Editorial: Ballantine Books.
Stories From the American Front
This is Ann Beattie’s third collection of stories in eight years; it follows two novels, ”Chilly Scenes of Winter” and the recent ”Falling in Place.” By anybody’s standards, this is a huge output, but Miss Beattie shows no signs of slackening.
A new Beattie is almost like a fresh bulletin from the front: We snatch it up, eager to know what’s happening out there on the edge of that shifting and dubious no man’s land known as interpersonal relations. How goes the fray, at least in the area roughly defined as New York, with Vermont on the upper perimeter and Virginia on the lower one? (Sometimes people in these stories have moved to California, but they secretly long for the East, where the snow doesn’t come in tiny expensive packets.) Whatever happened to all those people who grew up really believing that all you need is love? Are they any better off than the generations of Elvis and green hair and heavy metal that flank them? In the war between men and women, is anybody winning, or is it even a war? How are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness getting along these days?
Not too well, going by the evidence of these 16 stories. Happiness is still being pursued, sort of; at least, the characters in these stories can remember what it was like when they were pursuing it. By now, many have flagged and are substituting Valium. Even the more harrowing forms of tripping out are things of the past: These people are on maintenance doses, getting from one day to the next, one lover to the next, like a climber seizing the next rung on the ladder without having any idea of where he’s going or wants to go.
WHAT ails them? (For there are none who are not ailed, with the possible exception of two dead young men whose absences form the centers of two of the longer and more important stories here.) Life is too easy an answer. It seems to be more a matter, strangely enough, of liberty. There are no longer any ties that bind, not securely, not definitively: jobs, marriages, the commitments of love, even the status of parent or child -all are in a state of flux. Thus everything is provisional, to be re-invented tomorrow, and no one can depend on anyone else. The characters watch each other with preternatural, Magic Realism intensity; a gesture or chance remark may signal the beginning of the end, a shrug may spell doom.
Freedom, that catchword of sixties America, has translated into free fall, or a condition of weightlessness, and the most repeated motifs in the book are variants of this. ”Learning to Fall,” ”Gravity,” ”Afloat” and ”Running Dreams” are titles of stories. ”Space cadet” is a phrase used by one character of another, but in some ways all the protagonists, both men and women, are defined by their relationship to this label. Zipped in, petrified, like the little boy in a beekeeper’s suit in ”Sunshine and Shadow,” they peer out through Plexiglas at the dangerous collisions around them, at the fatal stars. ”I float between them,” says one woman, ”knowing … that desire can be more overwhelming than love – the desire, for one brief moment, simply to get off the earth.” And in ”The Burning House,” a husband tells his wife, ”Men think they’re Spider-Man and Buck Rogers and Superman. You know what we all feel inside that you don’t feel? That we’re going to the stars. … I’m looking down on all of this from space. … I’m already gone.” These are stories not of suspense but of suspension.
Freedom is the freedom to take off, but when you’re being taken off from, as happens to most of the people in these stories, it doesn’t feel quite the same. What many of these characters want is to be grounded. Like spies on the run, they’re searching for a safe house, and houses and their furnishings loom large. But the houses tend to be booby-trapped: Home is no longer a comfy fortress, as the book title more than hints. Even the most domestic of activities – cooking dinner, fun with the dog – are fraught with a jittery sense of wrongness. Sometimes the characters, nostalgic for Christmas trees the way they used to be, return to their own pasts, but the lovely Pennsylvania farmhouse of ”Sunshine and Shadows,” which lulls us into security with its patchwork quilts and golden oldie records, is indicative of what is likely to happen to anyone who gets sucked in by the decor: ”When he moved his head nose-close to the window he could see the cement driveway … where his mother had run a hose into the car and killed herself with carbon monoxide.”
This is also a good example of Ann Beattie’s method. The detail is casually dropped on the reader’s head in passing, not treated with special rhetoric, just there, like a vase or a clock; and it is the evenness of tone used to describe both horrific event and trivial observation alike that accounts perhaps for the eerie, shell-shocked effect of Miss Beattie’s prose. By now this is a technique she wields with absolute control. Compared to the earlier stories, these are less grotesque, more narrowly and intensely focused, more accomplished; they are also less outrageous and less outraged and more sympathetic to their characters. The mood is not bloody-minded; rather it is sorrowful. Most of the stories are about the process of separating, but there are no causes proposed, only affects, and thus no one is seen as responsible for the pain. The result is a certain moral attenuation. This is not hell but limbo, which some writers have located on the moon: That’s where the space cadets end up.
