Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Chapter 1: Meeting Tennessee

Chapter 1
Meeting Tennessee

 Gary Tucker stared at my Asian sauté. It had expanded into two skillets, and was still growing. He stroked his giant mustache.
Over dinner, we planned to discuss the bar we had found—and hoped to buy—a rundown beer-and-wine joint in the tourist section of Key West. We would buy it with what remained of the cash I had from selling a business in Cape May, New Jersey in 1978. Three years had passed since then; it was now October, 1981.
Gary had no money. He had enthusiasm and designer friends who would transform the space. He would be our deejay.
            “Why don’t we call Skye?” he said.  
Schuyler Wyatt, Gary’s boyfriend, was in his mid-twenties, several years younger than Gary or I. His golden hair and toned body turned heads on the street. His sensitivity was disarming, and he had the agreeable eagerness of a puppy. He adored Gary.     
“Sure,” I said, and then motioned toward the phone in the next room. Three bottles sat on the counter. “No need to bring wine.”
I had met Gary six months before, when I managed Tux, the Manhattan-Deco restaurant next to Fast Buck Freddie's on Duval Street. I hired him as a waiter, and he proved to be responsible and bright. However, in early October, after struggling through months of the slow season, the owner cut the restaurant’s hours. Two weeks had passed since she laid us off.
Gary still worked his other job at The Sands, a semi-private beach club that anyone with the five-dollar cover could enter. Afternoons, from his booth on the pier, Gary mixed the music that kept the cocktails flowing and the sun-worshippers circulating between the beach and the soft blue waters. He knew everyone on the island, and had skills that I did not. During slow hours at Tux, he had entertained me with stories. He claimed he had worked for Phil Spector, and after that, had orchestrated Little Richard’s first comeback. He had worked for Tennessee Williams too, directing the play Tiger Tail in Atlanta, after convincing Tennessee to adapt his screenplay, Baby Doll, for the stage.
 “I told Skye to invite Helen Chuba,” he called from the dining room as he hung up the phone. “Have you all met?”
I bit my lip as I stirred the food. It seemed that everything in Key West ended up being a party.
“She’s watching Tennessee’s house this week. Short and fat—eats like a pig . . . and she tells great stories.”
            “OK,” I said. “Great.”
            Fifteen minutes later, Helen Chuba let herself into my apartment. With Skye in tow, she charged back into the kitchen, and, after halting just short of my 6' 11" height, looked up beaming and sang out a long “Hi!” as she offered her hand.
            She proved to be all that Gary had promised. Although fifty-or-so years old, her energy was boundless. Conversation—mostly Helen's swashbuckling stories of flirting with youths or of her noble service to Tennessee—ran late, beyond the last drop of wine.
At the end of the evening, I walked her to her car.
            “I’ll call you,” she said. “We’ll have dinner this week.”
            She phoned the next afternoon, and invited me to dinner at The Sands. Over the next two weeks, we met for dinner three more times. Then one day, she called, breathless and excited.
            “I’m going to take you to my favorite restaurant. They have specials . . . early. What we save, we’ll spend on cocktails, huh?”
“You’ll see—my treat. I’ve got some news!” 

“Isn’t this great?” Helen called through the open window of the Escort wagon.
I banged my head trying to squeeze into the car. I was irritated and paying scant attention. Rather than coming to the door, she had remained in the car, tooting the horn. I bowed my head lower and compressed my body into the passenger space. At 210 pounds, I was very thin for my height and could manage small spaces surprisingly well.
            “Trick knee,” she said. “Can barely get in or out.” Her brow and upper lip glistened with sweat.

            Gravel popped as she hit the gas, and she apologized with a laugh. Minutes later, we parked under a battered Poinciana tree at the edge of an unpaved lot. A sign on the wharf said Captain Gene’s. Derelict boats lined the pier that ran out over the water. One of Key West's lingering hippies walked past us carrying provisions in a box.
“See . . . ain’t I a great detective?”
            Helen led the way up the pier and then down the gangway. Inside the creaking boat, couples sat at two of the tables; a lone man sat at the bar. An old photo hung on the wall showing the Amaryllis on a Belgian canal, proud crew members standing atop her load of freight. We sat at a table, and then Helen flagged the waiter and ordered vodka tonics.
            “He’s coming home!” she said. “Tennessee called. He’ll be home in three days. We’ll have to have you over to meet him—huhhh?” She smiled, sat back satisfied, and dropped the subject.
            The idea of meeting Tennessee intrigued me, but we had not discussed it before. I wondered what I would say to him.
            As we ate our grouper, Helen gossiped in a fluty voice about Gary and Skye’s antics to curry favor with Tennessee. She tried to paint a light picture, but it was clear she felt threatened.
After dinner, we ordered coffee.
            “Oh, you must try Chambord!” She gripped the edge of the table. “It’s my best discovery yet! Raspberry. If I finish the bottle, Johnny’ll let me have it.” Her eyes grew even bigger. “Fantasy Fest!”
            She sat up, sucking in what she could. "Baby Jesus, huh?" She barked a laugh and then held out an upward-cupped hand as if she were holding the orb-shaped Chambord bottle. “Infant of Prague—it’s me!” She laughed. “Or a dominatrix—I can’t decide.”
            She turned and waved a fleshy arm. “Oh, Johnny! Two…and make ‘em doubles—we’re in a conspiracy here.”
She turned back to me.
            “Now what do you think of this?” she said, and then lowered her voice. “I ordered HBO for Tenn, huhhh? You’ll have to come over!”
            I missed the connection.
            “No one in that crowd can change a cable box—hell, they can barely make toast. See . . . I’ll mention I know a guy who’s practical. Next thing you know—you’re in. Wednesday at twelve-thirty,” she said. “That’s right before lunch—you’ll be invited!" 

