Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Chapter 2: Employment

Chapter 2

 A week or so later, at ten o’clock at night, there was a loud knock on my door. It was not unexpected. Earlier, Helen had called twice. She had picked up Tennessee in the Escort and driven him to the Pier House for dinner. They had left Robert Carroll at Tennessee’s house. Robert’s condition was, once again, not suitable for dinner in a public place. Three days before and without warning, he had arrived in Key West by Greyhound bus and presented himself at Tennessee’s door. Described by some as a shell-shocked Vietnam veteran, and by others as a common drug addict, Robert, years before, had been Tennessee’s lover.
On the second day of Robert’s visit, I ran into Helen and Tennessee on Duval Street.
“Robert ransacked the bedroom,” Helen said. “He was tearing up the living room—pulling cushions off furniture and throwing books!”
“I told you . . .” Tennessee said, “He was looking for something he misplaced. He’s excitable. He’s also very sensitive…a great writer.”
Perplexed, I stared at Tennessee.
“I pay the rent on his cabin,” he said. “Keep him out in the boondocks—South Carolina. No distractions there.”
 Helen called me later to tell a different story. “The address is Charleston—no backwoods retreat!” She dropped her voice. “I found out a few things. . . . The checks he gets monthly are cashed right away. No evidence of writing—not one bit.”
I did not hear from them again until the phone calls the next night. It was the third day in the crescendo of mayhem that had begun with Robert’s arrival. Helen’s first call from the Pier House came at nine o’clock.
“I don’t know what to do,” she said. “Robert’s been calling here. He’s wild! Talks about a plot. Accused me of stealing Tennessee’s car!
Tennessee won’t take the calls,” she said. “He’s upset—can’t eat his dinner. I’ll just . . . refuse the calls.”
I did not know what to say—not that I had a chance.
“We’ll stay here for now. Have a glass of wine—see if things calm down. We can’t go back to the house—not with Robert. . . . Will you be home?”
“Sure—I’ll be here.”
I had not met Robert, and I did not want to. I had stopped by the house twice since I first met Tennessee, but since Robert’s arrival, no one visited Duncan Street. Helen, desperate to hold onto the beachhead she had established, insisted her usefulness was needed there. But Tennessee had sent her off in the little Ford wagon to stay at Rose’s house, the nearby house he had bought hoping to bring his sister to Key West. Since Robert’s arrival, Tennessee called Helen to pick him up for dinner each night, as by that hour, drink and drugs had made Robert unbearable.
Forty-five minutes later, the phone rang again.
“God! The cops were just here. Robert keeps calling them—insisted I stole Tennessee’s car and kidnapped him! He demanded they track us down.” She was out of breath. “The cops didn’t believe him—but after five calls they had to do something. He’s gone right off the cliff!”
She stopped and took a long breath.
“Sweetie, we might stop over—just to . . . to escape. To think—make some calls. We can’t stay here all night—phone calls. Cops. I’ll talk to Tennessee. We’ll decide—let you know.”
I assured her I would be waiting.
It was not much later that I heard the knock on the door.
Helen, panting, barely said hello, then charged through the doorway, across the living room, and into the dining room. At five-foot-three, she was a two-hundred-pound bundle of urgency. My apartment was on the ground floor of a renovated Conch house with pine flooring. If the weight of each animal species living in the Keys could be totaled, none would top the termites. Islanders battled the insects valiantly, but the termites won many skirmishes—and no one was betting on the war. I had seen bed legs crash through floors at the most inopportune moments, and once witnessed an RCA console TV suddenly topple forward—the front legs eaten away from within. Helen’s stride across the pine in her stiletto heels put me on edge. She came to rest, leaning against one of the dining chairs, gulping air.
Tennessee moved slowly, his weight shifting side to side with each step. He followed Helen into the dining room and plopped into the director’s chair in the corner.
“He has a gun,” Helen said. “Robert has a gun. He pulled it on Roy—the housekeeper—this afternoon. Right after lunch.”
I remembered Roy was the one who had made lunch the day I first visited Tennessee’s house. He was another of Tennessee’s lovers from years gone by who wandered back into Tennessee’s life when the playwright needed help. About sixty years old, he wore thick glasses with translucent butterscotch frames, and had the pallor and personality of a cavefish. He lived in the attic bedroom.
Roy ran off,” she said. “We don’t know where.”
Tennessee sat with his head in his hands.
Robert was alone in the house—armed. In addition to the prescription drugs he had brought—or stolen from Tennessee—he had scored street drugs since arriving in town. I imagined he would continue with drink and drugs until they ran out—or until he lost consciousness.
“He’s too out of it to use a gun,” I said, “if he remembers where he put the thing.”
Helen shot me a look of disbelief.
“But,” I said, knowing he smoked, “he could burn the house down—not thinking.”
Tennessee jumped to his feet.
The thought cleared our heads. We quickly made a plan. Helen would lead, driving Tennessee in the Escort, and I would follow in my car. We would split up before we got to the house and park separately at a distance. Then, after regrouping in front of the house next to Tennessee’s, we would decide how to proceed.

