity of his unconditional love for his handsome novelist.

* * *

The sun was dipping behind the spruces when Douglas entered Mrs. Shaw’s back yard. Bill sprawled in an Adirondack chair wearing his trunks. Unaware of Douglas, he lazed, slimly handsome. Mrs. Shaw sat next to him, conducting a complacent inspection of her garden and blowing smoke through her nostrils. They sipped chalk-white tea from mugs. Douglas smiled despite himself.

“Good afternoon. Or is it evening?”

Mrs. Shaw sharply snapped to. “Hello, Mr. Broadwood! Why, what an honor this is! Would you like a nice cup of tea?” She jumped up and wrung her hands like a maid interrupted on her day off. Douglas recalled that she had been in service for years to some New Yorkers, from whom she had stolen quite brazenly during the off seasons. Most of the townies hadn’t judged her ill, but he had.

“No thanks, Mrs. Shaw. Do you mind if I speak with…?”

“Please,” she cried, animated by her ambiguous role. She grabbed her mug and hurried into the house. He noticed that she busied herself in and around the kitchen sink. Her head kept popping into view as he talked with Bill. He lowered his voice to almost a whisper.

“Bill, you can’t stay here. Your mother will—“

“Where, then? This fucking town is so minute.” Douglas thought he saw Mrs. Shaw’s head lean a bit closer to the screened kitchen window.

Douglas leaned toward him. “Quiet! She’s listening. She’ll tell all if Dora comes here. And Dora will come here.”

“I know. She’s persistent as the clap.”

Douglas laughed silently. “She’d love that simile!”

Bill looked up and laughed too. “I like it here, damn it. I’ve completed the book—well, not quite—and I need a little more undisturbed writing time. A couple more days, and I’m done with Wry Beach. And then, right away, I want to start on the next one—preliminary notes and exploratory passages, anyway. Eyes Wide Open. Good working title, isn’t it?” He fell silent when it was clear Douglas was resolute. “What do you suggest?” Bill asked, tossing the cool tea over his shoulder. They listened to the plashing sound on the dense emerald grass. A robin hopped about not two yards from Bill’s bare feet.

As they smiled at each other, Douglas felt the beginning of that soaring happiness again—that surging joy in his chest, rising from the buried vision of the wild beauty of their drive home from the beach, the wheeling gulls, the taste of salt on Bill’s lips, their first kiss on that hot afternoon in May.

May? Hardly two months ago? It seemed an emblem of a mythical period, a personal Golden Age. Over so soon. Well into the age of brass now, he gloomed.

He pulled himself together and managed to say, calmly, “Tell me about the new book over dinner. We’ll go over to…” He pondered a moment as the robins and gulls turned to butterflies in his stomach. “Let’s go to a rather posh place I know in Tappan. We—you can’t stay here.”

“Posh? Did you actually say ‘posh’? Let me dress up a bit.” Bill got up. He touched Douglas’s shoulder.

“Bill,” he urged, “pack all your things now. I’ll put you up. For a few days, if you like. It won’t be safe to come back here later. She’ll have found out where you’ve been staying and she’ll camp out here till we get back.”

“Not if we stay out late enough.” Bill leaned closer to him and whispered. “Herself hits the hay by nine every night. She and the barber, rockin’ and rollin’ all night long.”

Douglas shook his head; the secret life of everybody amazed him. Bill tra-la-la’d merrily and headed for the kitchen door. Mrs. Shaw’s head disappeared from the window.

“I’ll wait out front,” Douglas called after him. Bill waved over his back as he went in the house.

Dusk was falling fast. Douglas waited in the car, feeling a faint chill roll off the mountain behind the town. The intimations of autumn, of the decline of the year into the usual seasonal darkness, had a calming effect on him. He hated to see the end of this summer, the departure of the guests, the months of dark and cold, the familiar intolerable loneliness…He sighed and managed to whisk away the old winter gloom. Somehow it didn’t threaten its habitual misery.

Bill was rattling the door handle to be let in. “That was fast.” He reached over to unlock it and was even more surprised to see the way Bill was dressed. He’d put on a blazer and lightweight wool trousers, new-looking loafers, even socks. His white shirt was crisp, and he’d tied a beautifully dimpled knot in his navy and polka dot tie.

Douglas stared. “I’ve never seen you…seen you look so presentable.”

“You bastard.”

He felt his face get hot. “I was really thinking that I’d never—never seen you look so handsome. You are a real beauty, William.”

Bill said stiffly, “You did say we were going to a posh place.”

“It reflects well on you.”

“What does?”

“That you’re not deeply vain--you can’t take a compliment.”

“I’m not used to getting them.”

“Oh, that’s not true and you know it.”

“Not from a man, anyway.” Bill rustled uncomfortably in the seat, impatient to be gone.

They left Mrs. Shaw’s neighborhood in silence as the first lights went on in the little houses. From his rear view mirror Douglas thought he saw the maroon Auberge station wagon advancing slowly down the street. He made a point of turning onto the first side street and taking a slightly longer way to Route 1. He decided not to say anything to tense Bill, whose mellow mood was fragile.

Douglas put on the radio. Something soporific by Patti Page. Bill changed the station and found something by a Negro group. He sang softly, atonally along. The singer moaned something about “the still of the night,” but it didn’t sound like Cole Porter to Douglas. When the song was over, Bill shut off the radio and looked dreamily ahead.