NO one is better at the plangent detail, at evoking the floating, unreal ambiance of grief. I would say Ann Beattie is at her best here, except that I think she can do even better. One admires, while becoming nonetheless slightly impatient at the sheer passivity of these remarkably sensitive instruments. When that formidable technique is used on a subject large enough for it, the results will be extraordinary indeed. Still, that’s like caviling because Wayne Gretsky misses one shot. If Miss Beattie were a ballerina you could sell tickets to the warm-ups.
Hoodie in Xanadu
Most nights my neighbor, a middle-aged man in a red hoodie, would stand on his front porch, reaching up every now and then to knock the icicle Christmas lights dangling from the porch roof back and forth. He’d survey the street and usually smoke a cigarette. When he finished, he would fumble for his keys, then open his front door slightly, ducking his head to enter as if the doorframe were too low. If he saw me watching, he’d give me a desultory wave, or I’d lift a hand in his direction. He didn’t go out at night, and he seemed bored or not too bright or, like many Key Westers, pretty incomprehensible—at least, he would have been in any other context. The icicle lights burned all night.
Sometimes I could hear Glenn Gould playing loudly, and then my neighbor—the drawstrings of his red hoodie tied under his chin—would emerge and stand with a blanket wrapped around him, shivering in his jeans and clogs, looking forlornly down the empty street. If Hoodie had anything much resembling a life, you wouldn’t know it by his chagrined expression and by the way he sagged in the chair on his porch like a shot duck, too heavy-assed to rise, even when he needed to sign for a package: quite a heavy fellow, for someone who smoked dope—I’ve smelled it—and whom I’ve never seen carrying a bag from the grocery store. When, and how, had he put up the Christmas lights?
Hoodie—on the night in January we became better acquainted—silently greeted me as we stood across the street on our porches: “two citizens of planet Earth,” as my late husband used to say. What does Hoodie do all day? I’m in my sixties, so if anyone wonders about me—which I doubt—I’m sure they assume I creak and groan and sprout chin hairs. My own son, Roland, appears once or twice a year for a brief visit, then returns to Miami. He’s never invited me to visit wherever he lives. He’s never even given me an address. If Roland knows that Christmas has come and gone, he’s given no indication. My best guess about Hoodie? He sleeps late (many in Key West do), then does errands (which occupy everyone, always, until the second you pitch over dead)—errands that, in his case, might include a certain number of doctor visits, given his weight. I assume he has a hobby, as well, because of the number of boxes delivered to the house. I’ve been asked many times by the UPS or the FedEx driver to sign in his absence. One recent rainy afternoon I’d taken in two boxes, and walked across the street with them later that day. The shippers had names like OxyLoxy, in Newtville, TN, and StarLady in Winches, NH. The boxes were heavy, though not so heavy they might contain OxyLoxy or StarLady themselves. They often smelled nice (though sometimes they smelled of smoke) and were more or less the same size. Once, when a box was shipped through the U.S. mail, I’d paid the postage due of thirty-four cents, for which Hoodie had thanked me profusely.
I arrived in key west in 1986, leaving a cruise ship that could continue to transport its weary just fine without me: passengers tainted with flu; not-quite ex-wives, giving the marriage one more try; geezers under the delusion that the high seas were a watery limbo where they could revert to their youth and not take their medicine; shrilly entitled, run-amok grandchildren; the eccentric who came aboard with his parrot in its cage. My husband had died in 1985, Roland was in boarding school in Connecticut (courtesy of his grandmother), and I’d impulsively responded to an ad in The Washington Post for discounted cabins on a winter cruise whose first stop was Key West, Florida—which also became my last.
When I’d left, I’d gotten a job cleaning at Tra La La Tropics Guesthouse (I was also given a teeny room there and permission to swim in the pool). I had
soon branched out—there’s a pun!—creating displays for their entryway from flowers discarded after rich people’s parties, or stuffed in florists’ trash cans the night before garbage pickup. Fallen palm fronds have always been free, and a gold-and-silver glitter stick costs next to nothing and really adds panache. I would pinch-hit for the cook (Zachary “Zit Man” Chisholm) when his diabetes made him too weak to serve the last meal of the night. I’ve been retired for years, living on my—and my husband’s—social-security payments.