I followed them up Catherine Street to White. However, when we turned onto Duncan, I saw the circling blue lights of police cars two blocks ahead. We drove up and parked behind them, got out, and approached.
“Lotte Lenya loved me!” a voice called from the midst of the cops. I saw what must be Robert, handcuffed, standing between two of them. Three more cops huddled a pace away. In the yard across the street, a few neighbors had gathered under a street lamp.
“Lotte Lenya loved me!” Robert struggled, but the cops restrained him. He seemed oblivious.
 “Officer,” Tennessee called as he strode toward them, “has there been a problem?”
“Lotte Lenya. Lotte Lenya loved me!”
A few minutes later, Tennessee walked back to Helen and me.
“We worked out a deal.”
 The police would hold Robert in jail overnight to dry him out, and then return him to Tennessee—on condition that Robert was put on a bus out of town before noon.
Tennessee turned to me.
“Take Helen home in your car, would you? Leave the Escort here. I’ll call Gary—have him drive us to the bus station tomorrow.” Tennessee had not driven in years.
“Pick Helen up tomorrow,” he said, “and both of you come for lunch—about one.” He laughed. “Maybe I can find some food.”
Before going into the house, he handed me some money. “Frascati—couple bottles. We’ll need that regardless.” 

In the fall, Key West skies shed their clouds and open to an infinity of blue. Cool, invigorating air graces the island; gentle breezes stir the trees. And with the tourists gone, the streets are quiet except for the occasional rattle of a passing car or the squawk of a bird. The next day was just like that.
I parked in front of Rose’s house, a New England cottage surrounded by palms—so improbable in Key West, it might have simply dropped from of the sky. Tennessee had bought the house for Rose years before. Growing up, his sister had been excitable, and then in her late teens, her grip on reality loosened. Worse, their mother, Edwina, accused Rose of being sexually precocious. Edwina had Rose committed to a mental hospital, and later, after Rose showed no improvement, a pre-frontal lobotomy was performed on her.
Tennessee still grieved that he had not been home to prevent the operation. When he made his first money, he moved Rose from the state hospital to a private one in upstate New York. He had hoped to bring her and a nurse to live in the Key West house, but his one attempt had failed.
Instead, the house became a convenient place to send the overflow when Tennessee had too many guests—or guests he preferred to keep at a distance. Helen's four-day stay there had been an unbearable exile. Now that Robert was leaving, her cheer bobbed to the surface like a cork released from deep water.
In front of the house, Christmas palms, stationed like soldiers, stood guard behind the picket fence. Their dry, rustling fronds saluted me as I opened the gate.
 “Good morning!” Helen called, and then banged out of the house. She wobbled a moment, nearly dropping her packages, and then turned and locked the door. Waiving two bags in the air, she charged down the stone walk. I gritted my teeth as she clacked across the cracks, but she reached my car losing only her breath.
 “I walked to the grocery.” She grabbed her bosom and inhaled. “Nobody carries it!” She tilted one of the bags toward me, revealing two bottles. “Frascati—they only stock it for Tenn.
“And look!” she said, pulling two boxes from the other bag. “Just in case. Fettuccine with chicken and . . .” She turned the boxes, trying to read a label. “Um . . . something. Boil-in-Bag, huh?” she said with a boast. “I called this morning. Said he has food. He’s expecting us—and Robert is on the bus. We’re all set.”
I offered the money Tennessee had given me, but she waived it off.
“Keep it for your trouble—gas. It’s the least . . .”
I drove the few blocks as Helen launched into a monologue, recapping the horrors of Robert’s visit. I caught only the highlights, knowing I would have no chance to speak. Her relief was palpable. Robert could have been the wedge that separated her from Tennessee. I saw her obsession to be close to Tennessee, to mother him. I wondered how many others competed for his attention.
 “We’re in now,” she said, as I parked in front of the house. “We’re the ones he wants to see.”