“Where—“ Bill cleared his throat. “Where are we going?”

“Tappan.”

“I’ve never been there. Is it posh?” He pronounced it in what he believed was an upper-class English accent.

“A bit.”

“Is Tappan a town or a restaurant?”

“You really have spent too much time in Selene,” Douglas said. “A town. The restaurant’s called the King’s Arms.”

“Oh my. I should have worn my dinner jacket. And you, your diamond tiara.”

Douglas laughed, “Touché! Wait till you see where we’re going. It reminds me of New York. Very discreet. Very…you know”

This put Bill on edge. “I suppose this is better than facing Dora.”

“You don’t sound convinced.”

“I’m not. Not matter how posh our destination.”

Douglas sighed, content in his knowledge that Bill was still so unconfident and uneasy about his nature, while he himself had undergone revolutions of feeling and perception that would have been unthinkable six months before. Bill was the catalyst. Now the catalyst needed catalyzing.

Some cozy conversation, a special dinner, a bottle of claret. They would come to terms. They would clear the air. He would find out once and for all if Bill was going to remain in Selene. With him.

“Turn off the road now.”

Douglas did as he was told, but he protested, “We’re almost there.”

“So what.”

“And you got dressed up.” Douglas almost made a joke about how proud his mother would be to see him look so spiffy, but he thought better of it.

“Fuck that.”

It was almost full night by now, and the crickets of late summer were giving their raucous performance. The cool air smelled of Queen Anne’s lace and mud flats. He parked at the head of the lane overlooking the water. Boats were stranded at drunken angles. In the late twilight a family was clamming, the kids running and shrieking with laughter as they flung mud at one another. Lights shone on the water farther out.

He heard Bill grunt. He turned to see him take of the tie and fling it into the back seat, then unbutton his shirt collar. Bill lowered the window all the way.

“Jesus Christ,” he muttered. “That’s more like it.”

Douglas smiled in the deepening dark at return of the old, unmellow Bill. “Are you all right now? Anxiety abated?”

Bill took his time answering. “Yes.”

Douglas placed his hand on his knee. “I repeat my offer. You can stay—“

“Mm.” He removed Douglas’s hand.

Bill reached up, took hold of Douglas’s head, and pushed it forward. They kissed. “Our first kiss,” Bill said as he let him go.

“Hardly!”

“The first one that counts.”

Douglas’s heart skipped. “They all count.”

“Not till now—not for me.”

“What’s changed?” He sat back, trying to read Bill’s expression in the darkness.

Bill shrugged. “Songs of innocence, followed by songs of experience.”

Don hugged him tenderly. He found himself weeping. He tried to be silent so that Bill wouldn’t be alarmed.

“Jesus.” Bill grabbed Douglas and held onto him like a life preserver. Bill whispered, “Let’s get a room. Where can we go?”

“The King’s Arms.”

Bill disengaged himself and grumped, “Oh, so that was your game all along.” He mock-punched Douglas on the side of his head.

He started the car, turned in the narrow lane and drove slowly up to Route 1. “Wasn’t it yours?”

“Yes, then. I certainly am.”

They went another mile up the coast. It was full night as Douglas steered the car up a steep slope, away from the cove where the expensively quaint hamlet was nestled, and stopped at the side of an attractive stone house. A small sign by the front door, written in Gothic letters, embellished by a made-up coat of arms, told them that it was indeed the King’s Arms. Douglas used the heavy brass knocker. The door opened immediately, and a handsome older man in a William Powell-style suit whispered with him. “You have a reservation, sir?” “No, sorry.” “You have no reservation? That’s all right. For two, I see. Please follow me, gentlemen.”

He led them into a dining room so dark they couldn’t see the extent of the place. Tiny pools of candle light illuminated each table, even though over half the tables were unoccupied. They carefully threaded their way through this dark maze and the maitre d’ slowly, with much squinting, pulled out their chairs. Bill wore a satirical expression as he peered at the heavy, masculine furnishings.

Douglas was able to discern, barely, that most of the diners were male couples of a certain age, and sometimes there was a great disparity in age. There were also a couple of women here and there sitting across from a man. Everyone was well dressed, even expensive looking. He was the most underdressed person there, with his drooping khakis and wrinkled button-down shirt.

“Nice place, isn’t it?” Douglas ventured.

“Mm. Très posh. It’d be a lot posher if I had a drink.” The waiter must have developed batlike hearing in this dark habitat, and he had taken their order within ten seconds.

Bill sighed with contentment when his Scotch and water was set before him. “So what’s the situation chez Broadwood these days? Are we still in the grip of something?”

Douglas laid the menu on the table and looked hard at the cover. “Dave is gone. I asked him to leave. He was merely a—“

Bill raised his hand. “You owe me no explanations,” he said grandly. For that matter, I don’t owe you any, either. Certain things happen, and you can accept or—“

“I know, Bill.” Douglas’s heart was pounding as he said, casually, “You know, you can have your old room back.”

“In the turret?” he asked with mock dread. “Like Rapunzel?”

Douglas smiled. “No. Not in the turret. The best room in the house. Come back tonight. No one but Carol and Claire will know you’re there. They’ll shield you from disturbances…”

“At my old rate?”

“God, yes. I can see you are your mother’s son.” Douglas felt timidly happy and reached for Bill’s hand. Bill snatched it away, then placed it lightly on Douglas’s.

