Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Chapter 20: Two Movies and a Haircut

Chapter 20
Two Movies and a Haircut

“Look—she’s lost,” Tennessee said, and then barked a laugh as Blanche DuBois emerged from a cloud of steam in the New Orleans train station. “She’d drag that sailor home—if she had one!” He howled and turned to look at Skye and me, seated behind him. Skye laughed. I smiled—tentatively. Gary, sitting in front with Tennessee, hee-hawed and slapped his knee.
“But Tom . . .” Gary said, “do you think he’s young enough for her?”
“Oooo!” Tennessee howled again. “He’s young enough, baby—but is she?”
We were watching the film of Streetcar in Tennessee’s living room.
After all the out-of-town company had left, the beginning days of January had been quiet—too quiet. Skye remained in residence in the bedroom adjacent to Tennessee’s—handy for portrait painting and other activities, but his job and his social life kept him away most of the time. The easel and paints had been set up on the patio for days, and had migrated around it like in time-lapse photography. The terry rag had grown more colorful, but I never saw the painting—the canvas or the activity.
Although we saw Helen occasionally, she remained quartered at Rose’s house, and unusually subdued. Gary, smelling opportunity, stopped by more frequently. Then, one day, he said he had gotten a copy of the film of A Streetcar Named Desire, and offered to show it at the house.
            The only way to see an old film, other than in a revival house or late night on UHF-TV, was to send off for the cans of film and have the equipment and space to show it. The Key West Library was not in the habit of lending their 16mm film projector, but Gary had little difficulty convincing them to do that for Tennessee. He had not seen Streetcar in several years—none of us had—and the next evening, Gary arrived with the cans, screen, and projector.
            He splayed the tripod legs in front of the television console and unfurled the screen. Tennessee sank into the chair where, nightly, he watched CBS Evening News. Gary started the projector, and then plopped onto the chair he had dragged up next to Tennessee.
            Tennessee hooted when Blanche was shocked by Stella’s apartment. “You’ve seen worse, Baby! Ha ha ha! A lot worse!” Another peal of laughter. Throughout the film, he alternated between taunting her on the screen and turning to make cracks to us about her. “Lock that liquor away!” he hollered at Stanley.
Gary chimed in. “Enough liquor, Tom—and she’d rape Stanley. Hell, the whole neighborhood!”
Skye laughed loudly. I squirmed in my seat. I had never liked camp behavior. To me, it was self-mocking and represented something unresolved within. In this case, the object was Blanche DuBois—not Blanche the character, but Blanche the homosexual stereotype.
Tennessee had pulled Blanche out of himself. He had wrestled all his characters, aspects of himself, onto paper, into his work. His plays broke not only artistic ground, but barriers and taboos as well. His work challenged the puritanical Hayes Code, which had been imposed on the film industry in the 1930s, and helped to hastened its demise. He had been the first “out” celebrity.
Although Tennessee had opened theater and film to subjects like homosexuality, he viewed it as a flaw in himself—one that should be tolerated by society—but a flaw nonetheless. He may have stormed the barricades, but he would not cross into the Promised Land. He supported gay rights, but remained anchored to his puritan roots. I had seen him cringe when a man put his arm around another man in public, and once he chided two men when they bussed each other in mixed company. He seemed to fear that if the outward expression of homosexuality were not constrained—confined to homes and gay establishments—it would explode into outrageous, public, self-indulgent behavior. In fact, this was his view of what had happened to the gay scene in Key West. I had heard him lament it to others several times.
