Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Chapter 15: Sprucing Up

Chapter 15
Sprucing Up

The following day brought cool breezes; the skies remained sunny. It was a perfect day for walking or riding a bike. Birds squawked high in the trees as tourists poured into town in advance of Christmas—not quite a week away. The mood was festive.
            After I returned from picking up Leoncia, I walked out to the pool. The pool boy had skimmed it the day before, but already, armadas of leaves gathered again in the corners. Year round, but especially late in the fall, unpruned shrubs, palms, and bamboos dropped leaves and fronds into the water. The canopy of trees blocked direct sun most of the day and kept the pool from overheating in summer. In the winter, Tennessee enjoyed the bracing water, but in the coldest months, some heat was required for comfort while he swam laps.
I tested the water. The heater had been on two weeks, but at the lowest setting. The water was too cool for a soak. My eyes followed the wet trail from the pool to the house. A towel was draped over a patio chair. Tennessee had already had his morning swim.
I returned to the house and joined Leoncia at the kitchen island. We sat and drank coffee, talking as we watched the play of shadow and light beyond the sheltered patio. This was our ritual most days, although we seldom had anything much to say. Leoncia’s slow, steady presence anchored the household, and sitting next to her calmed me. Working for Hemingway and then Tennessee, she had seen it all.
The door to Tennessee’s studio opened. He stepped out, and then as if he had forgotten why, stepped back in and closed the door.
Leoncia bowed her head, laughing low and slowly.
“Mister Gavin coming soon,” she said.
“Tomorrow,” I said.
“Uh-huh. Be a new house. Mister Tom working like a beaver, trying to clean up this, clean up that. He wants to be Leoncie—then I write the books!” She cackled.
Tennessee was attempting to create some order in his studio before Gavin arrived. Leoncia would prepare lunch for him. I would not be needed—at least not before dinner.
            I decided to go to the beach. From late December through mid-March, few tourists—and fewer islanders—swam in the ocean. The shallow water surrounding the Keys chilled quickly with the onset of cool, winter breezes. However, protected areas of the beach were still good for sunbathing or reading in the crisp fall light.
            Sometimes I went to the county beach, braving the burrs and the rough coral sand. For years, this beach had been popular with gay men. Patches of turtle grass mottled the shallows, and a wooden pier nicknamed “Dick Dock” ran out low over the water. On it, bikinied men, oiled and laid out like planks, eyed each other as they slowly bronzed.
            When Tennessee wanted to swim in the ocean, we went to the Pier House or The Sands. There, we could drink cocktails, and often ate a meal. On my own, I shunned the crowds, preferring one or another of the tucked-away beaches that were unknown to tourists. My favorite was at the end of Vernon Street. As the road approached the water there, the pavement broke up into rocks that, spreading farther and farther apart, marched into the sea. To the left, the tables of Louie’s Backyard, the barest of restaurants, sat scattered across several concrete slabs along the water’s edge—the ruins of long-gone buildings. The colors of cafĂ© umbrellas cheered as sea and sky raced to meet the horizon. On the right, a privacy fence ran fifty feet into the water. Locals waded around it to enter The Sands without paying. Nobody cared.
I wheeled my ten-speed from the backyard and mounted it. Erect on its saddle, I measured six inches taller than standing. Fortunately, I had radar, an unconscious sense of what and when to duck. Friends and strangers alike warned me of upcoming hazards, but over the years, I had learned my sense was all but unfailing. I rarely gave a thought to doors, chandeliers, or low-hanging branches. I felt sorry for the average-heighted who, not thus protected, banged into every mid-height obstruction they encountered, rare as they might be.
I did beware potholes—and bikers on cocaine or Quaaludes. Bikers on coke navigated erratically. Too many ‘ludes and a person, riding or walking, might keel over right onto your path. But I was always renewed flying high on my bike through clouds of frangipani, jasmine, and other island scents. However, it was December now, and little was blooming. Still, the rush of tropical air was a tonic. Traveling alone, I always chose my bike.
            I headed to Simonton Street and picked up a sandwich at La Bodega. When I reached Vernon Street, the beach was all but deserted. I found a patch of sand between some rocks by the water. As I ate my sandwich, sailboats lazed in the middle distance and a speedboat zipped about freeform. After finishing my lunch, I opened Tennessee’s novel, Moise and the World of Reason, and leaned against a rock to read.
            The novel was difficult. The sun and my full stomach made me drowsy, and my gaze kept wandering to the distance. However, I was determined to read everything Tennessee had written, and this was next on my list. Again and again I returned to the book, but my focus soon drifted to blue infinity.