“I’m not used to public displays.”

“What about your old tanning rock?”

Bill raised his glass and his brows. “Good serve.” He favored Douglas with a look of tender camaraderie. Possibly blushing, he averted his eyes, and he was smiling shyly.

Douglas felt the sharp prickles of emotion in his eyes. “Bill, I—“

Bill had a serious face on now, and he cut him off. “Maybe we won’t have the same, the same spark or whatever you call it. It might be over. Has that occurred to you?”

Douglas sat back, feeling as if Bill had socked him in the face. “No. Not at all. Think of what we felt—I know what I felt in the car. Don’t you feel that way?”

“I’m not sure. It just occurred to me, sitting across from you in this spooky joint. The King’s Arse. I don’t know.”

“What are you doing all night? Why not find out tonight? Let’s end all uncertainty. Let’s face the reality of it.”

Bill picked up his drink and took a longer sip than before. His hands trembled. “Right upstairs?”

“Do you know what you want?”

“No. Well, I do know I don’t want to be alone--like I was before you came along.”

Douglas said playfully, “I believe it was you who came along.”

“Not intending to stay.”

“But you seem to be doing just that.”

“Seem.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means I don’t know, what else could it mean?”

“It might mean you don’t intend to stay at all, that you’re toying with me, with all of us here.”

“Why do you have to bring all of Selene into it? Don’t you just want to go fuck?”

He suppressed a sigh; really, sometimes Bill was too reductive. “You’ve become part of the town, whether you realize it or not. Despite everything you do to put people off, they seem to like you. They usually hate outsiders. They like you. Maybe you’re crusty enough for them. And then, I like you, and I’m part of this town.”

“You’re part of it as I could never be. But even though you’re such a big wheel around here—“

Douglas chuckled at that.

Bill waggled his forefinger at him. “They’ll turn on you when they figure you out.”

“Bill, they already know. They’ve probably always known. They know about you and me, too, and no one seems particularly fazed.” Douglas was enjoying the power shift: his own ease and Bill’s discomfort.

“They do? They really know? But,” Bill reasoned, “how much does anyone really know about another person’s private life?”

“Like Mrs. Shaw’s?”

Bill fell silent, staring moodily at his drink. He picked up the menu and studied the heavy, Belle Epoque type selections as he regained his composure. “They must be expecting Grover Cleveland to eat here.” He made a face. “Do you really want this stuff? I’d rather have a ham sandwich and a beer.”

“We can order it from the room.” They closed their menus at the same time. “Let’s finish our drinks.”

“Shit on the drinks. We can order them from the room, too.”

Douglas paid the bill and they felt their way out of the restaurant. His heart seemed to be floating on a sunny sea of happiness. He was finally the man he had always wanted to be.

It would be wonderful to show that man to Jack at his book party.

* * *

How many times did he come? How many vivid hot images swirled through his mind? How many breathless dives far beneath the sea? How many waves pounded him and threw him up gasping on the shore of horny isles of desire in the infinite ocean of lust? And how many times had he dived back in, aching for the warm brutality of the breakers that seized and rolled him round and round, head over heels? What had brought him to this world of strenuous pleasure and disbelieving happiness?

Lust and more. Oh it was lust united with love. Oh hadn’t he been right, wasn’t the evening’s first kiss the first kiss that counted among all the make-believe kisses they’d kissed before? And now the kisses gave him the air he needed to go underwater, to swim and dive and endure the pounding of the waves, the kisses were oxygen and food at once, the kisses were love’s truest expression and the source of the desire for life and more life.

Love, was it? It was a light and fluid thing, but it had a tangible weight. It fed him images of infinite vistas and Olympian sentiments, but it was tied to place and time—here and now—like nothing else. It was universal and all-embracing, but it was concentrated in the sleeping man next to him. It was courageous in the abstract and cowardly in the concrete. It showed him the way to transcend himself and told him he’d better learn to live with his limitations.

The things they’d done—each to each other, top and bottom, down and up—jumbled together in his morning head. Every orifice invaded, every part of the body touched, kissed, rubbed, smeared. Maybe they’d done all this before. Their earlier, their proto-historical phase was a blur. But ah this time there had been an abandon, a wildness and directness of desire and of feeling that was new. All coyness, gone. All shyness, dissolved. All the wiles of self-protection, obsolete. The world was new today. Or he was. Presumably they both were.

And even now he worried about how it would look--how others would react to him. What would his relation to the world be from now on?

Now that I’ve given myself over to—

He hadn’t the heart to articulate even the thought. There were lingering fears and regrets for this road chosen, or this fate submitted to—even today, the first day of a new order.

Well, he was armed with love, wasn’t he? His sword and shield. His rod and his staff. Yea, love would comfort him, though he walk through the valley of the shadow of social extinction.

He recalled what they said before they fell asleep.

“Why did we make things so damned painful?”

“Ssh. We were afraid.”

“Fear itself.”

And then they held each other and drifted off, worn and glowing, the inevitable aches of the morning already seeping into the muscles of their thighs.

Now the early light garishly outlined the dark, thick shades of a room that smelled of their fluids.

He checked the bedside clock: almost seven. “Wake up. Work to do in Selene.” He prodded him. He studied the peaceful face that was blinking at the ceiling.

“What? Oh God.” Shifting laxly.

“How do you feel?”