I still do the flowers for Tra La La, which morphed into Sea Breeze House when straight people bought it in the nineties—though I don’t Dumpster-dive anymore. I supplement my income when I’m called upon to make bridal bouquets and—to my surprise—wrist corsages, which are especially popular in transsexual commitment ceremonies. Who knows what Hoodie made of me, with these people coming and going from my apartment.
Well, here’s what he makes of me: he crossed the street, after all this time, wearing his customary red sweatshirt with the hood pulled up, which he untied and pushed off his head as if gallantly removing a fedora, and said, “I’m embarrassed to say we haven’t really met,” and I said, “Joe, I know your name because of the packages addressed to you,” and he said, “Right, so let me ask: what’s your name?”
Audrey Ann was the answer, but no one had ever called me either name, and Annie wasn’t my favorite nickname—Flora was. It had been bestowed on me in 1986 by Zit Man, whose nickname had preceded our meeting. I told Hoodie I was Flora.
“Happy to know you,” he said. “I’m taking a pill called Zoloft, and I find I’m able to extend myself to people now, so I think it’s about time we made each other’s acquaintance.”
This, of course, made me feel bad. The poor man was depressed, and I’d never so much as introduced myself. After my husband died, I had retreated inward.
“I’d like to ask you in for tea,” he said. “I’m feeling much better these days. We’ll have a chat. Not about anything in particular, just a neighborly visit.”
“Joe, that would be a pleasure. What would be a good time to come over?”
“In half an hour?” he said.
Half an hour! Well—why not? “Fine,” I said. “Thanks so much.”
I went inside and saw the answering-machine light blinking. The red light upset me about as much as seeing a palmetto bug scurry under the sink. You can do it, I told myself silently. I hit play.
“Mom, hi, I’m calling because I’ve sort of got a situation here. Is there any way you could use your Triple A card to get us towed? I’m in Georgia.” (!) “Yeah, we’re over here in Marietta, picking up Cindy’s daughter, who’s got an issue with school or something” (?) “and where I was parked in a parking space over here right on the street? Yeah, a tree fell on our car. I’m maxed out on my credit card and I could use some help with towing. Cindy’s cell is five-one-eight—” then silence. I stared at the answering machine; if I waited, the other digits of the telephone number might be magically filled in. Roland had a girlfriend named Cindy, who had a child, and they were in Georgia? Ohh-kay (as the exterminator always said, when a bug started running). Surely he would call back.
But time passed, and there was no new message. I went into the bathroom and took a quick shower, toweled off, put the same clothes back on, looked again at the answering machine, then headed off across the street.
“Please come in, Flora,” Joe said, stepping aside ungracefully in his doorway but not shaking my hand, though he made a move in that direction and then stifled the impulse. He was wearing enormous, baggy jeans. He tried to stuff his unshaken hand into the pocket and failed. He had on what looked like a red cashmere sweater. He’d done something to slick back what was left of his hair.
“Oh! Isn’t this something!” I said. I was in Xanadu. The front room was an enormous, vibrant, multicolored tent. The materials were radiant; some sparkled with tiny mirrors that threw off light; others were woven with threads that seemed to lift off the surface like three-dimensional TV test patterns. I’d never been to Morocco, but maybe this is what things looked like there. Fabric was draped over the walls and swags dipped from corner to corner. The walls were hung with quilts in various geometric patterns. Only the two front windows, with white shades lowered, were not somehow blanketed. Your eye was constantly drawn to where the material converged midceiling, punctured by a dazzling pink spotlight that looked like it might have just vaporized a flamingo. This must have been what had come in the boxes: the quilts and fabric, the shimmering threads. People thought the back gardens were the hidden secrets of Key West? They should see this!
Joe reentered the room—I’d hardly noticed he was gone—wheeling a two-tier cart carrying a silver tea service. A lovely aroma mingled with the room’s other smells: a bit musty, somewhat cinnamony, lemon-tinged. “White rooms drive me crazy,” he said straight-faced, as if delivering the punch line of a joke. He poured tea into a china cup and handed it to me, the cup teetering on a mismatched saucer. “Cream and sugar,” he gestured. He poured a cup for himself. His free hand swept in the direction of two black butterfly chairs, which of course hadn’t been apparent amid the riot of color. We retreated to the chairs. “Lady Grey,” Joe said, sighing the words, and at first I entertained the notion that it might be a new nickname for me—that he could be making a remark about the color of my hair. He held up the tea bag’s paper tag, like a little magnifying lens, or a bit of unreflective mirror, or a tiny shape from one of the quilts: Lady Grey. “Thank you for coming,” he said.