After an hour, I packed up and climbed on my bike. I still kept my apartment. All my furniture and most of my belongings remained there. I had a roommate who lived there also. I stopped, picked up my mail, and then continued to Duncan Street.
I found Tennessee in the yard, near the studio.
            “Helen’s gone over to Rose’s house,” he said. A bottle clunked as he emptied a wastebasket into the garbage can. “Gavin will stay in the front bedroom.”
Leoncia sat inside at the kitchen island, watching like an owl as she ate fried pie from a paper wrapper. The washer and dryer labored behind her. She chuckled and bobbed her head when I saluted.
            “Look at this,” Tennessee said. He motioned for me to follow him into the studio—a first. No one entered this room but him. Old theater posters from foreign play productions papered the walls. A manual typewriter sat on the narrow picnic table that served as his desk. Books, coffee-stained mugs, and a few framed photos filled a bookcase on the far wall. A daybed piled with papers lined the wall opposite the desk. Its bedspread, like the room’s paint, might have been new thirty years before. A few trampled sheets of paper littered the floor, and the neck of a wine bottle peered out from beneath the bed.
            “Looks great!” I said. I had glimpsed its earlier condition.
Tennessee stepped back outside, but I remained a moment. I thought of all the hours—and the years. The sheets of paper that had run through this typewriter. The plays, and then the productions. The careers and fortunes that had been made—all from ideas he had pulled from himself and wrestled onto paper in this unassuming little room. I thought of the lyricism—beauty, truth, and characters—and all the places theater had never been—until there was Tennessee.
I stepped outside and stood beside him.
            “I think I did a great job,” he said, looking up at me.
He was holding a box of trash.
            I went to my room to take a nap as Tennessee continued. When I awoke, the cleaning was complete, although he was still rifling through papers. That evening, we had dinner with Helen, who, feeling the isolation of Rose’s house, was full of chatter. Tennessee was exhausted. He had worked all day without his usual nap—or even a break. When we finished dinner and got back into the car, he interrupted Helen’s prattle and asked her to sing.
            Why should I feel discouraged,” she began. “Why should the shadows come . . .
            “Oh, that’s lovely,” he said. “Doesn’t Helen have a sweet voice?”
            She did have a nice voice, but by the time we dropped her off, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” had been permanently branded on my brain. She knew only one verse, and like a Baptist tape loop, she had continued, not knowing how to stop.
When we arrived home, Tennessee went directly to his bedroom. Having a perfect opportunity for a night on the town, I hopped on my bike, stopped at The Monster, and then made the rounds of a few other bars. An hour or so later, just after I left Delmonico’s, Tennessee’s Jeep squealed around the corner. The driver—Gary—leaned halfway out against the force of the turn. Tennessee gripped the top of the windshield. Seeing Gary kissing up to Tennessee while I was out, I froze with apprehension. But I talked myself down. I had never agreed to work around the clock or every single day. That was exactly what I felt I had been doing. I was getting sick of it. To hell with them both. Gary could have my job. The night was young—full of promise. My inner-carouser took charge, and I tripped on toward The Monster to celebrate my brave defiance.
            The next morning, I awoke just in time to fetch Leoncia. I brought her back, and then immediately went upstairs to shower. Afterward, I found her sitting at the island in the kitchen, arms folded across her bosom. Her empty coffee mug sat square in front of her as Mr. Coffee gurgled on the counter.
            “Them trampy boys!” Her high pitch pinched the words tight. Her back was straight, her eyes narrowed. “What they doing. . . . Mister Gavin coming . . .” I could barely understand the words.
Gary Tucker walked into the room—as if he had simply materialized. He wore an old T-shirt and cut-offs. “Good morning, everyone,” he said, beaming.
Leoncia stiffened and turned half away.
Great night last night! Tennessee couldn’t wait to go out.”
Then I saw the box on the counter—the box that had come from New York the day before. It had been torn open, and one of a dozen ampoules of yellow liquid, snapped open and empty, lay on the counter. A syringe and a stained gauze pad sat next to it. Tennessee had given himself a “vitamin” injection the night before.
Gary said, “We went to Delmonico’s.”
He turned his back to Leoncia and addressed me.
“Found this kid in a ratty cowboy outfit—long feather in his cap—must have found it in the street.” He laughed. “Tennessee brought him home.”
Gary must have slept in the front bedroom—the one Leoncia had prepared for Gavin.