“Exhausted. Wonderful. You?”

“Same.” He considered what he was feeling now, and what the days and weeks ahead held in store. What had appeared unclear, unknowable, was becoming clear as their voices created a kind of force field. It was like science fiction, in a way: they were a new breed of man, and the old categories of thought and habit, of love and duty, were swept aside. He began to see a habitable future. A tolerable present. He disengaged himself and stretched. “Know something? I don’t give a shit any more.”

“About what?”

“What anybody says or thinks.”

“Does that mean you aren’t afraid?” The gentle skepticism wounded him.

He shrugged and answered truculently. “I’ll do as I like. And love as I like.”

Douglas sat up and faced him wearing a glazed expression. He whispered, “Where does that leave me?”

“You must be the village idiot.” Bill leaned into Douglas, kissing him on the lips despite his horrific breath.


XXIV. Holiday Inn

Somewhere between bafflement and anger, Bill couldn’t get his bearings. Something had changed in his few weeks away. As he leaned against the wall in the TV lounge, which was closed to guests for the duration of this summit meeting, he was struck by the main-chance thinking and the passionate intensity, which were transforming the dumpy Broadwood Tourist Home into a “force in the local hospitality industry,” to quote Arnold J. Weisbrod, long-term guest and self-appointed publicity consultant. It was sort of ludicrous, all this energy and passion expended on pumping up a fucking hostelry instead of on an epic poem or a symphony for kazoos or something of intrinsic merit. It amused and revolted him. It was a realm where he didn’t belong.

The writer from Holiday magazine was soon to arrive dispensing his exquisite form of grace, and it was universally assumed that his article would be the making of the Broadwood Gardens Inn. (A sign containing the new word, advertising the best feature of the property, was being rushed to completion. Bill assumed someone was doing some badly needed pruning and weeding at that moment.) There was nervous but good-natured arguing about how to do this or that, and exactly how sycophantically to treat the writer. They were all dressed nicely, Douglas in a shirt and tie; he was in his usual gym garb, holey sneakers, T-shirt and baggy shorts.

Everyone was on a first-name basis, apparently as equal partners in the enterprise. He wondered when Douglas had become so egalitarian, and so eager to seize the main chance. He wondered what Douglas had had to give away to elicit all this greedy alacrity. And he was feeling obscurely cheated.

Not like it’s my business or anything.

Yet—obscurely—he felt it somehow was his business, in every sense of the word.

“Arnie, I think we should—“

“No, Douglas, we should approach it like this—“

“Carol, honey, with all due respect—“

After hammering out whatever details needed hammering, they all laughed and raised their coffee cups to the success of their “snow job of blizzard proportions,” as Carol phrased it. More laughter. They were light-hearted and optimistic. He marveled at the difference in the talkative, confident Douglas of now compared with the lugubrious, slow-witted hermit he had encountered back in March.

Less than five months ago, although it feels like five years. All the changes, all the churning and--

He closed off the thought like a draughty room at the top of the house. Whether he was more disenchanted by the changes in Douglas or the lack of change in himself, he couldn’t tell. OK, he reflected, he had changed a bit, but Douglas had blossomed into another person entirely. It made him feel left behind with, what, only a book (not quite finished, by the way, he had to get working and quit moping)—only a novel to show for it. He felt irrelevant, like the stereopticon in the lounge, which hardly anyone ever picked up. It, too, gathered dust.

Bill sighed and let the conversation flow on without heeding it. He watched Douglas pay close attention to what was being said, taking notes, nodding intently, smiling and answering with a kind of quiet authority. He watched the others defer to him and eagerly offer their views. Was he proud of stodgy old Douglas, who was no longer stodgy old Douglas? Yes and no. Mostly no.

Seeing how “enterprising” and commonplace Douglas was happy to become to make a few shekels, he was disappointed in a way, too. Douglas was made of finer stuff, he had believed. Douglas had taken refuge in genteel poverty and wrapped himself in it as an act of defiance against the cheesy valuations of a materialistic society—he had standards, knew about art and literature and writers and...

Bill told himself he loved the finely developed aesthetic sensibility in Douglas; another voice whispered, very softly, that he resented not being able to despise and pity Douglas for his failure.

“Now we need to plan for the closure in the winter,” Douglas said. He looked at a pad of paper filled with many sheets of notes and figures.

“Not till after New Year’s, I hope,” Arnie Weisbrod said. “You are going to do the special Chanukkah package, aren’t you?” He lowered his voice and asked Carol, urgently, “You did mention this, didn’t you?”

She smiled and patted his hand, “Yes, of course I did, Arnie.” Carol had started using New York vowels: no longer was it “Aahnie”, it was “Awnie” now. “I proposed this to Douglas weeks ago. By the way, we already have four reservations for the American Chanukkah Tradition week. We’re at break-even. And that’s just from me talking it up with the summer guests.”

“Repeat business?” Douglas blinked; he was moved enough to cry.

“We’re going to use a mailing list from my synagogue,” Arnie told him. “You’ll get plenty of new business, too.”

“The brochures will be ready in about two weeks,” Carol said. “The only problem is that Chanukkah starts on December 18 this year and goes till Christmas. How shall we handle that?” She looked earnestly about. “Jewish guests aren’t gonna be too nuts about Christmas decorations. And the Christians won’t be happy if there aren’t any--and there will be Christian guests this holiday season. I’ve got a Christmas brochure in the works, too. Several guests are interested in the Christmas package: one lady whose husband’s a big shot at one of those Route 128 companies wants to bring her married daughter and her family up for Christmas.”