As you would imagine, we talked about how he created the room. It took a year, he told me. He had the AC re-vented at his own expense. He called the room “my personal vision.” This was the guy who stood outside smoking, gazing at nothing? I felt like I was a shard inside a vast kaleidoscope. “It’s for rent, now that it’s exactly the way I want it,” he said. “To be perfectly frank, it’s something I hoped to interest you in.”
“Me, rent your living room?”
“No, no. But I’ve seen your talent for flower arranging, and I thought that when very special people came, I might call on you to arrange some flowers.”
“Special people? What do you mean?”
“Flora, if you promise to keep this in the strictest confidence, I can be specific about the first arrivals,” he said.
In the second before he whispered their names I wondered: might they be the Queen of Hearts and the White Rabbit? The first name, the woman’s, I recognized, but I wasn’t sure I could pick her out of a lineup. The man’s name meant nothing to me, but he was, apparently, the husband.
“You know, this is just incredible,” I said. “Are they—I mean, they’re checking in?”
“I’d say checking out,” he said, pleased with his turn of phrase.
“You want me to do the flowers?” I said. “Where would you put them?”
“I have a table in the other room,” he said, sounding a bit hurt. “I’ll bring in the table.”
We sipped our tea in silence.
“So these celebrities are on their way?” I asked. “When?”
“Saturday. They rented it from noon to midnight.”
“I have to do the flowers for a wedding on a catamaran this Saturday, Joe.”
“Won’t they blow away?” he said.
“The vases have bricks in the bottom. I bundle the stems together and put sink weights on them.”
“I’ll give you five thousand dollars,” he said.
“Well . . . do we know what kind of flowers they like?”
“I can ask.”
I nodded. “I feel like that would be taking advantage, though,” I said. “It’s too much money.”
“It isn’t a lot of money to them, I guess.”
I thought about it for a moment. Five thousand dollars was more than I’d make in many months of doing wedding arrangements.
“Well, I can’t very well say no, can I?”
“Good. More tea?”
“No, thank you. But it’s delicious.”
“I’m glad you like it.”
“No one could possibly suspect that walking through your front door, this is what she’d find.”
“I never raise the shades,” he said.
“How did you get the word out that—”
“They were reading Craigslist?”
“Their people were. It’s an anniversary. Not a wedding anniversary. The day their child was conceived, or something.”
“Should I allude to that in the flower arrangement?”
“I wouldn’t say so, no. I think that information was just personal. For some reason, the secretary felt she had to explain herself.”
“And you really do believe—”
“The deposit cleared.”
“Wow. All right. Well, I’ll have to give this some serious thought. I’m glad I’ve got time to get flowers flown in from Miami. This is really incredibly kind of you, Joe.”
“I just look like a fat schmuck, don’t I?”
The question startled me. If there’d been anywhere to put my teacup, I’d have set it down.
“No worries,” he said, gesturing to the walls. “This is definitely the revenge of the nerd.”
“It’s truly amazing. To think this exists right across the street from me! So—can I come up with some sketches? How would that be?”
“You don’t have to show me sketches. You’re a genius.”
“Oh, far from it,” I said. “And you’ve barely seen my work.”
“I didn’t exactly level with you before: the UPS guy told me your name, because you’re always so nice about signing for my packages, and I’ve got a book about designers who’ve done amazing Key West interiors, so I realized instantly who you were. I saw one arrangement where you wrapped lace around bamboo shoots and scattered snails on the table! It took a while to get up my courage to approach you.”
“The UPS delivery person knows who I am?”
“He used to have a design store with his wife in Marathon. His wife used to be a guy. She was the roommate of a cook who used to be a friend of yours at Tra La La? I think he took photographs of your flower arrangements for their brochure, right? The cook?”
“Yes, he did do that. You know, I fell out of touch with him. I didn’t know he had a roommate. I mean, except for work, I guess I didn’t know him very well.”
“I heard he’s working at a restaurant in South Beach. His health is apparently much better. Has some pump in his chest, or something.”
“I see. So the UPS man married Zachary the cook’s roommate, who had sex-change surgery?”
“That’s a very Key West story.”
