Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Chapter 14: For Comfort

Chapter 14
For Comfort

We flew back to Key West the next morning. In two more days, Gavin Lambert would arrive from England. Tennessee had been working intermittently on his play, In Masks Outrageous and Austere. He was convinced it was the best of his recent work, but he had become overwhelmed by it. He had asked Gavin, who wrote the screenplay for The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone twenty years before, to help him get back on track by helping sort through and organize the piles of revisions and insertions.
However, after the visit with Rose, Tennessee had lapsed into depression. Gary Tucker stopped by the house. Tennessee refused to see him. He asked Helen to prepare dinner at home that night.
Helen grabbed her purse, and after a quick calculation on her fingers, barreled through the room and out the door. When she returned, she put three pots on to boil, and then dropped a Boil-in-Bag pouch into each one. I made a salad.
After dinner, Tennessee went to his room to lie down. He asked Helen and me to sit by his bed and talk to him. He wanted to hear our stories.
One rickety chair in Tennessee’s room held a few articles of soiled clothing, the other a tattered Raggedy Ann or Andy doll—it was not clear which. I fetched dining chairs for Helen and me. Against the wall on a small table beyond the foot of his bed, stood an altar to Rose. Examining it felt like an invasion of Tennessee’s privacy. I never entered his room except when he was present, so I had only glimpsed the altar before. A central statue, the Madonna, stood surrounded by several pictures. I recognized Rose in most of them. A rosary was draped across the statue, and candles had been positioned at random around it. A layer of dust gave the entire altar a fuzzy, out-of-focus appearance.
Tennessee propped himself up in bed beneath a large oil portrait of Gertrude Stein, sitting in repose. I placed the chairs at the foot of his bed, spread apart so as not to obscure the altar. He turned to Helen and said, “Tell me—if you don’t mind—what was it that happened with your son . . . with Tim.”
Helen stiffened.
“May I ask?”
She shifted in her chair. Tears welled in her eyes.
“I . . . I,” she started. She got up and grabbed a tissue from the box on Tennessee’s nightstand. “Just a minute . . .” She blew her nose. “I’m OK,” she said, pretending as she returned to her seat.
“I would like to know—it would help,” he said. “Things that happen . . .”
Helen placed her hands in her lap, straightened her posture, and spoke. “My husband—first husband—Lloyd, was in the diplomatic corp. We moved around a lot—they moved us. Tim was in high school, Lloyd was stationed in Lisbon. It was in Lisbon . . .”
Tim, her cheerful, towheaded son, her only child, had been the joy of her life. With the frequent moves required by the Foreign Service, her husband’s long working hours, and the changing-but-constant cultural barriers, Helen had come to depend on Tim for companionship, and he on her. They became best friends. Tim graduated high school that spring, near the top of his class. One day not long after that, Helen returned from the market. When she opened the front door, she was hit by the odor no one mistakes—gas.
“I dropped the packages . . . ran to the kitchen.” She fought tears. “I found him there . . .” She choked. “In front of the oven.”
Tennessee sat forward, his arms outstretched. Helen went to him and embraced him tightly, sobbing.
I sat uncomfortable as he comforted her. I had not known her son had died. She had mentioned him only once or twice. I had assumed they were estranged, and did not ask. I could not imagine the pain of a mother finding her child like that. Sitting there, I felt inadequate and like a voyeur.
After a long minute, Helen broke away, thanked him, and then cleared her throat. She wiped her tears and returned to her chair.
“I’ll never get over it.” Tears welled up again. “I had no idea . . . how . . . what could I do? What . . . had I done?”
She left the room. Tennessee and I fidgeted silently. Helen blew her nose and then returned.
“It destroyed our marriage,” she said as she took her seat again. “I just wasn’t there anymore. I couldn’t do anything. Terrible for Lloyd, too—but he was more practical. He had his work. He attended functions—parties—alone. He became impatient with me.” Helen pulled on the ends of her skirt. “Six months later, he got the transfer. I wouldn’t—couldn’t. I just couldn’t leave. I stayed in Lisbon.” She looked up. “But . . . I couldn’t stay, either. I began to travel. That’s how I met Tennessee,” she said, brightening, “and Robert!”
Any trouble concerning Robert and amphetamines on the Orient Express had flown her mind. I wondered if she had blocked it, or if Tennessee had made up the story. I had learned long ago, that stories in that crowd were valued for drama more than fact.
Helen still had diet pills though—not that she lost weight. I often heard the rattle of her pill bottle, and she was always barging about the house, the yard, and the town.
“But you married again . . .” Tennessee said.
“Chuba. Yes. Hold on.” She got up and grabbed her purse from the telephone table just outside the room. She searched in it, found a photograph, and handed it to me.
“I met him at a Lion’s Club dance in Hialeah. He was sitting all alone against the wall. I thought he looked so . . . abandoned.” The man in the picture looked quite small against the door of a turquoise and white mobile home. He appeared to be middle-eastern and in his late forties—a little younger than Helen. In contrast to his timid expression, his facial features were strong and masculine. His eyes did not meet the camera.
“Well,” Helen said, “I went over to talk to him. He was so depressed. He seemed so helpless. I had to do something.” She smiled, and then exclaimed, “I married him! Huuuhh?” We all laughed, but the silence that followed was uneasy.
Tennessee said, “So Scott, weren’t you committed to a mental hospital?”
“Yeah . . .” I said, wary about where this would likely go, “three and a half years ago.”
Tennessee spoke as he leaned forward to adjust his pillows. “My brother—Dakin . . . committed me once. I believe it was in the sixties.” He laughed. “I don’t remember the sixties.
 “You know,” he said, “Dakin’s an embarrassment—a perennial embarrassment to the Illinois bar—ran for president in the last election. Before that—governor. He won Peoria! Only Peoria. I suppose since he’d won nothing else, he figured he might as well try the presidency—claimed I endorsed him!” He barked a laugh. “Sunk his ship right there.” He laughed again. “Amazing,” he said. “Of the three of us, he is the one who escaped commitment. So,” he said, turning to me, “did your family have you committed?”