“Who’s this?” Douglas asked.

“Mrs. Elton. Room Five.”

“Oh.” Douglas hadn’t the foggiest.

“You can see there’s a lot at stake here, Douglas.” Arnie was practically hyperventilating.

“Anyway,” Carol continued, a little irritated by her boyfriend’s oversell, “let’s figure out how to handle this conflicting holidays thing. It could be a huge problem. That and teaching my aunt how to make potato pancakes.”

“Latkes.”

“Yes, Arnie. Latkes.” Carol and Arnie exchanged a sort of secret smile. Bill wondered if anyone besides him found the age difference between them as appalling as he did: the bald, wrinkled 50-year-old with the pot belly and the alimony payments; and the slender fresh-faced blonde of twenty-one who was younger than her future step-children. If marriage was in the cawds.

There was a collective furrowing of brows. After a moment Mr. Weisbrod said, “A mixed couple I know—“he glanced quickly at Carol—“hang the tree and Christmas stuff in the living room. They put the dreydels and the Jewish stuff in the dining room. Their relatives were a little put off when they first walked in the door. They got over it by dinnertime. Why don’t we do something like that? As long as we don’t Jesus it up too much.”

Douglas fixed him with a cold eye. “Arnie, I’m an Episcopalian. We never ‘Jesus it up’ much at all.” Arnie bowed in apology.

Carol leaned toward Douglas. “Never mind Jesus. What about snow? I sure hope there’s snow on the ground by then. You never know here on the coast.”

“There will be on the mountain. We can transport the adventurous ones to the ski run.”

“Maybe we could put in holly trees.”

“They don’t grow this far north.”

“True.” Then Carol brightened. “Maybe we could buy some plastic ones.”

Weisbrod guffawed. Douglas chuckled and squeezed her hand.

Oh shit. This is like the Peaceable fucking Kingdom.

They looked at Bill as he stirred. “Sorry to ignore you, Bill,” Douglas said. “It’s that we’ve been so intent—“

“What’s this about closing for the winter?”

“Well. As you’ve pointed out on many occasions, Bill, the place needs a good deal of updating. We have the money to make improvements now—to invest. We have to—to keep the guests coming. There won’t be a film company next summer. No Hollywood riffraff to attract visitors. We have to work harder to keep them coming in. So, in addition to Carol’s—and Arnie’s—marketing campaign, we’re completely redoing the bathrooms and the kitchen—“

“Thank God!” Carol exclaimed. Everyone laughed in agreement, except Bill, who remained the Great Stone Face.

“And we’ll put in new carpeting, a new heating plant and wiring. We’ll have to wait till next winter to do the furniture and curtains, but we will make the place much more comfortable for everyone in the meantime.”

Carol piped up, “By 1960 we should be able to charge as much as the Auberge.”

“That pretentious hole!” Arnie cried, adding loyally, “Broadwood’s has much more character.”

“They offer room service,” Bill told them.

“You get room service,” Douglas said.

“I meant for everyone. That means a new phone system and more staff. And so on.”

Douglas considered this a moment, looking at Weisbrod, who nodded sagely. “That’s a good point. A project for next winter, if not this.”

“How long do you expect to be closed? And what will happen to long-term guests? Like the Mortons?”

The tension in his voice dampened the jolly mood. Douglas said quietly, “We’ll be closed for January and February—right after New Year’s. The Mortons will be staying with a lady in town at a very reasonable rate. You may know her, Bill. Mrs. Shaw on New Street.” Douglas grinned with unaccustomed mischief. He was trying to engage Bill with a merry glance, but Bill looked away.

His insides felt churned up; why hasn’t Douglas been telling him any of this? Why was he out in the cold, when the likes of Weisbrod and Claire’s pushy niece were in on it all? This new side of the man alarmed him. It was as if stolid old Douglas had all sorts of secrets, which of course was a laughable idea.

Or was it? Hadn’t Douglas mentioned, in passing, that he had to go to New York in a few weeks on a matter of pressing concern? Douglas had sighed and shaken his head as if it was all too tedious, a problem with a supplier or someone like that, dating back to unpaid bills before the present era of prosperity. “Just for a few days, Bill. It’s awful, but it must be done.” Bill hadn’t been interested enough to ask any questions at that point. He figured it wasn’t any business of his. Now he wasn’t sure. Weren’t most of Douglas’s suppliers in Boston? And hadn’t he seemed a little fidgety and evasive when telling him this? There was always the worm in the rose, wasn’t there? The canker that blasted the beautiful and real. He’d better be on the alert; something told him Douglas was no more to be trusted than Don or Dora.

Weisbrod stood up, checking his watch. “I have to leave for Portland in an hour to pick Mr. Fairley up. We should be back here around four. Drinks time. Ted Fairley likes to drink. I’m glad you put in the bar, Douglas.” He looked at Carol as he said this and then all around, beaming with the joy of having arranged the making of their fortunes. “He’s a major contributor to Holiday. Which, as you know, is the premier travel publication in America, if not the world.”

“You don’t say.” Bill, sulking, headed for the door.

Weisbrod said, “Douglas, he’ll have his photographer with him. You ought to get a haircut. Not too short.”