“It’s why we’re all here, right?”
I momentarily considered the possibility that he’d been referring specifically to sex-change surgery. “What do you mean?” I said.
“So that everything can be a Key West story.”
Relieved, I found myself on my feet, preparing to leave. “This has been quite the day!” I said. “To be continued.”
He rose also, on the second attempt. He said, “I’ll e-mail their secretary and get information about what flowers they like.”
“Good. Let me know.”
He reached out, but it was for my teacup, not to shake hands. Nevertheless, he did shake my hand because it was extended. Then he took the teacup and saucer and returned them, with his, to the cart. He said, over his shoulder: “Isn’t it really sad when you lose touch with people you once cared about? Technology has made everything worse, because you feel like you could potentially get in touch, so you assume you will, and then instead of writing a letter, you’re looking for somebody on Facebook, and half the time they’re not there.”
He opened the door enough to let me out. A kid flew down the sidewalk on a skateboard, with all the dexterity of a fledgling. When the boy passed, Joe quickly stepped out behind me, unlit cigarette in hand, and pulled the door closed. “Now you know,” he said.
The words echoed in my head as I reentered my apartment, which looked more than a little shabby, with an afghan thrown over an old chair and a picture hanging crooked. But who lived like Joe? There was something very odd about it—well: of course there was.
The answering-machine light was blinking, and I knew who’d left the message: Roland, calling to get my help so his car could be towed. “Mom,” he said the second I pushed play, as if his voice had been waiting to jump out of the machine. “Hey, Mom, we had that little trouble there, but some good Samaritan gave us a ride to the school, so we met up with Frieda, no problem, but when we got back to the car it’d been towed, so I was wondering if you could call the towing company and point out that a huge tree fell on our car and it wasn’t just a matter of not respecting the rules by moving our car by five o’clock. We had no way to do that with some tree crashed down on it. I’ve got the name of the place here. The thing is, we’re all going to have to get back to Miami, like get a bus or something, and the cash machine won’t take Cindy’s MasterCard. If you—” The line went dead.
I already felt like Alice expelled from Wonderland, but Roland’s phone call was too much of this world. I would have loved to have been able to tell my husband about my adventure, though if he’d lived, we’d still be living in Washington, DC. I had heard on the Weather Channel that Washington had gotten two feet of snow. Snow that deep would paralyze the place. I undressed and stepped out of my shoes to lie down and take a nap. I lay on my side, pulling the bedspread from the far side of the bed over me for a little warmth. What a sad little chenille cover it was, balding a bit here and there as if a caged animal had bit its fur, a gloomy beige to begin with. Joe would disdain such a cover, though under its warmth I fell quickly asleep.
Her favorite flowers were anthuriums, birds-of-paradise, and proteas. Mixed in with these would be white irises, which, when I ordered them, I requested have the tightest buds possible, since once they open, they die in a day. It was risky, I knew, but it worked out. I found some white ribbon with red sparkles at the dollar store out on the highway and asked a friend if I could prune his bougainvillea—awful, thorny stuff, but it would just be at the base of the arrangement, and what was beauty without a little danger? I found some gallon milk containers in people’s recycling and rinsed them and cut off the tops with pruning shears. I would use bricks as platforms of various heights to support the gallon bottles, and disguise them under beards of Spanish moss. Under cover of darkness, I grabbed Spanish moss from a tree on White Street. I asked Joe if I could come in Saturday morning to assemble the flowers on-site. There were many flowers, brought at little expense, because Manolo’s assistant (Manolo owned the florist’s in Miami) would be driving to Key West anyway, to deliver orchids to the Marquesa Hotel and to see his girlfriend. Manolo had a very entre nous way of talking. He thought two hundred dollars to deliver them was more than generous. If you’re wondering whether the check to me cleared, there was no check. I had five thousand dollars cash, which Joe had handed me in a bank envelope the day after we spoke. It was a perplexingly large amount of cash to have, but I seemed unable to deposit it in my bank account. I just kept looking at the envelope, which I tucked in the yellow pages and put in a cabinet drawer in the kitchen. Joe told me I could come whenever I wanted that morning, and we agreed that I would begin around ten.
The night before, I had slept badly, and it took two espressos to get me going. I had hoped Joe would volunteer to help me carry the boxes—the birds-of-paradise had been too long-stemmed to keep in my emptied-out refrigerator, so they’d been in the sink overnight, soaking in the porous insert of the asparagus steamer—but he seemed so nervous, I didn’t want to do more than hint, making it a point to stagger during the three trips I made carrying the big boxes.
