Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Chapter 19: A New Order

Chapter 19
A New Order

Tennessee’s house had become a hostel. Gavin left, but Edmund remained. Then, Vassilis arrived from New York. On break from his volunteer work at the hospital, he arrived ready to catch up with Tennessee and to relax in the sun. I met him at the airport.
“Scotty, I hope this isn’t a bad time—it’s the only time I could get away.”
The warmth of Vassilis’s voice put me at ease. He was sensitive to Tennessee’s moods, and would always be welcome. He could adapt to any situation, and, in his easy way, quiet the waters. Tennessee appreciated Gavin’s help and enjoyed Edmund’s company, but in their different ways, they exhausted him—especially Edmund.
 “Tennessee’s glad you’re here,” I said. “He’s busy right now—in the studio, writing.” Edmund would remain for a few more days, but he was spending more and more time out on his own. Four in the house would push Tennessee’s limits, and I did not believe Edmund would risk his anger by bringing anyone home to share his bed—depriving me of mine. Still, Edmund was skilled as a lobbyist. 

The four of us ate dinner at Antonia’s restaurant that evening. The next morning, we sat around the table on the patio drinking coffee. Tennessee seemed rested, but preoccupied. He handed us stained, typewritten sheets, and we read aloud what he had worked on the night before, a scene from Now the Cats with Jeweled Claws.
He paced and then interrupted, sharply.
“They’re just waiting,” he said. “They’re waiting for me to die. When I’m dead, they can make more money off me.”
“Tennessee . . . Tennessee, what are you talking about?” Vassilis asked. “That’s crazy.”
Tennessee grasped the top of a vacant chair and leaned forward, his face reddening. “They don’t give a damn about my work—or me. They expected me to die . . . years ago.” He pushed off the chair. “I defy them!”
Vassilis sighed, and then raised his head to face Tennessee. “Why would they want you dead?”
“To sanitize me,” he said. “When I die they‘ll sanitize my plays. They’ll sanitize my life—blow up airbrushed photos of me. Paste them everywhere. No more worrying about Tennessee stumbling onto the scene—Tennessee the has-been, drunken embarrassment!”
We sat silent. Tennessee sloshed coffee as he grabbed his mug. He baptized his beard.
“The world has changed—no lyricism. It’s all money. They want tidy packages—life according to Neil Simon.” He spilled more coffee as he snatched his pages from each of us, and then marched into his studio and slammed the door.           

 Vassilis and I decided to go to the beach. We had both seen these outbursts before. There was no point in arguing with Tennessee. He would calm down on his own soon enough. His outbursts were often preposterous, but usually they contained elements of truth, and I always felt a heaviness afterward—the recognition of his mental, physical, and spiritual burden. His art had always come from struggling with demons. Today, the demons seemed to be winning.
            Vassilis and I were too conscious of our bodies’ flaws to strut onto Dick Dock to sun, so I spread a blanket on the sand a few feet away—no reason, however, not to watch the show as we tanned. A cool breeze kept us out of the water, but it was warm in the sun. Vassilis turned to me.
            “Scotty, you have to talk to him more.”
            This seemed to be everyone’s mantra. I sighed as I turned to face him.
            “I know—what’s new?”
            “You’ve become a celebrity,” he said. “He’s jealous—don’t you see?”
            What was he talking about? Confused, but not completely, I considered what Vassilis was saying. I was shy. Any celebrity I possessed was unearned and due to my height. I could do nothing about that. In learning to live with it, I had tried to have some fun with it. I could not imagine how Tennessee could be jealous over such a superficial thing.
            “He says even the press prefers you.”
After Tennessee and I returned after the Kennedy Center Honors, two of my friends claimed they had seen a picture of me with Lillian Gish on the front page of W. The weekly tabloid was an important source of news for a few of my friends, but I never read it. Dying to see it, but not wanting to appear common and self-impressed, I had not asked them to show me the evidence. I was above that sort of thing.
            “Doesn’t he know what he’s accomplished?” I said.
            “Scotty, he wants attention. He’s scared. He’s lonely. He was the lion of the theater, and now he can’t get his work produced. How would you feel if your long-ago past were held high—canonized—and your present ignored or ridiculed?”
            Vassilis was right. Even I hung too much importance on the man’s earlier work. My awe of his past—the work and the life—left me unable to relate well here and now. I hoped this realization would help me dismantle the pedestal I had placed him on.
            “OK. I see what you’re saying.” However, even with improved understanding, I was not sure I could change—and there was the matter of Tennessee’s perception, too. 

Vassilis returned to New York two days later, the same day Edmund was called back to DC. With the house suddenly quiet, we slipped into 1982 with little fanfare. Helen showed up New Year’s Eve like a party-on-wheels, but applied the brakes when she saw Tennessee and me flagging. We were not depressed; we were tired, and relieved that all the guests had gone. Eager for Tennessee’s invitation to move back, but afraid to ask, Helen behaved like a polite child awaiting Christmas.
On New Year’s Day, she drove back over for lunch, but returned to Rose’s afterward when Tennessee retired for a nap. I knew she had packed her bags that morning in expectation of the move, and I was sure she would sit by her phone all afternoon waiting for the call. But Tennessee did not call her.
That evening, she dropped by the house once again, and while the three of us sat talking in the living room, Schuyler Wyatt walked in the front door carrying a duffle. He greeted us cheerily from the entryway, and then disappeared into the front bedroom and began to unpack.
Tennessee turned to Helen. “I’m going to paint him,” he said. “He has lovely skin . . . you know?”
Helen nodded. Disappointment and humiliation clasped at her throat.
“I . . . I need to get back to Rose’s,” she said. She fumbled for keys, and then clutching them tightly, stood up and squeezed out a good-night, before hitting the door.
After a sigh and a moment, Tennessee stood slowly and walked toward Skye’s bedroom. 

Several of Tennessee’s paintings, expressionistic renderings of friends or of people who had caught his eye, hung in the house, and I had seen more in the homes of his friends.
“Henry Faulkner taught me to paint—years ago,” Tennessee said. ”Henry loved Key West—no sailor was safe when he came to town!” He laughed. “He died a few months ago. Left me his ramshackle farm in Tennessee—Falling Timbers. Won’t claim my prize any time soon!”
He pointed to Faulkner’s painting of a Paris street scene that hung above the television. It was dark and stylized and reminded me of curlicued line art on the 1960s bridge tallies my mother still used. I hated it.
“Loved the sailors—he was outrageous!” Tennessee laughed.
“He showed me how to make color vibrate—paint the canvas black before you begin.” Tennessee’s paintings belied their black beginnings. They emanated an interior light.
The next morning he set up his easel on the patio. In its much-stained presence, I noticed for the first time the dull, weathered drips of paint on the patio chairs—tubular, wire-grid chairs that had come from K-Mart years before. I also noticed the faded spots of paint he had dripped on the patio over the years—a study in accidental pointillism. 
            Skye stepped through the dining room door. He stood before us wearing only a torn pair of cut-offs, his tanned body glowing like a promise made in May.
“Well . . . I guess I’m ready,” he said.
He turned and smiled at me broadly.
“Oh Scott,” Tennessee said, “I won’t be needing you this afternoon.”
I nodded, found my bike, and headed to my apartment to check mail and to catch up on the life I used to know.


No comments:

Post a Comment