“No,” I said, “a judge I never met.”
It was difficult to tell the story of the commitment, which had been both unfair and necessary. I was still sorting it out. I had shifted between seething anger and a sense of adventure at the time.
“It happened in Cape May.” Cape May, like most towns on the Jersey shore, required the payment of a tax and the display of a tag to use the beach. I had gone to the beach, and although I resented it, I had paid the tax for the full season, but forgot to pin the tag to my trunks that day. When the inspector approached, I argued with her—it was a mile walk back to the house, and she knew I had one—she lived next door to me. Soon she moved on, and I relaxed in the morning sun.
A few minutes later, two cops arrived. Seeing them, I fled into the surf with my pack and beach chair. I set up camp in six inches of water. People on the beach stood up to watch. A small group gathered around the cops, who called to me from the edge of the water as they trotted forward and back, dodging the licks of the waves.
The cops insisted I come out to discuss things, but it was low tide, and I knew I was well beyond the mean high water mark. I hollered back to them. “Sorry, your jurisdiction ends at the high water mark. Federal territory here—Supreme Court ruling.” Thank God I read Newsweek. Knowing nothing could trump that, I turned my back and settled into my chair. Sitting crotch-deep in water and ignoring the commotion, I began flipping through the latest issue of the magazine.
Moments later, I heard a great crashing sound as the cops charged into the water, cussing about their boots. They snatched me from my chair—me, nearly as big as the two of them combined—and then dragged me across the beach. The crowd, still standing, cheered. Only after the cops had cuffed me and were stuffing me into the back of their cruiser did I realize the crowd was cheering the cops. What a shock!
“They carted me off to City Hall,” I said. “Locked me in a room—I don’t think they knew what to do with me.”
Tennessee said, “They didn’t get away with that!”
“Well—yes,” I said, “and no.” I remembered Dante, the dark, Italian cop. As he stuffed me into the car, I could not help noticing the play of muscles beneath his uniform or the damp crescent when he raised his arm. The sureness of his bearing. “A year after that,” I said, “one of those cops, the Italian one, was arrested for molesting a twelve-year-old—his niece. Twelve indictments—four convictions.
“Anyway,” I said, returning to my story, “it turned out they had been keeping an eye out for me ever since my partners put me on a leave-of-absence. I had been acting oddly—something I failed to notice.”
“Like what?” Tennessee said.
“Oh, turning the store’s music up high and sort of dancing. Leering at every male customer under the age of 40.”
During those days, I slept only a couple of hours a night. A friend persuaded me to go to my parents’ home in Pennsylvania, and there I began seeing a shrink. I did not take well to the Stellazine, and then Lithium, that were prescribed. When I took Stellazine, my exterior felt wrapped in a dreamlike calm—but I stormed inside. Lithium made me tremble and gag. After a few weeks, I abandoned the treatment and drove back to Cape May. Soon, I realized that I was destined for an important mission. I was to build a giant, sea-going catamaran. Disciples would find their way to me, and then dressed in pure white robes and following the sun, we would sail our majestic ship to exotic ports. In each town, I would alight to announce the end of history and the arrival of eternal world peace.
In the meantime, I compulsively stalked the Cape May strand. I was drawn to lifeguards, those muscular, golden men who ruled the beach from high upon their stands. Convinced that women were another species and that sex with them was bestiality, I was determined to find a lifeguard to de-hypnotize.
And I did, Dan. My first disciple was two years out of high school and living with his grandmother for the summer. Dan was different from the lifeguards who tossed footballs or flirted with the girls who crowded round. I teased him and brought him out of his shyness. He took me to meet his grandmother. He was excited about the prospect of sailing to the Caribbean. The boat, so far, existed only as a picture torn from a magazine, but I was certain I could build it. I had not told Dan all the details of my vision of alighting in radiance to announce Truth.
His grandmother listened to the scaled-down version—building the catamaran and sailing to warmer places. Pick up jobs here and there. I had already sold my share of Whale’s Tale—that would finance the plan.
“Some men have a different path,” she said, and then took a step closer to me. “He’s confused about things—things I know you could help him sort out.”
In that moment, I realized that Dan was, in fact, gay. His grandmother knew it—I had only hoped. Her perception and candor surprised me. Dan did not comprehend what his grandmother said. He stood at the counter, making a peanut butter sandwich. I was thrilled—we had her blessing. It was the first concrete sign that I was on the right path.
Then, a few days later, the cops captured me on the beach.
            “Anyway,” I said, “after waiting all afternoon locked in a room in City Hall, the same two cops got me and put me back in the cruiser. I thought they were taking me home, but we were soon speeding north on the Parkway. Half an hour later, they told me where we were headed—Ancora—the state mental hospital. I had been committed without ever meeting a judge, a doctor, or anyone except the police chief.”
            “That is fantastic!” Tennessee said. Like the character Shannon in The Night of the Iguana, he only used the word to mean “as if conceived by an unrestrained imagination.”
            “I know,” I said, “but I did have a problem. Something had to be done. Next day, friends got me transferred to a private hospital in Philadelphia—I had great insurance. Stabilized me on Lithium—no side effects this time. I was released a month later.”

            Of course, the story was bigger than that, but I had told enough. Tennessee’s mind was no longer on Rose, and Helen sat on the edge of her chair sad-eyeing me. She looked like she might propose marriage at any moment.


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