“Oh, she better go with that doctor.” Tennessee continued, “Shep Huntley won’t be calling!”
In Tennessee’s living room, the poetry of his play was lost. I wished I could have seen Jessica Tandy play Blanche—and mental illness portrayed without melodrama.
After the film ended, I left the three of them and went to the Monster. I was restless, my stomach heavy. I had made Hoppin’ John for dinner. Gary, who had stopped by early that afternoon, suggested it. “Hoppin’ John!” he said, referring to a scene from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. “Big Daddy loves Hoppin’ John!”
 I was game. I agreed to make the dish for Big Daddy and the entourage before the showing of Streetcar. But no one knew how to make the dish—not even Tennessee, although he knew black-eyed peas went into it. I found the recipe on the back of a can of the peas, and then scoured the town for the obligatory smoked pork chops. Finding none, I used bacon and regular pork chops, but forgot to drain off the fat before adding everything else.
We consumed every bit of it and a few hours later, at The Monster, my stomach began to churn. I returned to the house and looked for something to settle it. On the center of the kitchen island, a lone cereal bowl sat overflowing with ratty, buff-colored animal hair. Printed in block letters on a scrap of paper stuck into the back of it, was a single word, “MENDACITY!”—the quality that Brick, in Cat, demanded Big Daddy face in his dependents.
In a flash, I realized this was the coat of Topaz—the cat whose care and grooming had been entrusted to me. My heart stopped. My face burned. The hair was so badly matted only shearing had been possible, and I realized only Gary would have scalped the cat and left a shrine to my neglect. Had Tennessee seen it?
I considered burying it in the trash, but feared that, like Richard Nixon, I would be caught in the cover-up. I had no choice. I would face my medicine in the morning. I left the bowl and its contents where I found them. Before climbing the stairs to my room, I searched for Topaz, but she was lost to the night.
In the morning, I slipped out and picked up Leoncia, and then after we entered the house, followed her into the kitchen. There was no sign of the bowl or its contents. The coffee pot was half-full, the house still.
I poured two mugs of coffee and we sat at the island.
“How that Hoppin’ John go?” She chuckled.
“Greasy,” I said. “But they ate all of it.”
“They ate the grease? Lord!” Leoncia bent over laughing. Then she looked up and out through the glass door.
“There’s that Topaz,” she said. I looked through the glass door. Topaz was walking across the patio, sporting a tufted crew cut. “She look different,” she said. “She cleaner.”
I took a deep breath.
Leoncia peered through the door, squinting through her Coke-bottle glasses. “Where her coat go?”
Gary took it,” I said. “Cut it off in the middle of the night. Left it in a bowl.”
“Right there . . .” I pointed to where it had been on the counter.
“Well, it gone now,” she said. She chuckled and slowly shook her head.
She leaned forward and looked me in the eye. “You making Hoppin’ John again?” She soothed her graying hair. “If you do, Leoncie sleeping with the helmet on.” She threw her head back and rolled a giant laugh. 

