Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Chapter 12: Persistance and Pluck

Chapter 12
Persistence and Pluck

Tennessee needed to return to Manhattan for business, and while there, he planned to make good on a promise to take Rose to see the Broadway musical Barnum. I looked forward to the flight—the one segment of my job I could count on for an hour or two of peace. I hoped to do some Christmas shopping in New York. The holiday was rapidly approaching, and I had not even begun.
            Helen, car keys in hand, sat waiting with me in the living room for Tennessee, who had gone to the studio to pack his documents.  
There was a sharp rap on the door, and Gary Tucker burst into the room.
            “All packed and ready to go?” Gary strode over to Tennessee’s bag by the telephone table. “OK!” he said, as he hoisted it.
            Helen blanched.
I stared blankly as I slowly stood up.
Gary grabbed Tennessee’s garment bag. Toting Tennessee’s bags was my job. Why the unannounced change of drivers? My senses went on high alert as I grabbed my own bags, followed Gary to the jeep, and loaded them into the back. We had barely gotten back into the house when Tennessee walked in from the back, carrying his bulging briefcase.
            “Good morning, Gary!”
            He turned to Helen.
            Gary wants to discuss some business. He’ll take us to the airport—then keep the Jeep for a while.”
            Tennessee had two cars. Although we usually used my car, he sometimes preferred riding in his weathered, open Jeep. Helen was still using the Escort wagon. With Gary driving Tennessee’s car, he would be halfway into the household.
Helen stared at Tennessee, speechless.
Although I had met Helen through Gary, I soon learned that while they competed for Tennessee’s attention, each got along with the other in the hope of gleaning information that would  help them get, or stay, in Tennessee’s graces—and to maintain a semblance of friendly appearances. In Tennessee’s household, each filled a different need. Helen comforted him with her boil-in-bag dinners, cheery mothering, and the quiet singing that Tennessee occasionally requested. Gary, always on the prowl for the best parties and drugs, had his finger on the pulse of the island, and offered excitement that inhabited regions beyond Helen’s world. We had seen little of Gary since I moved into the house.
Gary’s sudden involvement signaled a shift in Tennessee’s mood. How far would it go? I hated politics, and knew Tennessee would do whatever he wanted anyway. I could only wait and see.
Tennessee addressed Helen. “You still have the Escort. Scott and I will use his car.”
He looked to me for agreement, and I nodded.
            On the way to the airport, I listened as Gary and Tennessee, sitting in the front of the open Jeep, raised their voices to hear each other over the onrushing air.  
Gary had directed Tennessee’s short play, Some Problems for the Moose Lodge, in Chicago two years before, and then again, a year later, after Tennessee re-named it A House Not Meant to Stand and developed it into a full-length play. In the spring, the play was to be presented in its completed form on the main stage of the Goodman Theatre. Gregory Mosher, the theater’s artistic director, had passed over Gary this time and hired André Ernotte to direct their production of the finished work.
            “André,” Gary—although a Detroit native—drawled, “has no concept of the South. For God’s sake, Tennessee, you know I understand the South—and your material!”
            Tennessee leaned away to the right—seeming to forget the Jeep had no doors.
            “Greg Mosher cheated me. He fought me tooth and nail during rehearsals the last two years. He wasn’t fair to me—or you. The public is ripe for the new work of Tennessee Williams—I know it is!” Gary made a hard left onto Roosevelt Boulevard. “André Air-Not . . .” He let out a staccato laugh. “He’ll ruin your play. He thinks it’s some curiosity by a has-been playwright. He doesn’t believe in you—or it. Tennessee, you know that. You need to fix this—now, before it’s too late. Tom, please call Greg Mosher before you get on that plane.”
Tennessee stared away from him toward the beach, playing deaf and dumb.
Gary began anew. “You remember what fun we had—you and me—and Skye. How much you enjoyed Skye’s music . . .”
Tennessee looked back to the road.
            Gary continued, alternating hard arguments and sensual pictures—dangling Skye like a lure.
            When we arrived at the airport, Gary left the bags to me, and harangued Tennessee all the way into the terminal building. I checked us in at the counter, and when I rejoined them, Tennessee dismissed Gary.
            “You know I’m right—no one respects your work like I do!” Gary said before turning on his heels.
            I watched as he left the building and walked into the glare.
            “He’s very spirited, you know,” Tennessee said, “but Greg made the right decision. Gary would be in over his head—and so would I. We had a lot of problems in Chicago. I should have learned after Atlanta.”
            With his pineapple face and defiant hair, Gary would never win favor on appearance. However, I had learned that he would marshal whatever resources he possessed, borrowed, or stole to pursue his goals. One asset he had was a sort of charm. When he turned it on, people felt important and, through him, like insiders. This feeling might not have borne scrutiny, but once Gary had a person’s confidence, like a snake charmer, he could summon it at will. He had nearly talked me into the bar partnership—without putting himself at risk. I shuddered to think how that might have worked.
            When we first met, Gary gave me his card—a card he used for business and personal purposes. A card that ensured a person would remember him—no matter what. On it, centered and in an unembellished font, were his name, phone number, and then in numeral form on the line below that, “9 ½ inches.”
“I do find Gary amusing though,” Tennessee said. We had made our way through the boarding process and settled into our seats. I did not respond. I knew Gary would not be deterred by the rebuff, and once we returned to Key West, with his bag of tricks in hand and Skye in tow, he would press his case again.
My shortcoming, the thing I could not provide, was amusement—lively, engaging conversation. Around Tennessee, I felt intimidated. I made conversation with other people—even celebrities—but with Tennessee, I found words to speak only the facts. I knew this would eventually be my undoing, but I seemed powerless to change. I made up for the deficiency by being as helpful as possible—keeping everything running smoothly. I knew I was doing this part very well, under the circumstances.
The plane lifted from the Key West runway, climbed steeply, and then leveled off as it turned toward Miami. Tennessee reached down and fumbled in his briefcase for a minute, and then swallowed a pill dry.

