Saturday, August 26, 2006

Catch of the Day, chapters 25 - 2 7

XXV. Taking the Cure

This is one for Ripley, he thought. Me, counting my blessings.

Sober as a Pentecostal preacher on this cool bright morning, he was walking his heart of blessings to the state liquor store, and in truth he was listing items fit for hosannas, namely:

1. He had finished Wry Beach. A morning of rereading and minor edits revealed its essential quality, its fluency and the vitality of its principal characters, although the usual editorial toil beckoned. So what if nobody else should like it; he did.

2. Douglas gloomed on about his leaving with Dora—an insane idea, especially now that he’d accepted who and what he was—but it was obvious that Douglas loved and needed him, and no others. The big fool had finally let that Jack character go, and Dave was headed back to Los Angeles soon, so goodbye to those obstacles to his contentment. He foresaw a life of writerly comfort and the provision of the services required to make it so.

3. To that point, when he left the inn he saw Douglas and the travel writer in intense colloquy, with Mr. Fairley taking notes, nodding and uh-huhing with professional (feigned) interest. Their prosperity was assured.

4. Sure, he needed and even “loved” Douglas, whatever that meant. Was

dependent on him, was used to him, found comfort in him, was even amused by him. Douglas was O-fucking-K. From the beginning, he reflected now, it had been kismet or something. Maybe they’d even be happy, whatever that meant.

5. So here he was strolling, full of sanguine contentment under the arching elms of Selene’s most beautiful street, to buy himself a well-earned treat on a glorious morning in August with a salubrious touch of fall in the air, and so far he’d managed to avoid Dora. What else could he ask for?

Oh, life was sweet sometimes. There was a nagging belief, buried beneath the mulch of self-satisfaction, that he didn’t deserve such happiness. But it wasn’t going to stop him living his life as he desired, no sir.

Bill chuckled to himself and waved hi to some townies who drove by with their bags of groceries and baked goods. They tooted their horn at him. He slowed down and peered at a woman who was walking with painful slowness, at an angle to him, carrying with delicate care a bag from the packy. “Where the hell have you been?” he asked. “I haven’t seen you in weeks.”

Allie Cobb paused at the corner between the liquor store and the church. She was stooped and pale. Her eyes were weary. Her very hair was listless and worn out, grayer than he remembered. It had been cut very short, butchered almost, and it made her look like a POW. “Mr. Blake. How good to see you again. You look very well.” She tried smiling, but it seemed to cause her pain.

Bill approached her and said, “My God, what’s happened to you? Where were you, anyway?”

Montreal. I have a cousin up there.” An obvious lie; she looked away, embarrassed. “I needed a respite from this town, as you might imagine.”

Bill took her bag. He regarded her with shock and pity. Took the cure. Some cure.

“Look,” he said, “I’m hardly the one to say anything but—“

“Don’t then. But come with me. Russell told me how guilty he felt about your recent visit. He was preoccupied with me, I suppose. He said you seemed extraordinarily happy.”

“Really? Happy?” He grinned foolishly. “Ah well…if Russell says so.”

Allie replied with some of the ironic old glint in her eye, “You are happy. Shocking as that may be.”

They walked slowly up the steps toward the rectory entrance, an effort that took her breath away. Russell appeared at the door and let them in. With serious concern, he whispered, “Are you all right, dear?” He took the bag from Bill, his face heartsick when the bottles clanked. He was subdued today, even somber.

“I think I’ll go lie down,” she said, forcing a cheerful voice. “Do carry on without me.” She gave Bill a sharp glance and said, “I think you’ll have plenty to keep you occupied.” She held onto the banister as she mounted the steps to the bedroom.

Russell’s eyes followed her anxiously. He put the bag on a chair and said, “I’m so sorry about the other day, Bill. You can imagine…”

“Sure. Well, I’d better—“

“No, no. Stay. Come into my office. There’s a matter of some importance which must be discussed.”

Bill held back. “Not about Douglas and me, I hope?”

Russell exhaled heavily, “No, not….” He led the way to the office door, opening it with something of a flourish. Bill followed behind and saw Dora, cigarette holder between her manicured fingers, tiny but duchess-like in the large leather chair in front of Russell’s desk.

Beware! Medea!

Dora was dressed to kill. As if she were dining at the Ritz-Carlton in Boston, he observed, got up in her custom-made spectator pumps, silk stockings and so on up to the discreet diamond earrings from Shreve Crump and Low.

All this to impress whom, exactly?

“Billy! At last! At last I see my boy in the flesh.” She tilted her cheek for a kiss.

“Russell, what the hell are you doing?”

Russell raised his hands and said, “This is an amazing coincidence!” He blushed, whether from real confusion or from having been caught in a scheme, Bill couldn’t tell. “Excuse me. I must see how Mrs. Cobb is doing. Mrs. Blake, a pleasure.” He bowed and left the room, closing the door tight.

Dora paid no attention to him; she believed clergymen were ones with more elaborate secrets than other servants.

“Sit down, Billy. Let me look at you.” He sat in the leather chair next to her, and they checked each other out at an angle. She was as tense and watchful as he was. Assessing his clothes, from sneakers to polo shirt, she sighed.

“Well, you look healthy, I’ll give you that.”

He inspected her, too, and found that she had aged perceptibly in the past five months. It was disconcerting. But gratifying, too. Studying her he said, “Surely my absence hasn’t affected you that much?”

Dora went “What?” like a deaf old person. She caught his meaning and looked away, taken aback. She decided to be angry and said sharply, “I’m sure your foolish cat-and-mouse games haven’t done me any good. Though I must say your new life seems to agree with you. You look very well.”

“You already told me that.”

“No. I said you looked healthy. Now I remark that you look well in a general way. Body and mind.” She took a long drag on the holder and let the smoke shoot from her pursed lips like steam from a kettle. “I hear you’ve been working here. That you’ve almost completed your novel.”

“I have completed it. What did Don say about it?”

“He thinks it will sell. You may be able to support yourself at last.”

“Thanks for wasting no time.”

Dora grinned and relaxed. “I do believe Donald. He’s an excellent editor. I’ve seen what he’s done with your previous work, and I’ve read other books he’s edited. He’ll steer you right. Even if he can’t steer his own life very well.” She gazed out the window, then said, worried, “You don’t think the troubles he’s created for himself will jeopardize the publication of your book, do you?” Her voice had a tremulous quality that was new.

Playing old for effect?

His guts twisted at that, but he said evenly, “No. He may be an idiot in his personal life, but he’s a real professional. He wouldn’t jeopardize his career.” Dora looked as if she were about to note the similarities between himself and Don, but she forbore.

“That’s what I think, too,” she said, brooding. Then she turned her gaze on him, much as a loving mother would do. “I know you’ve worked very hard on this book, Billy. The hardest and most devotedly you’ve ever worked.”

Bill found himself relaxing, but not enough to let down his guard entirely. “Selene’s been a good place for me.” He stopped short of adding, “And I’m going to stay here.”

Bitterly she said, “Too bad you couldn’t write so richly at home.” He was silent. After a moment, she said in a social tone, “This is a picturesque little town. A little too self-conscious but pretty. Pretty pretty. I liked the Broadwood Inn. A little ragged about the edges, but the proprietor seems to be making well-considered changes. Built on a large scale, lots of possibilities that haven’t been realized as yet. He seems an odd bird, though. Don’t you agree?”

Bill was trying to determine who or what she was talking about. “Possibilities, yeah. I guess.”

“That’s one good thing about Mr. Broadwood—“

Douglas.”

Douglas.” She nodded as if conceding a point. “He’s big and manly, almost cloddishly gargantuan. I was afraid he would be a little fairified creature.”

Now it’s coming. We who are about to die...

“No, Dora, that would be me.”

Dora stubbed out the cigarette and preoccupied herself with finding a fresh one in her case, inserting it into the holder and giving the lighter to Bill. He lit it and dropped the lighter in her bag like a dead mouse.

“Well. I’m waiting,” he said.

“Billy,” exhaling voluminously, “this discussion may be a bit late—“

“About twenty-five years.”

“Longer. I noticed your tendencies when you were a child. I tried to toughen you up, make you a man. The soft mannerisms, the crushes you had on other boys—like that Edgar Williams, who came to such a sad end in a seamy situation.” She bit hard on the holder and made a disgusted noise. “He killed himself with pesticide. Did you know that? What cruel self-commentary. His mother told me she was glad when it was over. She was sick of having to explain him to everyone. She was worn out in his defense. I could see her point.”

“Dora, please—“

She persisted with a kind of masochistic relish, “I understood how the poor woman felt. I hated buying you gifts. Did you know that? Most mothers love to buy their children presents—it’s like a treat for themselves, I’d imagine. Once you wanted a Jean Harlowe doll. How you loved those Nancy Drew books.”

Bill couldn’t recall any of this. “Dora, come off it. You must have me confused with Edgar Williams.”

“You were never interested in playing with trains, trucks or tin soldiers. Never played sports—football—even baseball was too rough for you. I always felt so ashamed buying gifts for you that I had to order them from Boston and had them delivered all wrapped up. Your father was concerned about it, too. He blamed me, of course. This was one of his excuses for running off when we lost our money. ‘You’ve succeeded in deballing our son, and next you’ll do it to me!’ I must say he died fittingly, drunk as a skunk, falling off a yacht at Catalina.” She shivered with the poor taste of it.

“You’re not blaming me for the failure of your marriage? For my father’s drinking and death?” Bill was still uncertain how to react: laugh or cry, walk out or shut her up permanently. There was a poker leaning against the side of the hearth. Within reach.

She paused and studied her spectators. “You may find this hard to believe, but I was overjoyed when you announced to me that you’d got that Catholic girl pregnant. I thought, ‘Thank God, Billy! Here’s your ticket to a normal life.’ I couldn’t bear her and her nouveau family, of course, but I hoped that the child would be the making of you. The family responsibilities, and so on. It seemed to work for a while. Don’t you remember how happy I was in those days? I even rather liked being a grandmother, which is something I’d never desired or aspired to. Until I realized the boy wasn’t right in the head.”

“We all realized it, Dora,” Bill said quietly.

“And then that new commanding officer was posted to the station, and things went to hell fast. That man who came over last March. The big bald one with the mousy wife who never spoke. What was his name again?”

Bill barely heard her. He was recalling the scene, a war zone of emotions from the second he opened the door and saw the still handsome, paunchy Captain Parnell filling the doorway, radiating joy at the sight of Chief Blake. And after a couple of awkward hours with the women, the two drunken men shut themselves in the library, and Parnell took him in his arms and declared that he’d thought of his Blakey every day for twelve years and please come to Boston with me, I reserved a room at the Lenox, spend a couple of days with me, say you’ll make me happy too, Blakey, tell me you’ve thought of me like I’ve thought of you, say you’ll come with me. And as Dora and Gwynne burst in and cried out horrified, Bill said he would, and he actually went to Boston. But he went to different hotel and locked himself in his room for three days and drank. And drank. And then caught a bus going north, because he knew where north lay, and south frightened him. Parnell lived in Newport, Rhode Island, and he was afraid he’d get off in Providence and start that tragicomedy up all over again.