I arranged and arranged, repositioned, plucked and tucked, and when I was finished, I used the tips of my hedge clippers to pick up the bougainvillea branches, feeling as powerful, but as humble, as a blacksmith dipping into the forge. It was a truly magnificent arrangement. Big-headed proteas dowsed above the bougainvillea. Birds-of-paradise shot upward like torches. The delicate, waxy anthuriums, in white and pink, added an odd texture and were perfectly interspersed with the white irises. I alternated the two, like the rails of a curving staircase Bette Davis would descend. Below the basket I scattered gold stars (appropriate!) I’d gotten at CVS and musical notes I’d cut from black construction paper, consulting one of my son’s boyhood songbooks—its pages perforated by silverfish—to make sure I’d gotten them right. Move over, Martha Stewart. At exactly eleven a.m., Joe again pronounced me a genius. He had centered the table under the spotlight. It was really riveting. We hated to leave, but we did, Joe dropping his key in the mailbox, then withdrawing his hand and crossing his fingers. “This is sort of embarrassing,” he said, “but I don’t really have anywhere to go. Do you think I could spend a bit of time in your apartment?”
He could tell I was taken aback. My apartment? What would he think of such an uninspiring place? And how long might he be there?
“I’m agoraphobic,” he said. “I can go a little way from home, but really not that far. This wouldn’t be the day to pass out on the street.”
“No, it certainly wouldn’t. Well. Of course, come over.”
“They had a lot of hope for the Zoloft. Although it’s facilitated our friendship, it doesn’t seem to have stopped me from feeling that if I go far, I might stop breathing.”
“What a terrible affliction,” I said. “I know something about what you’re feeling, because my late husband had asthma.”
“He didn’t die from an asthma attack, did he?” Joe said, eyes wide.
“No, not from that. Joe, are you OK?”
He’d stopped in the middle of the street.
“I look up and down this street, practicing,” he said. “It’s easier at night. I made it to the library three days ago. Then today—wouldn’t you know.”
“Joe, let’s just—” I took his hand, which was quite cold.
“Assholes, you think you’re at a cocktail party?” some skinhead who swerved around us on a bike sneered. He puckered his lips as if he were spitting over his shoulder, but since the wind would have blown it back in his face, I doubted it was anything but pantomime.
“I don’t think I can take another step.”
“Joe,” I said calmly, “there are chairs out front of my house, and if you can make it there, you can look right over at your house. Let’s try that.”
“Well, Joe, it’s not really safe to stand in the street. How about heading back to your house, so you can rest for a minute? Your own house?”
He crumpled. He was almost bent over double, but he managed not to sink to his knees.
“Everything OK?” a young woman said, passing by, talking on her cell phone.
“Fine,” I said, sounding doubtful.
“So sorry. I can’t—” He was gasping. “Is there a siren behind us?”
There was nothing. Not even a car. Though as soon as the light changed on the next block, a line of cars would be arriving. The young woman stood on the curb frowning. She’d snapped her cell phone shut.
“Joe,” I said, “we don’t want to call an ambulance or have the police drive up, you know? We don’t want a scene outside when your company might be arriving. Joe?”
“It’s good I haven’t passed out. I’ll be fine in a minute. If only that noise . . .”
The girl walked on. A man with his little boy on his shoulders held his son’s ankles and pretended not to notice us. Slowly, inch by inch, Joe started to straighten up. He leaned on me heavily. His eyes were slits. “So sorry,” he said.
“Much better! You see, you’re coming out of it! You can do it, just over to my porch chair. You’re standing up much better, Joe.”
We lurched forward as the first car slowed to a halt. I met the driver’s eyes, and he met mine. I understood from his eyes that he thought Joe was drunk. Just then, Joe took off, a little lopsided, more or less dragging me with him. We made it to the other side. “All right,” he panted, cupping his hands over his ears. “OK, but I don’t think I can make it to the chair.”
“I’ll bring it to you,” I said.
“Yes, please, so sorry, thank you,” he said.