“Carol, is there room for the photographer? One of the turrets?”

Carol began to react in horror, but Weisbrod said, “Oh, don’t worry. They always share the same room.”

Douglas looked doubtful. “Mrs. Fairley’s a photographer?”

Weisbrod said, “Oh, Douglas!” and shook his head. “You’re giving these gentlemen the best room in the house, aren’t you?”

Carol recovered herself and asked, “What’s the photographer’s name? It isn’t Robert E. G. Smith? He makes places look incredible.”

Weisbrod cried joyfully at his prize pupil, “You do your homework! Yes, Bobby Smith does all of Fairley’s photography.” He gazed around with renewed admiration, as if to remind everyone, She’s as smart as she’s gorgeous!

Like Carol, Douglas was blushing a deep pink. He glanced in Bill’s direction and said, “Of course they’ll have the best room in the house. Mine. I already had the sheets changed.” Then he smiled too. “Bill, do you mind if I sleep on your sofa tonight?”

Bill hung at the doorway, grimacing at the archness of it all. “No, sleep in my bed.” Everyone froze. “I’ll sleep on the sofa. Or reclaim my room at Mrs. Shaw’s; I did pay for a month in advance.”

He left the room, slamming the door. He stood in the hallway a moment, waiting for Douglas to slouch out and ask what was troubling him. After a short silence, they began discussing business again. Weisbrod came out and brushed by Bill without a word.

He went upstairs, passing the Mortons who were descending to a late breakfast. A frosty nod from those two refugees from a Henry James short story. Claire was no friendlier when she came to fetch his breakfast tray. “Jour.” And she left as quickly as possible.

Some homecoming. But what did I expect? Brass bands? Festoons?

He sat at the desk, which had been moved closer to the window for better natural light. It was a cool, misty morning. The smell of the sea was strong. Noises like the shutting of car doors or voices of the visitors were muted. The rising sounds of anger filled his head. He opened the notebook, reviewing the latest chapter. As his sense of anger and hurt mounted, phrases and scenes began to come to him, connections and reversals came to him as if emerging from the mist outside. In a fog of his own, it was clear there were only two things he could do right now: go see Dora or finish the novel. His concluding chapter. The denouement. The end of the road. The birth of the idiot baby.

Oh God, let’s get it over with. I’m sick of it all.

He locked his door, hanging a laminated new DO NOT DISTURB sign on the knob. He sat down again, picked up the pen and said, “Fuck ‘em all.” Even saying goodbye to your baby was better than saying hello to your mother.

He wondered why it felt like an act of contrition, of sacrifice, of suicide. Oh God, let’s get it over with indeed. He worked all day in a kind of terrified fit. Anger and anxiety fueled the final chapter, the last five, no six, no seven thousand words, and his vision of a New England corrupted by its fall of from wealth and influence came to its unexpectedly violent and unredeemed conclusion. The family at the center of the story could only affirm its cohesion, its sense of being connected by blood or obligation, through acts of destruction. Even their mutual loathing wore itself out, and there was nothing to do but end the game and go far away, those who survived, and forge a new identity. It seemed like a very American act of renunciation, pragmatic and more concerned with self-preservation than sacrifice.

Yet what if his protagonist, ill and ashamed, guilty and on the run, ended the book with a poem—Bill grinned grimly at Don’s reaction to this one—that sounded, what, a note of hope? Reconciliation? Maybe it was another bullshit elegy, and here was the craven author indulging again in half-assed spiritual sops.

Words fall away under the holy static

Of the sun's light and the boats dance

Whitely in Rye Harbor as the young

Monarchs in the old Buick cry out

For joy at the splendor of Little Boar's Head.

Little Boar's Head reflected in

The cumuli where angels play 1948

For ever in a rear-view mirror

Wars foreign and domestic are forgiven

Past and future tremble together on high.

That coast lives in some

Future of mine consumed by fire

(Is it the Holy Spirit or worse?

My cowardice will not remain unpunished)

Accept this bargain I beg you Lord:

Sacrifice my children for a safe-passage

Round the coast to Little Boar's Head again.

In a state of artistic possession or a manic despair, he wrote the lines. They came to him in a white light of remembrance and regret.

Bill sat back and stared at the words. The final words of Wry Beach. The book that had lain in him like a sick brother ever since the marriage had begun to dissolve. He experienced the time, and emotions of the poem with utter clarity, as if a revelation had occurred. As if it were eternally happening. An ecstatic moment of happy awareness and then--

God, it’s so holy this and holy that. Where’s that coming from?

He stewed over it for a while but let it stay. There was something in him that craved the holy, although maybe not as much as it craved, say, the intoxicating. Still, he perceived that whatever went unacknowledged would burst forth of its own volition, and now he understood that he should let this impulse have its say. Anyway, reviewers and serious readers loved last-minute uplift. Redemption sells.

After a time he rose and stretched. With a curious lightness of heart he undressed and took a shower, and in his heightened state, he experienced a literal and a figurative cleansing. He dried himself and caught sight of his beaming face in the mirror. A radiance seemed to emanate from him. He felt mercilessly happy.

A knock on the door, one of Douglas’s signals. Bill opened it and Douglas came in with a bad look on his long face. “Bill, I’m sorry to bother you but your mother—“

Bill smiled serenely up at him. He ignored the deathly expression on his face. “Here are the final pages.” He indicated them over on the desk; they were in sunlight, moved gently by the breeze. He shrugged. “Tell her I’m busy. Writing. Working. Completing a major novel that will finally make her proud of her only spawn.”