The truth will set you free.

And the truth was that he did see Parnell, and they did have sex—brief and unsatisfying, both of them smashed, almost impotent from the shame of it—the day before Bill left Boston, on the Ides of March. The Captain wrote down the name and address of an obscure place in Maine, where he had once gone to escape from his wife and the shame of discovery. Nobody will ever find you there, Blakey, and I’m so drunk I won’t remember. Go on, the big man said, get out of here before I kill you and myself. He squeezed Bill tight, his tears raining onto Bill’s face, then locked himself in the bathroom. Bill heard glass breaking when he left.

Dora was speaking. “…Pisode with the Catholic priest—that extraordinarily handsome young man. Gwynne in her desperation confided in me. She mentioned your infatuation, and I told her she should be a better wife. ‘Don’t blame me if you can’t keep your husband’s interest,’ I told her. And the vulgar little bitch actually told me to go fuck myself. ‘You made him a fairy,’ she shouted, ‘you’re like something right out of Freud!’ I said, ‘I didn’t know you were capable of reading Freud. Are you sure you understood what you read?’ Oh, Billy, those were terrible days. I was so relieved when, finally, she left and we could have the house to ourselves again.”

Bill couldn’t speak. He was gawping at the clutter on Russell Cobb’s desk as if the instructions for ending this interview were hidden in one of the piles of church newsletters and old sermons. Half the stuff she was coming up with had no basis in reality; it was from her constructed world, which justified her aggrieved infliction of pain.

He heard her take a deep breath, winding up again, eager to rehash his Shame in all its episodes—most of which had been thwarted and aborted, whether she knew it or not. It occurred to him even in his present state that she had cast off her old-lady disguise and was fully incarnate as the bitch she had always been. “Dora, must you—“

“Must I what, Billy? Tell the truth? Remind you, and myself, of the countless ways you’ve disappointed me—grieved me? The ways you’ve evaded your duty as son and father? In all your life you’ve done nothing to make me proud of you. Good God, if I had realized what you’d turn out to be—“she paused and screwed up her face in pain—“I would have strangled you in the cradle.”

“I wish you had!” He got up and paced about, unsure about staying or going. “I wish the hell you had! You think it’s been easy? You think I haven’t been tormented my whole goddamned life?”

“Is it that hard being a queer?”

“No, being your son.”

“Poor Billy, my sacrificial victim. I’m such a monster.”

He bent over and spoke directly into her frightened face. “You are. You are fucking monstrous. Why do you think I drink so much?”

She shook off her fright. “You’re weak like your father. Why don’t you do AA?”

“Why do you think I’m always so fucking pissed? Why do you think I push everybody away?”

“Except men! Certain big, masterful men. You don’t push them away, do you?” She tore the cigarette out of the holder, burning her fingers, muttering “Shit!” as she threw the butt into the ashtray.

“Except Douglas Broadwood,” he corrected her.

Dora sneered, “Next you’ll be telling me you’re in love with him.”

“What if I were? It’s no fucking business of yours.”

She grew still and collected her anger.

He sat down, trembling—more shaky inside than out. It calmed him to see her rattled. He wanted her to stagger and fall. He wanted to kick her when she was down. After all, he thought, she’d do the same for me.

He spread his hands to signal a brief truce. “It’s been good for me here. I’ve written well. Better than ever. I’ve finished the book I started seven years ago.” He focused on a prayer book on the desk, which had a golden cross embossed in the red cover; it emitted a warm dull glow in the sunlight. “I feel comfortable with Douglas. He’s good to me. I was never happy one day in my whole life, not one, before I came here.” He was amazed to admit these things, and not too pleased to feel he was explaining himself to her. But he needed to hear them if she didn’t. “I’m happy here. The first member of our esteemed New England family to be H-A-P-P-Y. What’s the old saying?—oh yes, here it is: All your goddamned money cannot buy my happiness.”

“Thank you, Billy, you’ve made your sententious point. With a blunt instrument, as always. You still haven’t told me whether or not you love this person.”

Bill sucked on his teeth. He folded his arms and stared out the window.

“You’ve been to bed with him, I sup--.”

Bill shut her up with a look. His mind was made up. There was no swerving from the path he was on. None. “I’m staying here, Dora. That’s it. I am not going back to Angleport. Ever. Not even to say hello or shit on you. I’ve made a decision not to be in a rage the rest of my life. Lurching around in misery like some shit-faced Mick. I’ve thrown away enough of my life. For once I’m going to do what I want. I am staying put.”

“Living openly as a queer. That’s what you have in mind, isn’t it. Half of a happy couple, the picture of fairy domesticity.” Her gorge seemed to be rising as she spoke the words.

It almost amused him to hear his old opinions thrown in his face. “Lots of people have figured it out, Dora. The townies don’t seem too upset about it.”

Dora sat back. She sighed deeply and her fingers played with the clasp of her purse. After a few moments she said. “Billy, you’ve always done exactly what you wanted—so don’t rewrite history for me. Now you must do your duty. You are coming back to Angleport with me.”

“No. I am not.”

“Yes. You most certainly are. Your ex-wife and her perfectly splendid husband are splitting up. Neither one wants the boy. You have to help me raise him. He, my dear, is your duty.”

A sick feeling invaded him, a sense of oxygen depletion, of entrapment. “No, Dora.”

“Yes, Billy. We can live in the old house, the three of us with Fanny and maybe someone to help care for Gregory. You can write—no excuses for not being able to continue the good work. You’ll be comfortable. And glad to be home, no matter how you protest. I know how attached you’ve always been to the old place. If not to me, then to the luxuries I’ve been able to provide. No matter what you claim. I admit we’ve had our tiffs—“

“No.” A stiffer kind of firmness took hold of his character. “I told you no.”

Dora blinked. Then she said with equal firmness, “I told you yes. It’s time to shoulder your responsibilities. Like a man. Time to quit playing the bohemian.”

“I fucking said NO.

“That’s a nice thing for your son to hear.”

In confusion Bill followed her unsmiling gaze. Gregory was standing at the door of the office with a thick book in his hand. At almost thirteen and a half he was taller than his father, thin and weedy. Bill guessed that the kid had grown about five inches since March. He had Gwynne’s violet eyes; beautiful on her, spooky on him with his deathly pale coloring. His eyebrows were curiously thick, framing his eyes in a way that emphasized a distracted, shifty quality. Dora had dressed him old to compensate for his oddness, costuming him as a proper Blake of Angleport. The boy was wearing a gray Brook Brothers suit and a white shirt with a regimental tie. He had on black wing tips more appropriate for a man of forty. Bill guessed the kid was wearing knee-length socks with garters.

Poor little shit.

Gregory held the volume up with both hands, in the orans position. “This is a history of the church by someone named Eusebius. What’s a eunuch?”

Gregory,” Dora reproved wearily. She fiddled with her cigarette and holder to deflect attention from the boy.

“Dora, it says in the pre-face. Did you know Gregory comes from a Greek word? It means watchful over the flock. Gregorios. In Latin it was GregoriUS. The ho-o-o-o-ly sinner. There were many famous Gregories in the church, at least way back then. All those —Gregorioses—I think I must be related to them. Probably on my mother’s side. Those Rosses are holy people, you know. Not nice, but very religious. I wonder if you have to be a bastard to go into the church. Does that mean you have to be a bastard to love God, if God exists? Oh, I think you have to be one to love Jesus Christ. He came to serve such people. How do I know? The Bible tells me so. I hate that song but I guess it might be true. Even if it is a goddamn turd. Maybe my name was like John or Bill today. Common as grass, which, yea, shall be burnt by the unquenchable fire.” He spoke with salacious emphasis, swinging his hips as he entered the room. He plopped into Russell’s chair, placing the book in front of him. He folded his hands on top of it and fixed his eyes on Bill, saying lightly, “Hi, Bill Blake. You might remember me. I’m your son Gre-go-ri-os. You fucked me up.”

“Language, Gregory.” Dora watched the boy, on guard.

“Shut your stupid mouth!” he screamed. The contorted features relaxed and he said to Bill, “Your mother’s kind of a bitch sometimes. It’s all your fault, Billy,” he simpered with Dora’s intonation.

Bill turned to Dora. “What exactly is wrong with him? They were saying juvenile schizophrenia two years ago.”

“Hey, Bill! Look at me! They say autism now,” Gregory replied humorously, rolling his eyes. “They don’t know shit, Bill. They don’t know what’s going on in my head. Buncha quacks. Quack quack quack quack. Make way for fucklings.” The boy laughed silently, shaking all over with simulated mirth. A sly expression stole across his face: it seemed he was playing to an unseen audience. He nodded and muttered, “OK. Oh-KAY. Jesus.” Shadows of anger and fear passed over his face. He shut off, all his attention turned inward.

Dora gave Bill a desolate look, which said, You see why I need you to come home.

Bill showed her a stony face. When she spoke it was with a new tone, softer and more tentative. “Billy, I’ve made a new will. You won’t be saddled with him forever. I stipulate that Gwynne will take him back; her own inheritance from me will depend on her taking adequate care of him.”

“Why can’t you agree to something now?”

“I’m not dead yet.” She was defying him to wish otherwise. “It’s an inescapable fact of existence that parents best exercise control from the grave.”

“The job’s too hard for me, Dora. I shouldn’t take it. You couldn’t pay me enough,” Bill said. He thought he detected a change in Gregory’s expression, a minute shift of the head in his direction.

Dora’s eyes went from one to another. “Billy, I’ve lavished everything on you all your life. When I’m gone, you’ll be on your own,” she said in a fluttery voice. “But you will have my real estate.” She paused for effect, ready to pull the big fat rabbit out of the hat. “I’ve bought up a fair amount all around Angleport. Commercial and residential. You know, some old wren can’t pay her taxes and has to sell in distress. Those old family remnants flutter around their big wooden cages a long time, pining for the good old days, etc. Until they can’t keep the tax man out any longer. That’s how I got the Adams-Peabody house, and the Moulton-Washington house, and others of architectural distinction. About six on High Street alone, three of them on Merchants’ Ridge. I rent them out now, but the market will come back for those big houses—Route 128 money, some of the richer academics who want to escape from the hothouse of Cambridge. Doctors from Mass General and the like. The newer the money, the more they like to wrap themselves in Federalist glory. We’ll see Chinese Yankees one day, I’m sure.