“He ran out the kitchen door when you and Lee pulled up—must have hopped the fence.”
The coffee finished brewing. Gary poured himself a mug.
As he retreated toward the front bedroom, he called over his shoulder, “Hope he remembered his feather!”
Leoncia percolated as she got up and filled her mug. She dumped sugar into her coffee, and spoke to her mug as she stirred, “Trampy.”
I heard movement in Tennessee’s room, and then he emerged in his bathrobe. “Good morning, Leoncia,” he said. “‘Morning, Scott. I trust everyone had a good night last night!” He moved toward the counter. “How’s the coffee?”
Leoncia said, “What this . . . Gary doing in Mister Gavin’s room?” She pronounced his name as if it rhymed with “tarry.”
“Now, Lee,” he said, “Gary was just helping me out last night. He was tired.” Tennessee poured himself coffee.
She said, “Got enough problems. Don’t need rats in this house.”
Tennessee laughed. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Just a couple sheets to change. I believe there are sufficient linens to cover the situation.”
She looked at him a moment, then down at her coffee. “Yassuh, Master Tom.”
Tennessee and I froze, but Leoncia nearly fell off her stool. Doubled over, she convulsed in silent laughter. She sat back up.
She said, “Before Mister Gavin comes, we need Maxwell House—and some pine oil.”
She got down and, taking her cloth, sauntered to the far counter and began wiping up Metamucil powder as Tennessee and I watched.
“OK!” he said. “Do we need anything else?”
She shook her head.
 “I think I’d better get dressed then.” He returned to his room and closed the door.
A minute later, Gary walked back into the kitchen with an armload of sheets. Leoncia froze.
“Here’s the bed linens, Lee,” he said. “I figure you’d want to wash them.”
He dumped them on the dryer.
“I’ve got an appointment or I’d stay and visit,” he said.
Leoncia went to the doorway and, hands on hips, watched him until he disappeared through the front door.
“He wagging his tail too much for that skinny be-hind,” she said. “One day it gonna snap right off!”

Late that afternoon, we picked up Gavin Lambert at the airport. He was about sixty. His aviator glasses seemed twice as wide as his narrow face, and he sported the most exotic comb-over I had ever seen. Having flown from London, he was exhausted and jet lagged. He took an hour’s nap, and then the three of us went to the Pier House for dinner.
After drinks and small talk, Tennessee and Gavin discussed the task ahead of them. They expected it to take a week to ten days.
Gavin turned to me and said, “You know, my driver’s license is perfectly good here, and I can be quite practical. I’m sure if you’d like a break, we could handle things for a few days on our own.”
I looked at Tennessee, suddenly feeling how much I needed that break.
“Why don’t you join your family for Christmas?” he said. “We’ll work better with no one else around. Go ahead—take a break.”
The next morning I found a travel agent. I could have flown to Europe for less than a last minute flight to Wilmington, North Carolina, but I did not care. I booked a flight out the next day. Excited, I stopped at a nursery on the way back to the house. I loved gardening and had been wanting to dress up the yard a bit and put planters on the porch.
At the register, the clerk said, “We’ll do the usual.”
“We bill Mr. Williams the extra thirty percent. Pay you the difference.”
I was surprised that he knew my position, and angry to learn of the arrangement my predecessor Roy must have made. I wondered how many other merchants had padded—were padding—Tennessee’s bills.
I told him the deal ended when Roy left, and to bill Mr. Williams the correct amount. As he watched, I folded the receipt and put it in my wallet to reconcile later.
I took the two terra-cotta pots and the flat of coral impatiens back to the house. I planted some of them along the edges of the patio, and others in the pots. I placed one pot on either side of the front door.
I found Tennessee and Gavin in the kitchen. They followed me out to the porch.
“Oh my goodness!” Tennessee said. “We can not have this.”
I was stunned.
“It’s so . . . bourgeois. People will think a couple of fussy old queens live here.”
He turned to Gavin who, hands prayer-like against his lips, contemplated my work.
Tennessee said, “What do you think, Gavin?”
“Oh dear . . .” He dropped his hands. “No, I’m afraid we can’t possibly have this. I’m so sorry.” He looked back at the pots. “Oh dear me . . .”
After they went back into the house, I removed the pots to the patio and placed them on either side of the kitchen door. There, we would see them more often. I was leaving in the morning and my excitement could not be dampened. And certainly, I did not want to be the one who gave passersby the notion that one, two, or any other number of fussy old queens lived at our address.


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