I ran up onto the front porch and folded the wooden chair and carried it to where he stood, sweat running down his face. I’d found the chair curbside, then worried it might have termites, so I’d never taken it inside. Joe sat down and rubbed his hand over his face, then down the leg of his jeans. “So sorry,” he said. His breathing was less frantic, but he stared straight ahead. If he’d been Superman, he would have been looking through the clapboards into the gorgeously swirling tent, where my flowers sat center stage. I stood at his side with my hand on the top of the chair. I felt a little rattled, myself. I no longer seemed able to think beyond the next minute.
Time passed, and he got better. I went in to get him a glass of water. We chatted about his guests’ arrival—how soon they’d be there, that sort of thing. “I was going to sit in the reading room of the library,” he said, tilting his head to look at me.
“Well, when you feel ready, we’ll have some tea, or whatever you’d like.” I tried to sound encouraging, but I wasn’t sure he’d ever make it into the house. I was worried that the famous people would show up and we’d be there, gawking.
We did make it inside, we had tea, and afterward Joe agreed to lie down for a minute to rest. He stretched out on the sofa and fell asleep. He snored a bit. The sun came out from behind the clouds and I thought the light would awaken him, but he threw his hand over his eyes and continued to sleep. As the day went on and it got colder, I considered putting on the space heater, though the thing made an awful crackling noise, and I was afraid it might wake him. I lightly placed the afghan over Joe. I picked up the book I was reading, In Transit by Mavis Gallant. The stories were very involving, though every now and then I’d look up to see if anything was happening across the street. Gradually I let the worry I’d tried to suppress take over: What if they never came at all? Though he did—we did—have the money, at least. What would it matter if Xanadu sat there, unseen? I went on to the next story. I was so engrossed that I forgot about dinner, as I’d forgotten about lunch. To be honest, I might have been reading a bit desperately, as a way not to think about what was—or, more accurately, what was not—going on.
When Joe woke up, we had tomato soup and we moved one of the chairs so we could sit side by side in the dark, watching a bit of late-night TV, trying to pretend to each other that we weren’t watching his house. Not long before midnight, an enormous white shape appeared in front of the windows: a white stretch Humvee limo. We couldn’t have been more surprised if Moby Dick had beached himself. We sucked in our breath. We raced to the window in unison and closed the curtains, then peeked from either side, as if we’d rehearsed this. “There they are!” he said. “My God! They’re here!” I whispered. It was like being a little child looking in on Santa Claus. This was no Santa, though. As I’d read in the tabloids at the checkout line, she was very curvaceous. She had on a long white strapless gown, plunging in the back and looking I don’t know what way in front, because she got out on the side near the curb and I never saw anything but her coxcomb of fancifully upswept hair, her long neck and back. A fur stole was handed out of the car and then, on the same side from which she’d disembarked, with the chauffeur now holding open the door, the husband emerged, quite a bit shorter than his wife, reaching up to place the fur around his wife’s shoulders, though she didn’t stop walking, so instead he carried the stole like a pet. I was trying to remember every detail, as if it had begun happening hours ago: for instance, that she’d gotten out of the limo before the chauffeur had managed to get to her door. “Look for them, they’re in there!” Joe whispered. The chauffeur was reaching around in the mailbox for the keys. He pulled out the day’s mail—hadn’t thought about that as an impediment to finding the key!—then he found the key, we could see that. He and the husband stepped in front of the woman, who had on very high heels, probably as high as they could be made. She took several perfect backward steps, and finally swept up her stole and tossed it over one shoulder. Then they were all three inside and the door was closed. The chauffeur was in there with them. Behind the limo, someone tried to inch past, gave up, and began backing up. The limo glowed brightly under the lamplights. We said nothing. Some people passed by, commenting on the limo. They stopped and stared, but since nothing was going on, their loud voices drifted away as they continued walking.
The chauffeur came out, closing the door behind him, putting on his cap. He went quickly to the trunk and took out an ice bucket and a stand. “They didn’t say they wanted anything,” Joe whispered, hurt. Our eyes met, but we didn’t want to miss anything. With a bottle of something—champagne?—tucked under his arm, the chauffeur went back in, carrying the ice bucket in its stand. “There’s no ice,” Joe said. “I locked everything but the bathroom.” I shrugged. “Well, you said they didn’t tell you they wanted anything,” I said uneasily. The chauffeur exited in about three minutes. He stood on the porch looking left and right, much the way Joe did at night, and then, removing his cap, he bounced down the stairs and got in the driver’s seat and pulled away, some car honking behind him, a bicyclist, alone, sliding through the narrow space between Humvee and parked cars. Then there was darkness.