“And then I bought the land the YMCA is on—that awful place has to go. It’s an ugly pseudo-Gothic mess, and what a dreadful element lurks around there.” She stopped herself and carried on with a lighter tone. “You know, it’s a wonderful corner property, perfect for a bank—lazy people like drive-up service these days. Oh, and I bought the property all around the Customs House, right down to the water. They’re going to redo that building and make it some sort of museum of maritime commerce. That should pay off nicely, although you have to take the long view in a town like Angleport. Nothing ever happens swiftly despite all my exertions, but you should live long enough to reap the profits.” She went on to enumerate five or six other commercial properties at the center of town, all of them with solid tenants, retail and professional, in addition to about 80 acres to the west of town, not far from the new superhighway, which was scheduled to open in 1958. A new shopping center was in the air, and she decided that it should fall to earth on land she owned. “I bought it all rather cheap. Some of it during the Depression. But it’s appreciating now.” She took a puff with supreme self-congratulation.

Then her expression changed again, and she began to take on a fanatical glow. Her eyes brimmed and her voice thrilled. “Then there’s the house you were brought up in. It will be all yours. The antiques, the old maps, the China trade mementos, all of it. I’ve had it appraised. Much of what we have is of museum quality. Worth a fortune today, ten fortunes in twenty years.”

“And the Wallace Nutting?”

“Oh, Billy!” Dora laughed gaily at that jab. “My point, dear, is that you’ll be quite well fixed.” Then a headmistress severity: “You will have to manage the properties with diligence.” She added tenderly, to butter him up, “You’ll have plenty of time to do your main work, though. You’ll be able to devote yourself to your writing.” She had a beatific look now: Very mother of the Gracchi. Like Rose Kennedy with a better accent.

Her continual variations of mood and tone reminded him of a catalogue of obsolete silent-movie expressions: joy, anger, delighted surprise, compassionate sternness, sorrow, seductive allure, villainy. The prospect of having to endure them every day depressed him. She’d suck every bit of energy out of him with her attitudinizing; he’d be exhausted, unable to write or think or do anything but drink. “If you’d told me this a year ago, I’d have been ready to play lord of the manor. I’d have run out and bought a silk smoking jacket and an Irish setter. Someone intelligent for Fanny to talk to.”

“And?”

“But. I don’t want it.”

“Maybe I should bequeath it to the historical society. They’ll outfit it with spinning wheels and spinets for the common herd. With docents dressed like Bo Peep. Nice vision for our home. Does that appeal to you?”

“At least it’ll be a real museum. Just make sure you get a percentage of the till.”

“You are impossible. You can do nothing with a good grace, can you?”

“Nothing.” Bill stood up and headed for the door. He turned and looked back at them.

“Nothing,” Gregory mimicked. He repeated Bill’s frowning stare. “He’s leaving! He’s leaving!” He spun around in Russell’s chair, yelping laughter, and said in a voice out of an old movie, “Dora, honey, ya lost this bout.”

Dora looked at the spinning boy and said coldly, “I’ve lost nothing.”

* * *

He walked past the liquor store and headed to the waterfront, unseeing as he threaded his way through the crowds. Someone said the film crew was leaving in a few days. Someone else with a thick local accent lamented, “Low tide comin’. Gonna be hard to bear after the high tide of money.”

He decided not to go to Zeke’s or any of the other dives. More than anything he needed quiet, to be left alone. He couldn’t face anybody. Whether from shame or confusion, he couldn’t tell.

He did an inventory of his emotions and realized he was feeling an unusual buoyancy. Pride? Maybe I’m proud of myself.

Bill walked slowly along the harbor front, all the way to the very last bench overlooking the boats. A dinghy outfitted with a small motor putted by. The man steering looked familiar. Don. And the woman sitting near the bow, laughing, was Elaine, dressed like a normal vacationer but a little wan; she had the hollowed-out look of someone convalescing from surgery.

He waved. They didn’t see him. Don was getting more nervous as he approached the dock. He told Elaine to shut up, please, when he steered too close to a thirty-foot cabin cruiser at anchor.

A hand on his shoulder. “Jesus!” He jumped and looked around.

“No, it’s just me,” Russell said, sitting next to him. “I’m sorry about that ambush, Bill. I had no idea—“

Bill groaned. It disturbed him to think what a non-Blake might make of it. Especially his own dirty laundry, hung out to dry with all moral skid marks still visible. “You heard it?”

Russell nodded. “The windows were open. So much for the fifth commandment.”

“So much for five or six of them at least.”

Bill felt Russell studying him. “You’re calm. Perhaps too calm?”

“I might say the same for you.”

“Bill, forgive me, but I can’t talk about it. Not yet. I can scarcely pray to God about it in the quiet of the night.”

Bill shrugged. “I feel pretty good. ‘Get thee behind me.’ All that.” He added, with uncertain irony, “Even though I’ve resisted temptation, would Jesus Christ turn his back on me in disgust? ‘Burn the nasty faggot alive!’”

“They didn’t burn people at the stake in his time. The lucky ones got stoned.”

Bill laughed. “You set me up pretty good with that one.”

Russell laughed and then said seriously, “No, Jesus wouldn’t have recommended that either. He wasn’t that kind of savior.”

Bill didn’t like the trend of things, so he interjected, “What about all this duty crap? What the hell am I supposed to do about that?”

Russell waited a few seconds. “Jesus asked, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ It’s a matter of survival.”

“Enough biblicisms, OK?” Russell waited, smiling when he asked, “Whose?”

“Yours. And Douglas’s.”

Bill looked out at the water, the boats, the islands scattered over the sparkling sea. “Don’t bullshit me—“

“Bill, it’s obvious you think I’m a Bible-thumper.”

“I never accused you of that.”

“A dispenser of cheap grace, then.”

He squirmed. “Not really.”

“Yes, you did.”

“Well. I did. Sorry.”

Russell spread his palms. “It’s a professional risk. Anyway, I will tell you one thing, and I hope you’ll take it to heart. It’s my professional opinion that God gives you certain gifts—gifts you don’t necessarily want. These are gifts which you would be doing Him great offence not to accept. With gratitude and constancy.” Russell’s face took on a haggard look. “No matter what the consequences. You understand.”

Bill waited for more. Russell hunched forward and put his chin on his hands, gazing out to sea. After a few minutes, Bill touched his shoulder and said, “Forgive me for lacking subtlety at a time like this, Russell, but—“

Russell sat up straight, still peering out to sea. He spoke in his preacher’s voice, and Bill had to listen, however unwillingly. “The unspoken core of the commandments is another injunction from God. It is ‘choose life.’ You must make a decision whether or not you want to survive. How best can you live and give glory to God and all His Creation? You can’t do it if you’re dead, or if you’re dead in your heart, your soul. You’re open to true evil in that case: the fear that corrupts every moment and every emotion. Every action and every word. So, which will it be, Bill? Do you want to live and increase God’s glory with your—here it comes—God-given talents? Do you want to increase love where you can? Or do you want to keep on tearing the world down, destroying yourself all the while?”

Bill’s heart was pounding. His eyes and sinus passages were filling up. He wasn’t sure he was getting everything in this sermonette. Was his brain was out of whack? Was he hearing a sort of absolution? It seemed Russell was encouraging him to be Douglas’s…he wasn’t sure what the word should be, but an image of the two of them standing together floated before him. “Is this your blessing to--?”

Russell nodded. He remained serious. He challenged Bill with a look.

“This advice doesn’t seem like—the church wouldn’t approve—“

Russell wore an expression of wistfulness and resignation. “It is why I’m not the bishop of a rich metropolitan diocese. I meet people where they are, not where some frightened man in authority says they should be. It helps to be a sinner yourself, of course.” Somehow he managed to keep an element of self-pity out of this observation.

“This sounds good, Russell. The things I want to hear. But is it theology or sophistry?”

Russell faced him and grabbed both shoulders. “Oh, Bill, what did I tell you?” He was hearing the old Russell again—he was the minister’s ticket back to full Russellhood, all that spiritual heartiness. “The imperatives of the living take precedence over everything. God needs us to be alive, truly alive. He needs us to love Him and each other. Do not throw the gifts He’s given you back in His face. Both of you will sorrow.”

Bill turned his head and wiped his eyes, wishing he had a handkerchief. What a day. Cobb’s making me weep for the lonely wants of God. Where will it end?

“The world is sick, Bill. The only medicine that can save its life is love.”

This seemed like a good moment to leave. All this talk of love was making him angry. He got up. “I better head home.”

“Me too. Allie needs her lunch.” He embraced Bill in a wiry bear hug. “See you in church.”

* * *

The best thing about drinking was that it reduced one’s dependence on the world of sight. It opened interior worlds where interpreting people’s expressions and studying the movements of foreign bodies wasn’t a necessity for survival. This interior world was under one’s own control, and one could direct the actions of one’s characters even better than in one of one’s books. So he was able to push Cobb out of his mind, along with Dora and her barbs that stung. Douglas—he didn’t enter into it.

Bill downed the shot and opened his eyes. “Another,” he told the barman at Zeke’s.

Home. Home?

Where was that, exactly? This was the vexed question, the question that was vexing beyond endurance. A few shots at Zeke’s were helping him endure it. Another couple-three would help him figure it out. “Another.”

“Slow down there, Mr. Blake.”

“Don’t worry. I won’t be around here long.”

He stopped what he was doing and asked, from down the bar, “Oh yah? Where you goin’?”

“Home.” Bill waggled the empty glass in his hand. With stately slowness the bartender poured another Scotch, plus a glass of water.

Bill took both glasses without comment. He lost himself in the warmth of his interior world, which had its familiar paths and glades, retreats for the troubled soul. His soul was troubled, and he castigated himself for his fake nobility, his rash refusal of Dora’s offer. He wondered why he was so fond of dramatic gestures and heroic exits. Why he was always cutting off his nose to spite his face? Why was he always slow to see which side his bread was buttered on?

His false pride! His crude overcompensations!

As the Scotch worked its amber magic, he relaxed and saw things whole. He felt the tug of responsibility for his defective kid, whose eyes had registered hurt when he rejected his Duty. The poor little bugger put himself in a cage for self-protection—that was the method in his madness. He didn’t look forward to dealing with the boy’s weird behavior, but he didn’t seem dangerous, and he hadn’t seen much of him in a few years, so maybe it was time he pitched in and worked a shift at the family asylum. And Dora said there’d be someone else to help take care of Gregory, so he could keep writing and pretty much do what he wanted. And if half of what she’d told him was true, he calculated that his cut would be about five grand a month. Damn fine money for a literary rentier to live off. Once she signed an agreement, he wouldn’t have to kiss her ass and hope for a dispensation of her financial grace. He’d have a reliable stream of income for the first time since he was in the Coast Guard. They could live more or less as equals in the same house, and they would share responsibility for the boy.