“Helen! Scott! Welcome to Maison Cornelius!” Cornelius was Tennessee’s bulldog. Tennessee led us out to the patio. The dog was nowhere in sight.
“Frascati!” Tennessee said when Helen held out the wine, “The wine of Rome. Anna Magnani introduced us. A perfect day—a café, a fountain. . . . Pour!” He gestured to me to handle the wine. Neither he nor Helen could pull a cork. That explained all the Taylor carafes and screw-cap wines I had seen at the house.
“I believe,” he said, “I know the incident that sent poor Robert over the edge. It was the meatloaf—the meatloaf Roy served at lunch yesterday. It was terrible—dried out. It was burnt—inedible. As Roy went back to the kitchen, Robert stood up and yelled, ‘This meatloaf isn’t fit to throw at the dog!’” He laughed. “But he did.” Tennessee pointed toward the front fence. “Cornelius was right there, taking a . . . noontime constitutional. Ha! Missed him—no damage. Didn’t harm the meatloaf, either.”
He laughed again, and then took a swallow of wine.
“It was the shot across the bow. The warning before the gun appeared. So this afternoon we honor Cornelius, who, like his namesake, my father, has proven he can survive not only a thrown meatloaf, but many the threat of the gun. Now let’s enjoy lunch.”
In the center of the table was a large plate with slices of cheeses and an array of crackers. A wooden bowl full of torn-up lettuce sat next to it, and some smaller, mismatched bowls.
“I have stretched my abilities and produced a salad,” he said. “I found the bottled dressings—will have to do.”
He pulled out a chair and sat.
“I have, you see, prophylactically cut the cheeses so there will be nothing large enough to throw at a dog.” He laughed. “You witness my first day taking care of myself and my house—with no assistance.”
Tennessee did have a maid, Leoncia McGee. She had worked for him for many years, and continued working for him despite her advanced age. She too had been banished for the duration of Robert’s visit, and since Roy ran off, there was no one left at the house to ferry her back and forth to work. She remained at home.
The discussion during lunch was as light as the fare. The Frascati mellowed us and slowed the passing of time. The warmth of the sun filtered through the surrounding palms and played on the edges of the covered patio and the grounds around us. A bee buzzed by, and I could hear a palmetto bug scratching in nearby leaves.
“I’m afraid I must leave you—a nap and then my swim.” Tennessee got up on his feet, but leaned against his chair. “Scott, I was wondering . . .” He paused and then looked at me. “I know this is beneath what you would seek, but you are now unemployed and I need someone to help out—just for a few days. You’ve been a huge help already—and I understand if you refuse.”
He turned toward Cornelius, who was struggling down the steps from the kitchen. “You must wonder what sort of reprobate I am.” He chuckled, and looked back at me. “Do you think you could help me out? Just a few days…a week at the most—until I find someone else. I would pay you well and cover any expenses.”
Helen sat up straight, her mouth agape.
I hesitated.
“OK—sure, I can do that.” I did not want to show my excitement. I had nothing else going on, not really. Spending my savings to buy a has-been beer-and-wine joint made me nervous, and I was unsure about Gary as a partner. I wanted to ask Tennessee how much he would pay, but was afraid that might be insulting. It would be more than nothing—and he did say he would pay well.
“Why don’t you come back at dinner time? The three of us can go out—go over the details.”
Helen leaned forward and gripped the edge of the table. Tennessee turned to her.
“Helen, why don’t you move back into the front bedroom? I feel I need your presence in the house. I trust you will check any guns before entering?”
“Oh, that would be perfect, huh? Sometimes things just work out!”
“Yes, sometimes . . .” he said as he reached down and scratched behind the dog’s ear. “Helen, you have a key. Go ahead; bring your things back over. I’ll see you both this evening.” He started to go but stopped. “Oh!” he said. “The gun. I assure you, it has been disposed of.”
And then he continued toward the house, saying nothing more.


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