I pulled the scrap of paper from my pocket and checked the number again. I had expected a more auspicious house. The bungalow at 1341 Duncan Street was a white, clapboard, metal-roofed Conch house, much like any other in the older neighborhoods of Key West. I had toured Hemingway’s house—it was grand. This was not.
My apartment was only six blocks away. Five minutes—ten at the most. I could double back and check the address. I made a U-turn at Florida Street and drove past the white picket fence again. I had said I would arrive at twelve-thirty, and I was never late.
I pulled to the curb, got out of the car, and walked back past the gazebo. To the right of it, tattered grass spread out across the front of the property. A board fence hid the backyard from view. Behind it, birds screeched high in the trees. The house appeared to be one story, but on the end, shutters angled out below the peak of the roof and shaded attic windows. The roof sloped to the front, sheltered the porch, and came to rest atop four square columns. Red-shuttered windows flanked the door, and re-enforcing the screen door, a length of wrought iron suggested a treble clef.
            I opened the gate, walked to the door, and knocked.
            “Hi!” Helen called, as she opened it. “Welcome to Casa Williams! They’re all on the patio.” She glanced over her shoulder, and then dropped to a stage whisper, although we appeared to be alone. “Lunch will be served soon.”
            The room seemed as big as the house, which is to say not large. Navy drapes covered the single windows at the front and side, and despite the laboring air conditioner, the room felt stuffy. Beyond the entrance hall, rattan furniture with faded cushions faced a coffee table. In back, light flooded the dining area through a sliding glass door on the left. A bookcase holding mementos, all dulled from age and lack of attention, spanned the back wall, and in front of it, a glass dining table was strewn with papers.
            My eyes were drawn to an oil portrait hanging on the wall to the right. I recognized the long, equine face of Frank Merlo, Tennessee’s longtime lover who had died many years before.
           The painting divided the room front and back, and beneath it, a rotary phone sat on a rattan desk. Only the console TV in the front corner was new. Helen pointed to the two cable boxes that sat atop it.
            “Come out back when you’re finished—through the kitchen. I’ll introduce you.” She walked to the back and disappeared through the doorway to the kitchen.
            I installed and tested the new box, taking only a few minutes. Afterward, I walked back into the kitchen—a fading avocado dream from the '60s. Through the side door, I saw Helen’s beckoning wave. I slid the glass open and stepped down to the covered patio.
            “Oh, that was quick!”
I immediately recognized the speaker, Tennessee. He sat slouched in a chair, wearing a stained Cuban shirt and tan shorts. His fingers held the stem of a wine glass, although it sat on the table. Three others sat at the table with him.
“You must be quite handy,” he said. There was a touch of awkwardness in his chuckle.
“No problem,” I said, and then cleared my throat.
“Will you stay . . . have lunch with us?”
“Glad to help out.”
“You know Helen, of course.” He turned toward her. “She found you.”
I nodded to Helen.
He looked back at me, and shielding his eyes with his hand, took in my full height.
“My. . . . Well, we will no longer be deprived of modern entertainment!”
“HBO—that’s great,” I said.
            He took a sip of his wine, and then gestured toward the two others at the table.
            “You know Gary, I believe, and this is Roy. He helps out here. Roy has prepared chicken salad sandwiches and potato salad.” He gestured to an empty chair. “Sit.”
I sat down nervously, and reminded myself not to eat or drink too quickly.
            “Here,” he said, pushing the carafe toward me, “Have some wine.”
            “Oh! Hold on . . .” Helen jumped up and hurried to the kitchen. When she returned with a glass, Tennessee filled it.
During lunch, conversation revolved around Tennessee’s projects: a recent play production, the suitability of Liz Taylor’s starring in a revival of one of his plays, and a lot of gossip about people I did not know, although I recognized some of their names.
I felt excluded, out of place, but the wine gradually warmed and relaxed me. Listening, I felt I was on the edge of something important—and I was drawn toward it.
“Now, I must take a nap,” Tennessee said, and then turned to me.
“Scott, could you possibly . . . rub my shoulder for a minute?” He began massaging his left shoulder. “I don’t know what I did. It’s gotten stiff on me.”
What did he want? I had never been attracted to older men—not sexually. At seventy, Tennessee was forty years older than I was. Unimaginable. What had Helen set me up for?
When I looked, he had already opened his shirt and pulled it off his shoulder. With what grace I could muster, I worked Tennessee's shoulder gently in my large hands as he made theatrical moans of pleasure.
“Oh, that was nice.” He tottered as he got to his feet. “Thank you—a big help.” He excused himself, and with his shirt still twisted about him, made his way toward the house. At the door, he stopped and turned back.
“Perhaps you can join us again—soon,” he said, and then he disappeared into the house.
Although I did not understand fully, I sensed the dynamics within that group had changed. I felt the sweep of Gary’s radar and his heightened alertness, knowing he was focusing them on me. Now that Tennessee had gone, he would hound me, pressing me with questions I could not answer—especially after three glasses of wine on a warm afternoon.
Hoping for a quick exit, I excused myself, but Helen followed me into the house.
“See? He likes you, huh?” She was beaming. “I have to go into town—I’ll call you tonight. Everything went just great!”
With that, I made my way to my car.
On the way home, wondering what had been set in motion, I was struck by a long-forgotten thought. Years before, while reading Tennessee’s Memoirs, I had suddenly known that I would meet him one day. At the time, I dismissed the idea as preposterous, but the certainty of the feeling had haunted me. Eventually, the notion disappeared under the sediments of time and experience. Its sudden return jolted me, shaking my idea of reality. 
I wanted another drink—and some time alone.