“Did you see the height of those heels? You don’t see those down here, unless it’s tourists from New Jersey or drag queens,” I said.
He looked at his watch. “She had a phenomenal ass, if that isn’t too crude to say,” he said. “It’s after midnight. How long do you think they’re going to stay?”
“At least as long as it takes to drink a bottle of champagne.”
“Let’s open the curtains,” Joe said. “They won’t see us if we turn off the TV.”
We did, then continued to sit in the dark. I wondered whether the two of them might be in there all night, and what that would mean in terms of Joe.
Then the big white limo pulled up again, and the chauffeur, putting on his cap, got out and went around to . . . what? He lifted a big bag of ice from the floor. He carried it in the crook of one arm, and I saw how powerful that arm was. He went into the house and was out in another few minutes, in time to move before the car behind him with its pulsing, deafening sound system sounded its horn again.
Joe yawned. I got up and turned on the space heater. I offered him the afghan, but he insisted I have it. I spread it over my legs. I had never known it to be this cold in Key West. She must be freezing, in her low-cut dress. And doing what, inside? They didn’t seem like the types who would get down on the floor, but you never could tell. I wondered if Joe was thinking the same thing.
“Smelling the flowers, drinking champagne, dancing,” Joe said, as if reading my mind. Then: “I hope neither one of them smokes. The ad very specifically said no smoking. I go outside, myself. They’re probably not smokers, though,” he said. “Although a lot of those people are.”
“Did you make it clear that they had to leave at midnight?”
“It was very clear. Confirmed with the secretary.”
“Why do you think they came so late?”
“Those people have no sense of time,” he said.
Wait! The husband was standing on the street, talking on his cell phone. He was hunched over in the wind, hand to his ear, then he was reaching behind him for the hand of the woman descending the stairs, who threw the bottle into the bushes! Good God, it disappeared right into the hibiscus. Joe and I looked at each other. The man and his wife clasped hands as she leaned her head, with its big tower of hair, on his shoulder—having to duck down a bit to do so. The stole was fastened around her collarbones. She bent a bit to kiss him. He slid his hand down her back as their lips locked. He clutched her, but kept looking over her shoulder. Then she stepped out of her shoe and handed it to him. He dropped his cell phone in his jacket pocket and held her shoe. His other hand remained around her waist. She bumped down again and handed him the other shoe, and he tried to give it back, but she put her hands behind her back. The dress had to be satin. Her husband stood there with his funny little pencil mustache, holding the shoes by their heels, searching the street. The limo pulled up and the driver jumped out with another bottle of—I guess—champagne, but the husband put his hand up like a traffic cop and turned and pulled open the back door. His wife’s shiny, amazing ass tipped into the air for a second, then she was in, head first. He tossed her shoes on the floor, rearranged something, and closed the back door. He hopped in the front seat and the limo idled for a minute, then the chauffeur got out, went up the stairs, put the key in the mailbox, returned, and drove away.
Joe and I were both so tired, we were rubbing our eyes. The question was: could he make it back across the street? Or: would I really prefer that he stay, just in a neighborly way, of course. Or did I simply dread taking the chance and being caught out in the cold again, with Joe unable to take another step? The same thoughts had to be going through his head.
“Your son that you were telling me about earlier? You think he gets scared and can’t continue speaking. Did you mean he suddenly seizes up, or—”
“I don’t know. I guess I don’t want to think he’s drunk or stoned.”
“He could be having panic attacks, you know. It sounds like he’s finding himself in some strange situations—not that the most ordinary thing can’t provoke an attack. I could talk to him. They have a lot of new drugs for that. Not that they’ve done me any good.”
He’s forthcoming, and he’s willing to address my problems, and I like that. Maybe this is it, I thought. How much do I need to go out gallivanting, when I’m happy to take an afternoon nap and am yawning by midnight, even in the midst of a fairy tale? Also, he’s proven he’s no deadbeat. Between us, we’ve just made what used to be my entire year’s salary. You miss out on life for years and years, and then you meet the guy across the street, who thinks you’re a genius, and you’ve got money again, and love . . . well, it was hardly love with Joe, but it was clear that even though this was the last thing I expected, it was the way things did conclude for two citizens of planet Earth, and in spite of all odds, I had a partner. I had a partner on a night when the animals sang and danced in the moonlight, and the old people sat and stared.
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