He sipped water and imagined the fine clothes, the fine booze, the sexy car he could buy if he accepted Dora’s proposition. Stuff the dopes in the Coast Guard couldn’t afford in a thousand years, no matter what their rank. He saw himself driving up to the Ritz-Carlton in a Corvette or an Alpha-Romeo. He would have the freedom to travel and get his name known beyond the airless confines of the Eboracum Press and a handful of college-town bookstores. No longer would he be cut off from the mainstream of the literary world; he’d be part of bigger things. He could finally become what he’d always wanted to be. A man of letters, sophisticated and respected. A literary lion. Someone you saw in glossy magazines, circled by admirers, captured laughing at his own bons mots with a fresh glass of Champagne in his hand.

Now Douglas entered into it. Damn it! He felt himself flailing and knocked back the shot to get steady. He couldn’t control the vision of Douglas’s trustful smile, the melting look of his green eyes. The memory of touch was weaker than sight or smell, yet it overwhelmed him for an instant. He heard and felt wooly feel of Douglas’s enormous chest rubbing against his own. He felt the deep kisses that flooded him with contentment, with comfort, with a surrender of all self-consciousness and shame. His ass still was warm where Douglas had tenderly fucked him in the hour before dawn. He smelled the come after Douglas pulled out. Tasted the salt of Douglas’s tears, which he licked away. The man’s hot breath on his forehead. His booze-dulled cock stirred.

Bill shuddered from the confused pleasure of it. He put a ten on the bar and got up, feeling woozy. He made his way to the entrance. He tried to ignore the Wassermanns, who were sitting over at a waterside window with greasy menus in their hands. They were chatting with the playful intimacy born of a rosy sex life. He didn’t care to imagine which of Brenda’s techniques Don had introduced to his wife.

They waved. “Come join us!” Elaine cried. She grasped her husband’s hand.

He shook his head.

“Where are you going?” Don called.

“Home.”

He went outside and stood in the lane. The crowds eddied past.


XXVI. Hollywood Goes Home

Dimly he recalled a time when love was like a rowboat way out in the water, drifting with the tide farther and farther to sea, small and getting tiny; he had feared that, when it disappeared, it would disappear forever. He almost wished back that distance and simplicity—a neat containment of emotions and relations, confined to the volume one little boat would hold.

The world today was too big—messy. It pressed in on him, offering money, stimulations and emotions that at once thrilled and choked him. He thought he knew his own best interest. Now he wasn‘t sure at all.

He got out of the car and walked the sandy path to the beach. A few sunbathers and family groups of locals were scattered here and there. Good. I’ll have peace and quiet. To sort things out.

More than anything else, he wanted peace and quiet. A break. From the demands of the guests. From the tireless energies of Carol and Arnie. From the aftertingle of excitement and anxiety the Holiday writer and his photographer had brought. He wanted a rest from Bill, too—from his yessing and noing, his ardent embraces and cold shoulders. Bill was hiding something from him. The seriousness of it was revealed by the light-hearted, affectionate way he’d been treating him the last few days. None of Bill’s moodiness and ill temper, nor fits of passionate abandon. His unappeasable sexual hunger had softened to something like nibbling tenderness, and Douglas had to admit he didn’t like it. Dangerous.

He took off his shoes and socks and sat on a driftwood log near the water’s edge. Here it was pleasant, puffs of cool air brought relief to the swampy heat that had settled over the area in the last few days. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, the clouded sun beating gently on his forehead.

Guilt was what nibbled him now. Or was it fear? A break was the last thing he needed. The film company and their fount of easy money had all but left town. The big stars had escaped from Selene the moment the final scene was shot, roaring away in a motorcade of limousines that, trailed by the support staff’s rattletraps, sped down Route 1 to the Portland airport. This morning the studio’s carpenters were dismantling their last set, the gazebo in the town square; already Selene had a stripped, flattened look about it. The hulking scaffolds and the generators, the lights and the trailers, the exotic cars, the beautiful people in their beautiful clothes, the crew bustling around on urgent errands—going, going, almost gone. The wintertime slowdown was under way, and here it was the middle of August. And now he had rooms to rent: the inn was nearly half vacant—more than the crew were leaving, the civilians were going home with Hollywood. It was as if even the regular summer people, who had been coming for ages, were movie extras now. Prosperity was temporary. An illusion. I must get back to work.

Funny how used to money he had become. Everyone in town had. But with the money fountain dried up, he would soon revert to old habits, to a sense of proper limitations. They all would. In a way this comforted him, because he was used to dealing with poverty and adversity. Like most of his townsmen, he was proud of his tenacity, of his ability to make do with little. He had learnt to adapt himself to the cold loneliness of the Maine winter: go underground, let emotions hibernate, sleep and dream the months away. Dreaming of Jack, mostly, and the New York episode, which had long receded into a mythic past, no more real to him than the Trojan War or the legends of the Roundtable. An artifice, he thought bitterly, a distraction from this unbearable life.

But old habits and survival strategies weren’t going to work this winter, or any winter to come. Perhaps he was used to a narrow life in an isolated society, but he wasn’t going to put up with it any more. He didn’t have to. He had options now. Real choices were his to make. Carol had already told him that she would come back every weekend during her senior year and help him manage the inn and maintain the books. Arnie Weisbrod had revealed that he was buying a little house and, surprise of surprises, planned to come up often during the off season. They would manage the inn if he went away for a few weeks. Or longer.

I could cast my lot with Jack.

He touched his wallet, secure in his back pocket. In it there was a new letter from Jack.

Jack wrote that he never stopped thinking of him, and that he loved him in a way he didn’t want to grapple with. He begged him to come to New York for the book party—to celebrate his arrival into the literary big time, since it was partly his arrival too, in a way, as a silent contributor to On the Road. “The public will identify other people with my name, but you will rest in my heart, my secret partner, my friend and helper, for ever.” He signed it “With all my love, Your Jack.”

At first reading, Jack’s declaration swept away his feelings for Bill, reducing Bill to an episode, a footnote. As always, Jack lifted him up, ennobled him in some way. They had never consummated their love, and he rather doubted they ever would. He was intelligent enough to realize that unrequited love was lending nobility to his feelings, but even if it was spurious, it made him feel alive. It opened paths to the future. It was a bond stronger than steel. Stronger than the clamoring of the body. And he knew that Jack needed him, relied on him as a touchstone to reality, as Bill never would.

Douglas grunted aloud as a wavelet of cold water lapped his feet. He watched the tawny foam settle on his toes as the water receded. He felt the minute bubbles pop on his skin.

There was more in the letter. Jack begged him to move to New York, to be near him, to reunite with old friends and adversaries (“after enough time, Douglas, your enemies become a kind of friends and your friends become enemies of a sort too”), because “You’ve been wasting away up there, I can hear it in the ghostly way you write, your voice sounds like the voice of a person whose soul is dying.”

He posed the question: Would Bill ever observe such a thing about him? Would he ever look at him close enough to understand this truth?

No.

Oh, Bill was dependent on him. He needed someone to clean up after him, to fetch and carry and handle the business of everyday life. He was used to having servants, of having his way. He was lazy and selfish. Bill cared about no one but himself, about nothing except his precious writing.

I know what’s behind his sudden agreeableness. He’s leaving me. He’ll go home with his mother and son. Why doesn’t he tell me and go? Why must he hang on?

His resentment of Bill’s cowardice grew. How could he have ever loved him, or think he did? How could he put up with this little wastrel for the rest of his life? For even a year? It had been five months since he had shown up on the porch, soaked, shivering with cold and pent-up rage. Like some malevolent Chihuahua. It felt like an epoch.

And half an epoch since that hot afternoon in May when they had come here to Plum Beach for a picnic. When they embarked on the first steps to the love affair that had opened his eyes and liberated his body from solitary confinement. He wondered if he should be grateful to Bill, or if he should hate him for it.

Then there was the matter of trust. What trust? How could he trust this little Priapus, whose sexual appetites were indiscriminate? How often had Bill betrayed him already? And what about the future?

If he could seduce my own sister…!

So ridiculous a coupling—even he had to smile. Of course Bill had been looking for a way to get closer to him; he had taken the socially approved way of doing it, even though it hurt Evelyn. Well, it had hurt him, too, whatever Bill’s convoluted justification might have been. It still made him angry—angry that he had never confronted Bill about it and delivered some home truths.

Douglas rolled his khakis halfway up to his knees. He stood up and stretched, then walked along the waterline, wading up to his ankles.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on Bill. The problems may lie within me.

It almost amused him to put on the old cardigan of self-disesteem. He took it off.

As Douglas strolled to the end of the sandy beach, he recalled Bill’s nervous excitement on this shore three months before. Bill’s frightened joy matching his own. Bill was a strong physical presence to him. Bill was passionate and sometimes interesting, nearly as wonderful as he was awful. Handsome. Well hung. Eager to please—in bed anyway. They had made love—or had sex, he wasn’t sure which it was—that very morning.

Maybe it’s enough.

It wasn’t. He wanted more. It was high time he got it. I deserve more.

Somehow the inner voice sounded tinny.

Douglas stopped and looked out to sea. A fog bank hung out there, obscuring the horizon, while the sun was burning through the gauzy clouds over land. He said to the fog, “I’ll die if I have to go through another winter here.”

He turned abruptly and marched over the wet sand to get his shoes. His heart was in his mouth, he could hardly catch his breath. He was perilously close to making some kind of decision.

* * *

The film crew was pretty much finished tearing down the gazebo they had built in the green on the square a few weeks before. Selene felt vacant with the disappearance of the equipment trucks and trailers, the outdoor sets, the lights and sound gear, the generators and scaffolding, the stars’ “dressing rooms” (from tiny Airstreams, like Brenda’s, to house-sized things with picket fences and impromptu gardens planted around them in church parking lots, like Alla Trotter’s), the limousines and the exotic European cars. All of them had contributed to a festive sense of irreality, in combination with the mobs of crew members, the bit players and the extras, who had bustled around all summer, lending a metropolitan pace to the lolling backwater.

Lend was the right word. He noticed that with the departure of most of the film crew, and the arrival of the muggy weather that had settled in over the past few days, things were reverting to Maine normal. Tourists and townies alike were listless, with a hungover peevish look about them. The bright heads-up service that had come with the delicious spring and stayed when Hollywood came to town—well, now the salespeople and waitresses were slow and surly. Visitors were just summer people again, a nuisance to tolerate long enough to take their money and send them on their way.

He saw Evelyn Lamb shuffle by in clapped-out ballet flats, curly hair afrizz in the humidity, yawning, headed for her shop. Her new boyfriend, a fat plumber named Leo Snow, met her down the corner of the lane and kissed her on the cheek. They shambled down to the shop, same-sized bears height and same width, holding paws.

From his seat in the coffee shop overlooking the town square and the green, Bill looked for a bare-chested Dave among the crew. There were several healthy specimens among them, glistening with sweat that highlighted their physiques. But none matched Dave for muscular, animal beauty.