“She’s downstairs. I’m afraid she has some unhappy news. It will—I think it will affect you. Us.”

“Dora’s aim in life is to deliver unhappy news.” Then furiously: She’ll not fuck me up in my golden moment!

“All right. All right, dearest.” Douglas sighed, patting Bill’s shoulder, and went to put her off.

Bill sat at the desk, watchful until he saw Dora mince down the walk, overdressed as usual. Towering over her and reducing his steps to hers, Douglas was in the middle of assuring her of Bill’s diligence and productiveness: “—Most done, you know. Wry Beach. He’s hard at work on the final chapters. He says you’ll be proud of him. He heard her cry, “How wonderful! I’m sorry in a way that this place is so good for him.” She shook hands with Douglas with an expression of pitying joy, then was lost among the foliage as she headed back to her hotel.

Bill remained at the desk. He looked at the last few chapters, making notes, trying to sustain the sense of perfect attainment that was disappearing in the afternoon sunlight like the mists of the morning.

* * *

He couldn’t remember another day that had started so well—so much promise—and was turning so wrong. First that damnable Dora Blake with her crises and demands, now the vile Mr. Fairley and his companion, the snappish photographer who was annoying the guests and complaining about everything in the place.

Arnold, is this what you term ‘a charming salon’? It looks like a way station for refugees. And how often is it dusted? How do you expect me to write encomiums about such a place? My God.” Ostrich-built and long-haired, Mr. Fairley stalked critically around the lounge, shuddering theatrically at the books on the shelves—the Broadwood family’s prized possessions! First editions of Sarah Orne Jewett and Oliver Wendell Holmes!—and grunting with disgust at the pictures on the walls. Mr. Weisbrod trailed after him anxiously, and Carol followed him with mounting fear in her eyes.

Douglas heard Mr. Weisbrod ask something, and he heard the reply loud and clear. “Character all right. The wrong kind.” After forty-five minutes of this and more—they had traipsed through guest rooms and the kitchen, not to mention the garden—Mr. Fairley and Mr. Smith told Weisbrod they wanted to go to their room, and they wanted drinks. Bob was on duty and hopped to. They tended not to notice Douglas.

They left the lounge to the guests and retreated to Douglas’s suite, which at least hadn’t disgusted them when they first saw it. “Aggressively masculine, isn’t it?” Mr. Fairley had said, and Mr. Smith had tittered. They had both given Douglas a quizzical eye.

Now the guests were buzzing about the outrageous behavior of the famous travel writer and his photographer. Douglas saw a few guests look around the place with a new, negative sense of appraisal. They got up and walked around restlessly; and he knew they’d be checking out in the morning, called away by sudden emergencies at the office or home. He heart sank, and he wanted to go to Bill. A little tenderness, a kiss—perhaps this torture wouldn’t matter so much. He had to hold onto Bill as long as he could. He wasn’t going to be around for much longer.

Carol came up to him and squeezed his hand. “I’m sure it will work out. Maybe he’s —that way.”

Douglas nodded and his eyes filled up. “I’m sorry, Carol. Things may not work out—“

“We’re not gonna let one fussy old qu—“She caught herself and said, “It isn’t the end of the world, and Arnie will fix something else up.”

“I don’t know if we can take any more of his fix-ups.”

She nodded. “Some public relations genius he is. Well, I’ll make sure he doesn’t foul it up next time.” She went in search of her mentor, possibly to discuss an adjustment in that relationship.

Douglas went upstairs and, catching himself before he opened his own door, knocked on Bill’s instead. No answer. He unlocked it and slipped inside quietly.

Bill was still working. He didn’t look up when Douglas approached the desk. “I’m rewriting the last two chapters. All wrong.”

Douglas leaned down to nuzzle his neck. “I’m sure not.”

“Everything’s wrong. All shit.” Bill shrugged him off with a muttered, “Christ!”

“I know.” He stood up and tried to look at the papers spread over the entire surface of the desk. He couldn’t focus. He went over to the bed and lay on the coverlet. “Bill, it went badly with the writer.”

“Which writer? They’re all trouble.”

Douglas laughed. “True!” He shut his eyes and relaxed for a few minutes as Bill continued to work. He knew better than to talk much when Bill was in this state. He listened to the small sounds of someone absorbed in intellectual labor—a snuffle, a throat-clearing, the slight movement of a foot, or of a hand going through a pile of papers. Soon tears streamed down his face. Bill wasn’t aware, or wasn’t choosing to acknowledge it. He kept working, and Douglas kept suffering. It seemed to be the way things were for them, and would always be, if they were to be at all. And Dora was making sure that they were not.

“Oh, that queer from Holiday? He tried barging in here a few minutes ago. Mistook it for your room. Already half in the bag. He looked around quite a bit. Seemed to like what he saw.”

“Did he?”

Bill turned around and said, “Why the hell are you crying? Haven’t I got enough on my mind?”

He sat up and wiped the tears from his face with the backs of his hands. “Bill, this is one of the worst days I can remember. Can’t you come over here and let me hold you?”