“You know,” he said, “It was while traveling that I met Helen—some years ago. It was a complete disaster.” He coughed as he laughed.

“I was traveling with Robert Carroll on the Orient Express. It was night—France, I think. We went to the bar and there was this very lively woman. Oh, she had met everyone—gotten a sort of party going. Recognized me right away—always a bad sign.” He laughed. “She brought us into her little group.

“She was very enthusiastic, laughing—carrying on. Robert took to her right away. We were talking, and after a while, I got tired of it and went back to our cabin—sleeper-room. When I returned—maybe an hour later, everyone else had left except Robert and Helen. She sat at the bar, while he stood fidgeting next to her. She handed him a pill. Well, she had been feeding him amphetamines—diet pills—like they were candy!”

Tennessee shoved his briefcase with his foot.
“Robert and amphetamines do not mix—he was traumatized in Vietnam—shell-shocked. Well, he was wired. Became frantic—paranoid. There was nothing I could do.”
Tennessee downed half the glass of wine the stewardess handed him. “They almost threw us off the train. I took him back to our compartment and did the best I could to quiet him.” Tennessee looked past me, toward the horizon. “The train just barreled through the pitch-black countryside. I thought that night would never end.” He sighed, and then finished his wine.
“Helen—that was one woman I never wanted to see again. She had no idea what she had done—but I never did get rid of her.” He chuckled. “A few years later, I ran into her . . . or she showed up here. I don’t really remember. Like an old friend! It was like running into an old friend. I don’t know if she planned . . .” He studied his empty glass. “She must have. We stayed in occasional contact—letters . . . and then she came to visit.” He laughed and scratched his head. “And here she is!”
“Just like that,” I said.
“She has a husband now, Chuba. Doesn’t do anything—disability—and he’s too shy to speak. Keeps him in a trailer park in Homestead—middle of nowhere—trailers and palm trees, all lined up in rows. Kind of tragic, really. But she sings like a bird.”
            With that, he looked back to the horizon for a moment, then leaned back and closed his eyes. I turned and watched through the window. Beneath us, the last of the emerald keys sailed south as we headed across Florida Bay. Soon we would land and change planes in Miami before continuing North.


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