Brenda took him. Had to take her pimp.

“Excuse me? I hate to interrupt your reverie, Bill, but we have to talk in concrete terms about editing the book. I think you should go back to New York with us this week and work until Labor Day. Or a bit longer. Thank heavens there aren’t any major structural problems; we took care of those in July, before I…” Don sighed, shaking his head as if to say What infernal madness hath possess’d me? “We could rush to get the book out by the end of October and arrange for some quick reviews in the newspapers and a couple of weeklies. You know, prime the pump for the holiday season. In fact,” Don said brightly, as if the idea had just come to him, “you could stay with us. I insist. We insist.” He seemed to savor the plural pronoun.

Bill watched him sip his milky coffee. Don was buzzing with his old sense of self-satisfaction. He was reverting to normal, much as the deflated town was slouching toward winter in its habitual way, Hollywood buzz kaput. “That might work.”

Don blushed. “Dora said she might come down for a weekend.”

“What did you tell her?”

“Well, Elaine—I said it would be all right.”

“You expect me to concentrate on my work with that old harpy hanging around? I came here to get away from her time-leeching, and what happened? I wrote the fucking book in record time. What does that tell you about Dora?”

His anger was disingenuous. Hadn’t he told her that he’d go back to Angleport when he was done rewriting? That he would pick up his paternal and filial duties? He said he’d run the nuthouse for a while. She was so grateful that she talked up his moral character, taking back some of the things she’d said in her righteous anger and motherly distress. She was heartily sorry and did humbly repent: “Billy, my darling, you’ve made me so happy!” Almost feverish with excitement, she sharp-pencilled the agreement that night: his cut of the specified properties’ rents would amount to $2536.66 a month, effective September 1. Not what he’d expected, but decent by all save the greediest standards. The average Joe made a fraction of that.

One thing he hadn’t said: Douglas, I have to leave for a while. Not forever, you understand. But the kid needs me and it’s time I did my duty and so on. You of all people should understand; look what you did for your father. Blah blah blah. He hadn’t the balls to tell him, and a week had slipped by already.

“All right. If you feel that strongly, Bill, we’ll put her off somehow.” Don patted his hand.

“That’s the least you can do.” They finished breakfast in silence.

Don drank up his coffee and said, “By the way, there’s a big do planned at the Auberge this evening. A Farewell to Hollywood dinner, under the stars, by the pool. The hotel’s management is putting it on. A seafood buffet, from what I hear. A real high-class clambake,” he said jokily, “which I hope means no clams. I hope the weather cooperates.”

“Who’s left to go to this thing? The carpenters out there?”

“I’m inviting you as my guest.” Don looked outside and blushed again. “A few of the actors are still in town.”

Bill stared at him. “You’re shitting me. I thought she was gone.”

“So,” Don said, clearing his throat, “are you coming? It starts about 6:30.”

“Are you?”

“Oh, of course. I’ve been staying there for weeks and weeks. I may as well get something extra for all of Mr. Greenleaf’s money.”

He laughs like the fatuous nincompoop he is. What’s wrong with him? He’s playing with fire!

“So stop by for a few minutes. Your family will be there too.”

“You know how to sell your ideas. No wonder I’m such a hit with your boss.”

Don took playful exception to that. “I pitch you pretty hard, my scribe. I’m your biggest cheerleader, and you know it.” He punched Bill’s shoulder, then got up and started fiddling with the money in his wallet. “I’m glad everything is settled about your staying with us in New York. Will your…friend—how upset will he be?”

“He’ll be OK. He’ll learn to love it.” There was a stern quality to this that made Don laugh.

“Down, boy.”

Don paid the bill and they went out together. “See you this evening?”

“Yeah, why not.”

“What are you doing today?”

“Nothing. I might go for a swim.”

Or fuck Douglas. The more you get it, the more you want it.

“Good day for it. See you later!” Don saluted and scampered off.

Bill sauntered up toward Armitage Road, in a sweat now that the sun had broken through the clouds. He stood under the street sign, debating whether or not to go to his tanning rock, or go wait for Douglas at home. Douglas drove up the hill and stopped. “Just the man I was hoping to see. Naked.”

Douglas gave him a distant sort of smile. “Not now. Too much to do. Want a ride?”

He tried not to let his face betray his disappointment. “No,” he said lightly. “I think I’ll go swimming.”

“All right.” Douglas drove off.

Bill watched the station wagon go up the road and turn into the driveway. A strange new fear gripped him. He went in the other direction, towards his swimming place.

What’s with him? Is he seeing Dave?

Bill turned around and trotted back to the inn. Surely he could persuade Douglas to take an hour off to fuck. Hadn’t he always prevailed? Douglas had never been able to say no. The big man was like putty in his hands.

He was drenched with panic sweat by the time he got to the front steps and saw Douglas chatting with some guests farther down the porch.

His eyes darted over to Bill. He looked brooding. Shielded. But he laughed when one of the guests made a remark, and he went indoors with them.

* * *

Bill stood on the front steps of the inn, shivering despite the muggy warmth of the early night. A few guests sauntered around the grounds and along the porch, murmuring quietly about things that were inane; they were monstrously indifferent to his pain.

Slowly, with a mounting sense of grievance, Bill walked to the road, turning over and over the collapse of his hopes that afternoon. So here he was, still enraged with himself and disappointed in Douglas, walking through the deserted town on a dead night, headed for Montecalvo’s, where he had agreed to meet Dora and Gregory after the Auberge do. He couldn’t face the damned thing because Don and Elaine and Brenda and Dave—Dave!—would be there. Not to mention Dora and the kid.

He went through the town square and headed for the restaurant’s red neon sign. MONTECA LO’S. It had been broken before he came to Selene.

Inside there was a desultory, end-of-the-season air about the restaurant. Only about half the tables were taken, many of them by the townies. He stifled a groan when he saw the Cobbs watching him. Dora, from a russet halo of candlelight and cigarette smoke, waved from the far wall, shrilling, “Billy! Over here, darling!” People stopped chewing and stared at the overdressed old lady with the makeup and jewelry. Gregory stared across from her in the booth, wearing a charcoal suit and dark glasses, like some alien in human disguise.

This time he groaned out loud. Wearily, he saluted her. He began to go straight to her, but Russell Cobb waved him over.

Allie greeted him with a look of amused sympathy. “What a momentous evening, Mr. Blake. So many departures. We hear you too are leaving us at last, alas.”

“Billy!” Dora called. She beamed in an unfocused way, celebrating with spirits.

Bill told her to wait with an impatient gesture. “Everyone’s so sure about it. I’m not. I’d like to—“ He stopped himself. They cocked their heads in curiosity, both at the same instant. He stifled the impulse to burst into high-pitched laughter.

Russell intoned, “We have enjoyed your being a member of our community. And I mean our faith community, too, whether you believe in it or not.” His heartiness had made an almost complete recovery. Bill had liked him better when he didn’t try to incarnate Christian hopefulness his every waking hour.

Allie shook her head, “It seems you were of the Savior’s party without knowing it.” An ironic smirk.

Bill said, “Are you two done with me? Or will courtesy force me to listen to this all night?”

They laughed, not altogether in good humor. “I see you haven’t mellowed too much,” Allie said. Russell squeezed her hand. She attempted to gaze at him affectionately. She gave up and peered at her ginger ale. “Mr. Blake, one can’t tell people everything they want to hear. One can’t make a career of it. One has to make hard choices before it’s too late.”

“It’s never too late.”

Allie gave him an arch glance. “Really?”

A sense of dread began welling up in him. “You always act like you’re in the know. OK, so what the hell do you know, if anything?”

Russell broke in. “Your mother graciously said hello to us when she came in. Tell her we hope to see her in church this Sunday.”

“Will hell have frozen over by then?”

The waiter stepped between them and served their dinner. Bill hurried away and sat in the booth beside Gregory. Dora sparkled with happiness.

“Here we are, the Blakes together again. Billy, you won’t regret your decision to come home. I’ll make sure of that.” She raised her martini to him and drank it off with gusto. She signaled the waiter for another. “What will you have? Scotch and soda? Or do you think we ought to get some wine to accompany our meal? Render it edible, I should say! I’m a bit doubtful about the philosophy behind the red tablecloths and the matching spaghetti sauce.” She felt the cloth for the dried sauce of previous diners.

Gregory found his voice—rather, David Brinkley’s voice—startling them both. “The last time I saw you this animated, Dora… was on Easter Sunday…when my mother took me to church and left you alone…to get drunk with her other husband…the big Jew.” He looked at his father. He added, in a comedian’s rustic accent, like Tennessee Ernie Ford, “This ole heifer’s nuttier’n a cotton-pickin’ fruitcake. It ain’t just me what’s nuts in this family!”

Dora gave the boy one of her tradework smiles, the kind Bill had always imagined a poisoner gave her victims as she handed them a plate of strychnine-laced pie. “I doubt that, Gregory. Now why don’t you retreat into your mad room and let us talk.”

Gregory resumed his original pose and stared straight ahead.

Bill looked from one to another. “Let’s order. It’s almost nine and I threw up this afternoon. I’m hungry as hell.” The sooner he ate, the sooner he could get out of there.

“Poor Billy. What was the problem?” Dora had regained her composure and was scanning the menu dubiously. “Order for us, darling. I’ll pick at something. The thing at the Auberge was actually quite nice. We ate more than we planned to, even though it was only hors d’oeuvres. Well, Billy, when we get home, Fanny will make some good, solid food for you. She is beside herself with joy at your coming home. You know she loved you terribly when you were a little boy. And you were adorable too.” She smiled at him fondly, apparently forgetting that she had spent as little time with him as possible during his most adorable era. It occurred to him that she had been building their fortune, gainfully employing her charms as a merry grass widow, then as a merry real widow.

“Tell Fanny hi for me.”

“You can tell her yourself.”

“No, I can’t.”

Dora set down her menu. Her face was hard.

“I have to go to New York. I’ll be working with Don for several weeks—maybe a month or more—on the final edits.”

“He told me it would take no more than two weeks.”

“You were misinformed.”

Bill ordered for them. Gregory didn’t speak or move. Dora wore her frosty glare. “About the agreement, Dora. I’d very much like it if you’d do what you proposed the other day: sign over one of the commercial properties to me. I think you mentioned the Curtis Building on State Street. The book will be a success, but most likely succès d’estime. I need a steady source of income. I have these responsibilities—sullen mouths to feed.”

Dora stuck a cigarette in her holder and waited for wine to be poured before speaking. “Do you think I’d really do such a thing, Billy? Without iron-clad guarantees that you’d stay in Angleport? We’ll do nothing until you’re back at home and have been at home a while.”

“Defined how?”

“Eight months. A year.”