Bill sighed with exasperation. He got up and said, “I must get back to…” He sat next to Douglas and allowed himself to be embraced. Douglas started sobbing, he knew it would annoy Bill and drive him away, but it didn’t matter. Bill was going back with Dora, the inn was going to suffer its final death agony, and he’d be left alone as always, alone and stuck in this dreadful town and depressing house, with his dreadful sister and depressing acquaintances. The rest of his life spent eating canned tomato soup and selling off heirlooms to pay the oil bill.

Douglas, I really need to—“

“Bill, don’t leave me. Don’t leave me again.”

“Who said I was going to?”

“Your mother.”

“Don’t believe anything that old bitch tells you. What the fuck’s up her sleeve, anyway? What lies did she tell you?”

Douglas held him tighter. “Stay here for a minute, that’s all,” he whispered in his ear. “Everything’s falling apart, Bill. I’m so afraid of what the winter will bring.”

He saw himself wearing the heavy old cardigan again, the moth-eaten thing Bill had always ridiculed. He saw himself alone all winter—no closing for improvements, there wouldn’t have to be any, no one was ever coming back to this benighted place—shivering in low-watt light and going to church for the tepid companionship an hour or two a week. Evelyn would come over—carrying bakery cakes and pies for which he’d be grateful—dropping them and escaping to some new boyfriend after half an hour. He saw it clearly and knew that it was the truth.

Bill was looking at him with concern, confused as his creative heat cooled. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. I’m not going anywhere, Douglas. I’ll stay put.”

“That’s not what your mother says. She seems adamant.”

“Well, bub, so am I. I’m not going anywhere.” Bill struggled for a moment and then said, “I need you!” He saw Bill’s shorts tent up. Bill moaned and shut his eyes.

Douglas’s heart was being torn in two; he’d never known such extremes of joy and misery in the same instant, in his own body and brain. Such exalted torment had seemed the province of saints or the maddest poets. He’d never had an impulse for terrifying extremes of experience. When he first fell for Bill, he felt happy and free, but nothing like this. Even with Jack, it was more of a hangdog, second-fiddle situation. He mooned around like a creep and, no doubt, everyone laughed at him behind his back. Now he saw entire worlds created and destroyed in a second, and his joy and misery each reigned supreme over one or another for an instant. If this muddled war of feelings was the closest he’d ever get to a golden moment, he was glad, glad and grateful. And proud.

Visions of the cold, lonely winter were burned away by the fire that rose in him. A purgation. It was like a farmer burning off the underbrush for a better harvest.

Douglas cried as he hugged Bill ever closer, causing his man to gasp and thrash a little. “You must never leave me! I love you! I love you!”

When he opened his eyes he saw Ted Fairley standing in the entryway with a drink in his hand. Though his sight was bleared with tears, it seemed Fairley’s smile was benevolent; he had lost some of his pissy manner.

They separated, but his arm was still around Bill’s shoulders.

“Mr. Broadhurst, I assume you have plans to upgrade this place. Why don’t we talk about them over dinner tomorrow? Just you and me. Not Arnie Weisbrod. He did you no favors by overselling you to me.” He polished off his drink. “You make an attractive couple, you know. Bobby will have to get a shot at you two. Of you.”

Fairley left. Bill looked at Douglas and said, “Take him to the King’s Arms. His sort of cookery.”

* * *

Was it their last night together? He believed it might be. If so, he was disappointed. Bill was worn out from his work. After a few hugs and chaste kisses on the cheek, he turned over and left Douglas alone with his thoughts, again. He lay naked next to Bill, who was still wearing his gym outfit. He was the one with the erection now, and it was insistent. He cuddled up to Bill, rubbing his penis against his rear end. Bill moved away each time.

He gave up after a while and lay staring at the ceiling, obsessing about the next day. Everything was at stake. Nothing would go right, he was certain of it. Fairley’s offer to talk was probably a way to cadge a free meal at some overpriced restaurant. Happiness and prosperity—they were for other people to grab onto and enjoy as their very own. Not for him. That was simply the way it was and would ever be.

He was awake, restless in the dusk before dawn. Bill yawned and propped himself on one elbow. “So? What’s…?”

Douglas pulled him on top and kissed him. “Do you love me?”

“Sure.”

“Take off your clothes. Let me fuck you.”

“OK.” With sleepy movements Bill did as he was bid.

“One last time.”

“I’m not that clean down there.”

“That’s all right, darling.”

“Just so you know. Where’s the Vaseline?”

“Did you hear me?”

“What are you talking about? Shit. Let me go back to sleep. I recently finished a novel, in case you didn’t hear me.

Bill rolled off and buried his head under a pillow. He was snoring in a minute.

Douglas stripped the covers away from him. Bill was lying with his little white bum in the air and his slim tanned limbs splayed on his half of the bed.

Tears rose up again, this time from an even deeper well within.

This is goodbye, whether he knows it or not. Goodbye to him and goodbye to love.

In this elegiac mood, he took his erection in his hand and masturbated as he gazed with infinite regret and tenderness on his author—his author, unlike Jack, who haunted him always but was never and would never be his author.

When he came, he shut his eyes and what he saw wasn’t Jack or Bill. He knew it—no elegy was perfect, no longing was uncontaminated.

The one he saw was Dave. He moaned loud when he came in a spike of excitation with Dave’s powerful torso and submissive smile before him. Bill remained asleep, blessedly unaware of the shocks about to hit him.


0 Comments:

Post a Comment

<< Home