Bill sipped the thin, sharp wine, his first drink in a few days. He pushed it away. “And the percentage agreement you used as bait?”

I don’t break my word. I don’t run away from responsibility. Darling.”

Gregory piped up and imitated her perfectly, every word and intonation. Meanwhile he continued to stare ahead. His face remained expressionless.

The food came. Bill and Dora ate their spaghetti in silence. Despite her comments about the cuisine, she ate greedily, with a napkin tucked in at her neck. The jewels of her necklace peeked over it, shining in the candlelight. After a second glass of wine, she said, “Billy, dear, let’s not be adversaries. There’s no need of it. You can organize your life around your work, even travel far and wide to promote your books. I won’t object. The problem we have is—well, him.” She pointed her knife at Gregory. “If I never actually needed you before, I do now. He’s impossibly trying, as you see, and I’m afraid that, as he grows, he’ll be dangerous. You see how big he is at thirteen; God knows what he’ll be like when he’s eighteen or twenty.” She added, sounding elderly, “If I live that long.”

“What makes you think he’ll be any better for me?”

“It’s hard to tell, I know, but he worships you. He won’t do anything to anyone if you’re around. He’ll act peculiar and say things that are annoying in the extreme. But he’ll behave himself. Won’t you, Gregory?” She spoke loud and prodded his hand with her knife. He withdrew it, betraying no other awareness.

Bill ate slowly, the acidic red sauce burning a path to his stomach. He saw ahead. There would be countless meals like this. Dora would be pushy and demanding. She would get more unfocused and garrulous with every drink. And Gregory would be a statue, once in a while springing into erratic life.

As he fiddled with the pasta, he was conscious of having made a strategic error. The old hag’s dangled money wasn’t worth the torture. He had told Dora that he would go back “home,” a ghastly concept. And he had played Douglas along, trying vainly to conceal his plan. Incredibly, that anarchist Kerouac kept popping up like dragon’s teeth or cockroaches or something. Douglas was only enough of a ninny to fall for the drunken scribbler’s appeal for support. It was like him to do something moronic like leave Selene and live on the margins of other people’s lives in a city of eight million. Like leave the best thing that had ever happened to him.

Me. That would be me.

“Billy, are you listening?”

“Mm.” Dora resumed her cozy prattling while he made thought balloons of scenes from his courtship of Douglas: the day at the beach, Easter, the nights of passion and of shame allayed, the ridiculous spats and dramatics, the reconciliations. All now pricked with the switchblade of fear. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. He sighed; it came out as a groan.

“What?” Dora put down her knife and fork. “What’s wrong with you now?”

“I think you know.”

“No. Tell me.”

“Not in front of him.”

“Why not?” She was round-eyed with foreboding. Gregory remained immobile, out of it.

“I don’t want to leave Douglas.”

“But you will.”

“I’m afraid I’ll lose him.”

“You will.” She paused and said, less rancorously, “Aren’t you going to New York soon?”

“He offered to go with me. I said OK.” He knew why he was lying.

“And after the editing?” she asked. Bill shrugged. She lit a cigarette, trembling. “We will discuss this tomorrow. I assume the wine’s gone to your head.”

He held up his almost-full glass, drink #1 of the day.

He stood up. “I’ll call you when I’m ready to pay a visit.”

“I won’t sign the agreement. It’s been drawn up, but I’ll rip it to shreds.”

“Go ahead. Douglas has enough. We’ll get by together.”

Dora looked at Gregory with revulsion. She was afraid. “Billy, come back.”

He turned and went for the door. He heard Gregory say, “You shit! You shit! You shit! You shit!” in his own voice until Dora shut him up.

Bill left the restaurant, which had emptied out considerably, and took a deep breath outside. A strong breeze had come up. The air seemed alive now.

His heart was soaring. He was eager to go home and tell Douglas that Angleport wasn’t in the cards. He wasn’t we wasn’t going back there, now or ever. Dora was furious, but I laid down the law, and she finally conceded that I had a right to live my own life, as I want to live it. They would patch things up. Douglas would forgive Bill and get over his attachment to that boozer Jack, which by now was nothing more than a talisman of a life never truly inhabited—until now. Really, Jack had long since become a tiresome habit, like knuckle-cracking or telling people about your gall bladder surgery. Even Douglas had to be sick of it.

Bill turned the corner, onto the square. He’d arrive home in less than ten minutes. He’d run up to his Douglas and declare his intention to stay. For ever and ever. Amen.

The joy on my face will tell him that this is the truth. Oh, good old Douglas! He’ll forgive me.

He stopped short. The Wassermanns, then Brenda and Dave, materialized not ten yards in front of him. The men held their women around the waist. The couples walked several yards apart. Each pair spoke softly between themselves, intent on subjects of absorbing personal interest.

Don cried, “Bill! We missed you at the do! It was quite smashing, wasn’t it?” He looked at Elaine with nervous affection.

“It was very nice, Bill. I’m so sorry you didn’t join us.” Elaine broke from Don and greeted Bill with both hands on his and a kiss on the mouth. She kept glanced over her shoulder at Brenda.

“Hello, Bill,” Dave said, offering his sweaty hand. “You look spiffy. I never saw you in a sports jacket before. Or socks.” Light laughter all around as Brenda swirled toward him in a gauzy dress with lots of petticoats. Dave’s shoulders looked a mile wide in his boxy sports jacket.

“Be still my heart,” Brenda sighed. “Don’t you look scrumptious!” She pecked Bill’s cheek.

Dave blushed in the light of the streetlamp. “Bill, I guess you know our news, but I’ll tell you anyway.”

Brenda held out her left hand and a tiny diamond glinted. “We’re engaged.” She played it straight. She hugged Dave’s massive arm.

Don smiled in a sick way. Elaine was serene and detached. She turned and smoothed Don’s hair, which was blowing in the rising wind.

“We’re going to be married in Las Vegas before we go home. Brenda insisted.” Dave smiled shyly, sexier than ever.

“Why don’t you only tell them I proposed?” Brenda said.

“You did!” They put their arms around each other and laughed, the image of a sweet young couple in icky love.

Wish I could’ve worked it out with this big dope. Without the cunt.

“We’re leaving tomorrow,” Brenda said. “It’s been a great pleasure knowing you, Bill. Really, I feel I’ve made so many wonderful friends in Selene Harbor. Don’t you, Dave?”

Dave colored and shot Bill a glance. He looked at Don. Everyone looked at Don. Don said, lamely, “I’m sure we all feel the same way, Brenda.”

Elaine was giving Bill a brittle smile.

Brenda and Dave said goodbye and walked down to Montecalvo’s. Dave looked back at Bill, sad-faced. He shut the door and disappeared inside.

Don wore a dejected expression. He tried to sound upbeat. “Well, my scribe, we’re leaving tomorrow, too. Now when can we expect you at our place in New York?” Bill looked at Elaine, who nodded. She echoed Don: “When?”

Bill estimated that he’d need a couple of days to patch things up with Douglas. Another day or so to knock Dora off her high horse. “A week, more or less. That OK?”

“Fine. Let us know closer to the date.”

“To provision the house,” Elaine said warmly. “It will be wonderful to have you stay with us again, Bill. We enjoyed it so much the last time. And it’s been too long.” She was speaking in a labored way, as if she were having difficulty remembering her lines.

“Too long,” Don said. “But now that you’re such a productive worker…”

“Come have dinner with us?” Elaine’s voice held a plea.

“I just ate.”

“Have a drink. Sit and chat a while.”

“No. Dora’s there. And the kid. No.”

. Don’s brow was creased. Elaine looked fearfully toward the restaurant. “I’m sorry you can’t join us. Are you certain?”

“No thanks. I’ve had enough of those two for one evening.”

Elaine said, “Which two?” and started down the incline to Montecalvo’s. “Good night, Bill. I hope we’ll see you tomorrow.” She waved and Don hastened after her.

“Are you sure?” Don turned back, beseeching, “You won’t reconsider? Well, all right. Good night, my scribe.”

Bill smiled. The old Don, with his Upper West Side assurances, wouldn’t have been able to find that begging tone. He went up to Armitage Road. The inn was quiet. A few guests lounged around nursing drinks and chatting discreetly. Carol and Weisbrod were coming down the front walk and Arnie said, “We’re off to Montecalvo’s. Everybody’s gathering there for a farewell supper. Want to join us?”

“What if I said yes?”

Carol said, “I’d kill Arnie! Good night.” Laughing, she grabbed her aged boyfriend’s arm and led him to the road. She bowed her head as the wind rose, and he pulled her close with a protective arm.

Love is in the air.

He sprang up the steps and into the house. The grandfather clock was striking nine as he went upstairs to Douglas’s room. He knocked rapidly on the door, overflowing with his joyful news.

My right decision at last!

Douglas stood looming over Bill only inside his room. Without seeming effort, Douglas contained himself and held back gestures of affection and smiles of endearment.

Something new: The big man radiated a kind of menace. Don’t tread on me. He was afraid of Douglas.

“I’m leaving Selene,” Douglas said abruptly. “Not sure how long.”

He might as well have punched Bill in the stomach. “What? What are you talking about? Where are we going?”

I am leaving,” Douglas said evenly. “I’m going to New York—for a vacation of sorts. Jack invited me to the launch party for his book. I wrote back and told him I’d be there.”

Bill’s mouth went dry. He swallowed and croaked, “When are you coming back? Give me an idea at least.”

“You’re leaving. Why do you care?”

“I’m going to New York, too—to work with Don on Wry Beach. That should take only a few week.” He gabbled, “We, we can see each other there—it’s like we’ll never be apart.

He followed Douglas into his room. Douglas sat at his desk and fussed with a paperweight. He raised his eyes, full of tears, and said angrily, “Bill, I know you’re returning to your mother’s. You’ve been planning to quit me.”

Bill sat in the armchair opposite the desk. He leaned forward and cried, “No! I’m not!” He sat back and said, “Well. I was going to. I planned to put up with her for a while—a few months—to get my mitts on the money she’s offering me: a percentage of her real estate income. We’d have been on Easy Street; she even hinted that she’d sign over some property to me—free and clear.” He smiled with rising joy in his heart. “I told her no. I told her I couldn’t leave you. I told her…” In a tone of ultimate self-sacrifice: “I told her I’d spend the winter with you!”

Douglas looked upset. “Bill, I’m sorry we are parting on bad terms—“

Bill wanted to jump up and hug him tight. “Me too, me too! I’ve been such a—“ He studied Douglas’s serious face. “This is the truth: I’m not going back, Douglas. I’m staying with you. No games, no bullshit. You and me. Oh Jesus, I’m so fucking happy.”

Douglas was still. He was gazing at an interior scene. He couldn’t read the man.

“What? Douglas? What is it?” The terror escalated as he listened to his own fear.

Douglas got up and went over to on his bed. He sat, burying his face in his hands. “Go. Please go. I need to be alone.”

Bill felt his face get hot, and his eyes and nose prickled. His voice trembled. “I need you. You know I do.”

“You don’t love me.”

The tears rolled down his face. Desperate times called for desperate measures. “I do. I love you.”

God. I’ve said it.

“I’ve never loved anyone the way I—“ big intake of breath— “I love you.” He was pretty sure he meant it. He plunged on, recklessly voicing thoughts as they bubbled up. “I can’t—I can’t imagine my life without you. I’d never be the same if we….Isn’t that a sign of how much you mean to me? I’d never be the same. Douglas, I’d be miserable without you.” So long in coming, this truth hit hard. He moaned.

Douglas smiled to himself. “I’ve concluded that I’d be more miserable with you.”

Bill lost his breath, unable to square this Douglas from the one he thought he’d known all these months. What had come over him? What the hell ailed him? And, if the whole truth be told, Douglas was pissing him off.

“Oh, Bill,” Douglas said with infinite patience. “I see the ways you love me. You double-deal and play the angles without thinking. It’s automatic with you. You may believe you love me. But your love wouldn’t—wouldn’t fill a shot glass. Or last as long as you could empty it.”

Bill was silenced for a minute. He stood before him. “What can I do to prove—“

“Don’t. Please. You’ll say things you—We’ll both be sorry. I want you to leave this house. You should leave Selene as well. It would be too painful…”

Bill paused, forcing himself not to speak in a high-pitched rush, the voice of fear. “You see how hard it is—look at my fucking family!”

Douglas raised his eyebrows, smiling a little.

“I couldn’t stand if you sent me away. If you went away. I’ll do anything. I’ll help you out here. I’ll be nice to the guests when I’m not writing, I’ll regale them with literary anecdotes from the annals of wit and paradox. I’ll stop shitting all over Claire. I’ll give up drinking. Anything. Please. Let’s not…We can work it out, Douglas. I know I’ve been a shit at times. I did withhold my decision to go back with Dora. But I was thinking of us!”

“You slept with my sister. With that actress.” Douglas’s expression hardened. “With Dave.”

“So did you!”

“My perfidy is nothing next to yours.”

“Oh, God, Douglas,” Bill cried, “I know—I know I’ve been a lying piece of shit. And a fool. You have to forgive me. If you love me. I swear I’ll never—”

Douglas seemed to be moved. He looked away with a tender, sad expression on his long face. “If I loved you. I’m sorry, Bill. You can’t be trusted, in either your actions or your intentions. I suppose you can’t help it but—I can’t talk about this any more.”

“But Douglas, don’t you fucking get it? I’m staying! With you. For you. Isn’t that what you wanted? I told Dora to shove her bribe right up her ass. I’ve sacrificed so much—you have to believe I’m telling you the truth!” He felt he was thrashing in quicksand, sinking deeper, about to suffocate. His astonishment burst out: “Don’t you believe me?”

Douglas didn’t look at him. “Bill, you have to go now.”

“No—for Chrissake—what are you doing, damn it? I’m throwing everything away—my entire fucking past. My economic future! I want to be with you. Isn’t that what you want? I know you love me. I love you, too! I’m sorry I realized it so late, but I did!”

Bill began taking off his coat, tie and shirt. He leaned close enough to smell Douglas’s breath and the steak he had for supper. He unzipped his fly, pulling his pants down. He was nearly naked. His cock stood erect and he reached for Douglas, saying, “Baby, I l—.” Douglas stirred.

Douglas whacked him with the back of his hand. Bill staggered and fell sideways on the braided rug. The right side of his face stung. It was going to blow up. He tasted blood where his teeth had dug into his bottom lip.

“Go, Bill,” Douglas said, calm and still. “It’s time for you to go.”

“What. What are you…” Dazed, he held onto the bed and pulled himself up. Stiffly, he dressed. His face was already swollen. He needed a painkiller, and he had one in his room, hidden in the toilet tank. Douglas.”

Douglas was cradling the hand that had hit Bill, pressing it against his cheek.

“Good night, Douglas.”

“Goodbye, Bill.”

In his room he stripped naked, dumping his expensive duds in a single heap. He inspected his swollen face in the harsh bathroom light. A large bruise was condensing on his right cheekbone.

A familiar deadness took root. No future. No way out of the prison of self. A failed past was all he had, bounded on one side by Dora, on the other by Don. Douglas, you fucking faggot. I love you.” And he did. He loved him more than ever. The sound of Douglas’s calm voice, the touch of his massive hand. His steel-hard cock proved it. He felt that he could become obsessed.

Weary now, he submitted to the familiar.

He opened the top of the toilet, pulled out the fifth of Scotch he’d stashed there. A strong anesthetic was just the thing. A stiff dose would perk him up.

Bill broke the seal. He opened the bottle and drank deep. He decided he was doing it for Douglas. All happy hours from now till the end of the world would be in his honor. “To the founder of the feast.”

He turned off the lights and lay on the bed. It was very dark. He couldn’t see the bottle he lifted to his lips.

Home, driver.

* * *

The storm broke after midnight. Thunder like a judgment woke him. Lightning struck so close he could smell it. Rain came down in refrigerated sheets. Roaring winds boomed like the ocean and aimed a river at his rattling windows. Cold slipped in and covered the floor. Summer was done for. Fall would rule the air tomorrow.

I’ll see my breath by sunset; my heart will sink.

The storm continued beating at the house so that it shivered and groaned. He got up and searched the closet by feel for his wool bathrobe. The guests would be clamoring for heat tomorrow night. He would have to endure their complaints about a cold waking today. Carol would deal with them. Carol would be dealing with them all winter, and God bless Carol.

I’ll visit every July. “Two weeks at my quaint old inn on the Maine coast. I have a lovely couple run it for me.” Everybody in New York will be so impressed.

He smiled in the dark. Even the silly pretensions of New Yorkers were better than the best of Selene. Life was difficult down there, inconvenient in many ways. He would have to live frugally in a tiny apartment...take some little job in a bookstore or something else ineffectual. It didn’t matter. Jack had indicated that he was returning there to live. And the others in his circle were there. He would have to fend off that hideous Allen, but still. He wouldn’t be entirely alone. Not like here. Which was what mattered, of course.

Douglas lay on the covers until dawn. He heard Bill’s snoring through the wall. Much earlier he had heard him crashing around the room, drunk. He smiled bitterly up at the ceiling, feeling a little affection for the troublesome fellow. He wasn’t entirely bad, he was more a mess than evil. On reflection, Bill wasn’t such an important fact in his life. Bill was a stand-in. He didn’t love Bill and never had. It was lust—only lust. Bill was in the room next door; he saw an opportunity; he seized it. Granted, Bill had been useful: Bill had given him courage. And now everyone in town knew, knew, about him now.

Maybe I’ll thank him one day.

He tried to imagine that day but failed. “I should get up now,” he told the brightening air. He didn’t move. His melancholy was as vast as the chill blue sky to come.
XXVII. His Unimprisoned Pride

Elegy in Selene

Seasons of the year and eras of the heart cool to their entropic curtain.

Every day more leave as the sun sets earlier and the mornings dawn sharper.

The sun of afternoon mocks with false heat; shade tells the truth on pickled flesh – the prickled flesh—

He gave up, although the elegiac mood was still on him. It had been for two weeks. He was unable to quit Selene and wandered around, hands behind his back, like his own pensive ghost.

Feeling like an evictee awaiting the brutal barge-in of the sheriff’s men, he counted the dwindling days; he dreaded the short term of his lease. He wandered around the emptying town, keeping a low-level buzz at all times to combat despair and change he maintained. It was a mellow sensation with no extremes of moral or physical remorse, which might have spurred him to disgusted action. No rash decisions, no confrontations. Two weeks had blurred by like this. He recalled that the same strategy had helped him endure his marriage for a year and a half. Until a decision was made for him. And what a relief that had been.

Bill moved with great care down the steep slope to his tanning rock. It was all his again—fat fucking couples no longer usurped it—and he sat back gingerly as he pulled the flask from his pocket and took a sustaining swig. The heat of the noontime sun soothed him. It lacked the searing heat of late June, but it felt more voluptuous now. He stowed the flask away, mindful of the price of true inebriation. He had to secure his battered heart. Stay in control, keep the mild buzz going maybe, oh fuck, for ever.

The buzz helped him steel his will, too. Every day there was a call from Don or Dora. Sometimes they called within an hour of each other; he suspected coordinated attacks. “Be a man, Billy, the best way you know how, I can’t deal with this boy, he wants his father, if you aren’t here tomorrow/in two days/by Sunday/next week, you won’t get the property on State Street.” “Do you really want Wry Beach published? Does nothing matter to you but—I can’t even talk about it, Bill, forgive me but what you’re doing up there is revolting, you’ve blown an early publication date, I’m doing everything I can but God helps those who help themselves, Elaine is begging to speak with you, Oh, Bill, please come stay with us, it will be wonderful, you will be our honored guest!”

His replies: “Mm. Yeah. Soon. Maybe. I guess. No. Soon. No. We’ll see. Really? OK. Yeah, soon, I said. Bye.”

Once they would have terrified him into doing what they wanted, although his resistance would have blown back at them as drunken vituperation. Binges. Remorse and surrender. Chastened sobriety for a few days, a week. That was the old Bill. The new Bill was tenacious, unyielding. He practiced his own variation on passive resistance, like Gandhi and Thoreau. It worked OK with the buzz on.

He watched the tide go swirling out, smelled the seaweed and lichens in the briny air. A land smell overlay all, of junipers and the leaves that were turning, their festival death colors creeping down Mount Selene. It was just August 25, but autumn was impatient to take charge.

He dozed a minute and got up. Hungry but in no mood to deal with anybody. He would return to his room. He would sip and snooze till it was time to go.

One last night. Decisions made. Bags packed.

Douglas, we who are about to die salute you.

* * *

A few of the guests sat on the porch, snugly wrapped, to look up at the winkless stars. Mrs. Morton said, with quavery foreboding, “You can see your breath.”

“Awful,” her husband murmured. “October in August. It gets dark so early now. Too soon.”

“I so dread…”

Sunday night with the glum old Mortons. They’d been living in his house for three years and he knew nothing about them, except that they were always complaining in some indirect, morally accusing manner. He rejoiced that he wouldn’t have to go through this any more with them or to hear any of the guests mouth their hackneyed profundities for the millionth time. With nervous expectation, he envisioned tomorrow morning: it would be another brilliant day, and at eight o’clock he would be loading his things into the new station wagon. Arnie would drive him to the train station in Portland. By night he would be in New York. He could start living his life—his own version of life, not another person’s or a town’s preordained version of it. And, as he recalled, people in New York didn’t sit around watching the sun set and make pointless comments about the changing seasons and the lack of daylight.

Douglas slipped inside before he found himself ensnared in their conversation. The house was inviting and still warm from the sunny day. The air smelled of cinnamon and nutmeg. Apple pie. Claire’s baking had improved greatly in the past few months; the guests raved about the flaky pie crusts, and the brioches she had started to make every weekend were gaining a local reputation.

Carol. Thank God for Carol. Scared the hell out of her aunt.

Claire was finishing up in the kitchen. Her eyes were red, and she looked up at him reproachfully. She turned back to her tasks, cleaning and putting away as if the devil were on her tail.

“Claire, the house smells delicious. How--when did you learn to prepare such wonderful pastry?”

Claire burst into tears, face in her hands. “Please don’t go, M’sieu Broadwood. I will miss you very much. I cannot work for that Carol! She’s like her mother, so greedy and push-push.”

“Oh my. Claire, really, you must—I’ll come back before too long. Carol is doing a fine job here. If it weren’t for her…” He hoped she would understand that if not for her niece, she might not have a job any longer: back to the demanding Irish nuns in Bangor. Or worse, return to bleak Megantic County, Quebec, where she would have to share a trailer with her old mother and two maiden sisters.

Claire seemed to understand. She stifled her sobs and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, still holding the Ajax and sponge. “Promise you will come back?”

He clasped her shoulder. “I promise.” He was glad she hadn’t pressed for a date of return.

She set the Ajax on the counter and grabbed his hand. She kissed it. “God is good. You will come here soon.”

Douglas extricated himself and said lightly, “Good night, Claire. Please don’t worry. Everything will be fine.” He went through the pantry and stood at the foot of the stairs, as if expecting someone. His shallow confidence evaporated, and he went up as if he were afraid of stepping in quicksand. He locked the door behind him.

He nearly tripped over his suitcases. Three large, scarred leather cases were lined up near the door. They had an expectant air: We’re ready to go! Load us in the car!

He turned on every lamp in the room. He sat at his desk and riffled through papers and books. He picked up an old leather-bound edition of The Sonnets of Shakespeare and idly opened it. Inserted at Sonnet 52 was a red maple leaf from untold years before. Its membrane was as brittle as the volume’s paper. He imagined it was far more beautiful than when it was in the act of falling.

So am I as the rich, whose blessed key
Can bring him to his sweet up-locked treasure,
The which he will not every hour survey,
For blunting the fine point of seldom pleasure.
Therefore are feasts so solemn and so rare,
Since, seldom coming, in the long year set,
Like stones of worth they thinly placed are,
Or captain jewels in the carcanet.
So is the time that keeps you as my chest,
Or as the wardrobe which the robe doth hide,
To make some special instant special blest,
By new unfolding his imprison'd pride.
Blessed are you, whose worthiness gives scope,
Being had, to triumph, being lack'd, to hope.

Douglas read it twice with attention and again in a reverie of pain and regret: fine point of seldom pleasure. Of course he was scarcely a Californian hedonist, but surely life provided more than “seldom pleasure”. And it would be better lived if his imprison’d pride were sprung. Wasn’t Russell always going on about life’s being the great gift from God? And that to waste your life in avoidable misery was an insult to Him?

Yes. Yes.

Well. Now he, Douglas Broadwood, stick in the mud, was striking out on his own, gambling everything on a “childish fucking pipedream,” as Bill called it. All dreams were pipedreams, really, and all were vain and silly until you decided to make them come true; no one was going to do it for you; you had to rely on yourself; take the plunge; be bold; have courage: Live and risk. You had to take the responsibility for an unhappy outcome and thank God for a good one. It made perfect sense. He was nothing if not a sensible New Englander in whom exhortations to be self-reliant, to get up and do something warred with the exhortations to be dutiful and considerate of others at all times during every day of his life.

He reflected that he and Bill were alike in sharing this conflict. But he was unlike poor Bill in many more ways. He saw Bill in a new light which enabled him to regard the turbulent fellow with a sense of superiority. His elevated perspective made him merciful: Bill wasn’t so terrible, really; they had had some beautiful hours together. For a time lust and feeling had merged almost perfectly into something approximating love. But Bill was unfree, he was a captive of his appetites. Bill thrashed around frantically against even the hint of the Puritan preacher embedded in his character. Well, it was only too bad for Bill—he was a lost soul who was the arch-squanderer of his own life.

One who throws all love away. Such a pathetic fool.

Douglas saw it clearly now. What a gullible fool he had been. But no more. Never again would he throw his heart away so recklessly. Even if Jack rejected him, which he might well do.

It pleased him to see how the tables had turned. Bill was wretched and desperate, while he was growing strong and—and free. Freedom was heady, and it was changing him as much as the prosperity that had come the past few months. He suspected that freedom was changing him more than the money, although it was hard to discern where one left off and the other picked up. The main idea was that, henceforth and for ever, Douglas Broadwood would do what he wanted, with whom he wanted, and where he wanted. For the first time in his life. With self-satisfaction he recognized that he was burying the corpse of Calvinist morality; it would be under six feet of earth and ten tons of granite by the time he was in New York. He saw Cotton Mather’s face in the grave. Long may you rot.

Later it occurred to him that the censorious face under the shoveling dirt was actually the cruel face of Francis Lewis Broadwood, his father.

* * *

In the still of the night he heard a gentle rap on the door. He got up, shivering, and opened it an inch. Douglas, smelling of gin, was standing naked in the hall.

Bill pulled him inside, alarmed in case a guest happened to be heading for the toilet at the end of the hall. Swaying a bit, Douglas clasped Bill close to him. His hands riffled Bill’s hair and his silent sobs shook them both. Douglas was too drunk to get it up, but Bill wasn’t; he hadn’t had a drink since supper and was as sober as he figured he would ever be. His cock began to swell. He pressed it into Douglas’s thigh and made him groan.

That damned Jack’ll never give you a tumble even if he is as queer as us, you asshole. Got a little cock too, I bet.

Douglas bent down and lifted him off his feet. He kissed him hard. Teeth ground and saliva trickled down Bill’s chin. He tasted juniper berries.

The big fool had come to his senses. They could unpack and plan a life. They’d be reasonably true to each other and renounce anybody who didn’t like their imperfect union. They’d have regular sex and be happy. Bill whispered, “Oh thank you, baby.”

Douglas held onto him for a few minutes more. His grip didn’t loosen. Once again he kissed Bill hard. Then he broke free and left.

Bill sat on the bed, head in hands. After a long while, he got dressed for travel. He sat by the window in the dark, waiting for the sky to turn gray.

* * *

The autumn tang in the air made him feel energetic, optimistic. It cut through the muzziness of last night’s drinking. He set his bags on the walk by the driveway; it wasn’t quite seven. He nibbled at a brioche and had a cup of coffee, too excited to eat a full breakfast. No, he did not have a hangover, and he didn’t feel sleepy despite a night passed almost entirely in a keyed-up wakefulness.

Claire wept in the kitchen and the Mortons were regretful in the dining room. Carol bustled around as usual, her newly announced fiancé at her heels. He couldn’t wait to leave them all behind. How he hated this place and his stunted life here!

“Ready to leave at eight sharp?” Arnie asked him. Arnie’s breath smelled of bacon and expensive marmalade.

“Yes. Sharp.” Douglas checked his watch, amazed at the slow drag of the minutes now that all was ready for departure. His mind was crowded with New York—its size and roar and pace, the varieties of human wildlife. He tried to summon up Jack’s face, but Dave’s was the one that came readily into view. And Bill’s, although that was likely the result of his sitting across the table, slowly munching toast and sipping black coffee, haunted-looking with deep circles under his staring eyes. He was dressed up: tweed jacket and tie, wool trousers.

The outfit he showed up in.

Douglas quelled the memory and any suggestion of regret. He got up to take one last turn around the property. He put on a new black windbreaker and went outside. He leaned on the porch railing and watched the robins hop about in the dew, yanking worms out of the earth. He decided not to get his loafers wet. He went back indoors. Carol was looking for him. She said, “Your sister’s on the phone. She wants to wish you luck.”

“Tell her I’m indisposed.”

Carol rolled her eyes and went back to the telephone.

Bill was watching him from the dining room table. When he returned his gaze, Bill shifted away.

It was 7:30. He went out the front door and sat on the steps only where there was a bar of warming sunlight. Bill came out a few minutes later with his bags. Staggering a little from their weight, he set them on the curb, far from Douglas’s. He threw his trenchcoat over the suitcases. He must have left his soft hat in the room, or thrown it away.

Bill stood at the curb. He checked his watch a few times.

“Did you call a cab?” Bill nodded. “Arnie could drive you to the bus stop. Go with us at eight.” The southbound bus arrived at 8:20.

“No thanks.” Bill shot his cuffs and sighed deeply, taking in the fresh cool air. He was pasty and thin; his tanned glow had deserted him after two weeks of steady drinking, spent mostly in his room.

Less handsome now. Showing his age.

“Are you going directly to New York or…?”

Bill glanced at him but didn’t answer. He sighed again. He stuck his hands in his pockets and rocked back and forth on his heels.

Arnie came out in a few minutes. He looked at Douglas and nodded towards Bill. “Well, it’s a little early,” he said quietly, “but maybe it’s time we went. Bill, I’ll drop you off downtown.”

“The cab should be here soon.”

“I’ll have Carol cancel it.” He ran up the steps. “I’ll bring the car around in two shakes.”

They stood in silence, looking everywhere but at each other until Arnie drove around with the new Dodge wagon with enormous tail fins. Broadwood Gardens Inn was stenciled in white scrolly type on the blue-metallic paint job. Rather like Saks Fifth Avenue. Carol said it had cachet.

Arnie loaded the bags in the back, careful to put Bill’s where they could be reached easily. They got in the car. Bill sat in the back seat.

“Terrific day for traveling,” Arnie ventured. “You won’t have any trouble getting where you’re going…” Silence. In the town square already. The bus stop was in front of a tiny Greek diner, popular with Selenites. The minute parking lot sported some end-of-the-model-year bargains in salmon and chartreuse. The natives were cautious in expressing their new prosperity; they assumed it was fleeting. Douglas would have commented on this if he didn’t have a knot in his throat.

Arnie got out and placed Bill’s things by a utility pole. Bill got out. He didn’t speak. His face was ashen.

Douglas rolled down the window. “Goodbye, Bill. It’s—it’s too bad…”

Bill wouldn’t look at him. His face crumpled but he composed himself and said coolly, “Some car.”

“We should go,” Arnie said.

Douglas rolled the window up. He looked at Bill for a sign of some kind. Bill was stone-faced. He peered into the distance, as if the bus were materializing at that very instant.

Arnie drove the new car with tender caution up the street that ran to Route 1. In the rearview mirror Bill grew smaller and smaller until they turned a corner. He was gone.

Douglas wondered if he would ever feel so strong again.

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