When Tennessee later emerged from his studio, he did not mention Topaz or the haircut. I began to relax.
We had been invited to a small dinner party that night at Brooks and Adriana Jackson’s home. Gary had procured another film. He would only say that it was the most important independent film of the 1970s, and he wanted to show it to as many of Tennessee’s friends as possible. Adriana agreed to host the showing and to prepare a light supper for everyone beforehand.

In their mid-sixties, Brooks and Adriana split their time between a Fifth Avenue apartment in New York and the house in Key West. Brooks owned an art gallery in Manhattan; Adriana was an Italian countess. We had been to their house before, usually for late afternoon cocktails. Sometimes those visits included a dip in their kidney-shaped pool. For Adriana’s sake, the water was kept quite warm; it was never refreshing. Adriana had injured her shoulder, and despite the help of a small army of specialists, it had not healed. Her doctor had been injecting her shoulder with cortisone. Still in constant, although reduced, pain after more than a year, she had become resigned to it. The warmth of the water brought her relief.
Gary went their house early to set up the equipment. Skye had other plans that evening. Tennessee and I drove over about seven.
Hand-painted Italian tiles set into a stucco wall announced that we had arrived at Villa Adriana, a stucco bungalow set in the garden behind the gate. Brooks, elegant in white from his hair to his shoes, answered the door, and we entered the white cube of an entrance hall. The backside of a six-foot bronze rhinoceros faced us. Standing in the center of the floor, it was the only object in the room. On the walls, crayon line drawings suggested cave paintings—life-size rumps of horses. They had been drawn by one of Brooks’ artists.
With a clank, Brooks folded back the hinged plates that formed the rhinoceros’s back, and revealed a bar. He mixed drinks. With one in hand, I followed the terrazzo floor down a step into the blanched living room.
Hiram Keller, a yellow sweater draped across the shoulders of his Izod shirt, lay sprawled on the white sofa, listening to his wife, Tina. Thin, vivacious, and in her late twenties, Tina was ten years younger than her husband, and pregnant. Hiram surveyed me with his eyes, got up unsteadily, and grinning, shook my hand. Originally from a small town in Georgia, he had acted in foreign films, including a lead role in Fellini Satyricon. But now, his film career appeared to be over. I had met him before. Vassilis had filled me in.
“He got such a reputation—seducing directors. Young and beautiful—who could resist? But he talked too much. Rattled too many closets. Eventually no one dared hire him.”
Hiram and Tina had recently moved to Key West hoping for a new start, but from what I had seen, he was in a stall—drinking and ogling men. I wondered what my chances might be.
 Tennessee and Brooks joined us, and then I went to find Adriana in the kitchen. She stood at the stove heating olive oil in two stainless skillets. Her colorful shift highlighted the fatigue in her face. Water for pasta boiled in a commercial pot. She rubbed her shoulder.
“Darling, I hope we’ll have enough.” She stepped back from the stove. “What is this film Gary is showing?”
I shrugged.
“He tells no one,” she said, and threw her hands halfway into the air.
I had tasted Adriana’s pasta before, and wanted to see how she made it. It seemed impossible that a simple dish could be so good—olive oil, garlic, fresh basil, and tomatoes served on linguini. I stayed and watched as the aroma of garlic, then basil, filled the air.
“In Italy, we use only the freshest,” she said. “A few simple things. Pasta—good pasta.” She shrugged. “Tonight I use dry.” The pasta, salad, bread, and Chianti made a feast.
Vassilis had also told me that two years before, his friend Mark, young, fresh, just out of art school—and hoping to exhibit his work in a gallery—made an appointment with Brooks. After Mark arrived, Brooks thumbed through his portfolio, eyed him up and down, and told him he was sexy. Mark grabbed his portfolio, made an about-face, and never looked back.
With their similar marriages, it was only natural that when Hiram and Tina arrived in Key West, Adriana took Tina under her wing. She arranged for Tina to do design work for the horses-ass artist. He had bought a Conch house across town, and because he spent so much time in New York, hired Tina to oversee the renovations as well. 

After dinner, Gary herded everyone into the living room.
“Y’all are going to love this film,” he said. “This director took film to a whole new level—I know Tennessee will appreciate that.”
He bent over the machine to check the threading.
“Well, Gary,” Tennessee said, “That sounds most auspicious.” He chuckled. “Go ahead. Let’s see it.”
Gary nodded to Brooks, who cut the lights. Outside, beyond the glass wall, the pool glowed blue. Tiny bubbles rose and effervesced softly into the cool, dark night. Brooks stood back up, found another switch, and finally we were plunged into total darkness.
Gary rolled the film. On the screen, images—grainy, color still-shots—punctuated the black. First a hand, and then part of a face. But something was wrong. The whine of the film-advance motor pulled us forward as the camera kept snapping, flashing more images onto the screen. Each brief flash was more gruesome than the last. A whole face. A partial torso. Shots lingered longer, soon revealing the decomposed nature of the flesh.
Adriana moaned. “What is this film?”
“Adriana,” Gary replied, “you are going to love it.”
Seconds later, a title flashed on the screen: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. 

We did not love it, but given the effort expended to gather everyone together, the after-dinner-and-drinks inertia, and allowing a wide indulgence for the eccentric tastes of others, we watched it. Tennessee, Brooks, and Adriana, like parents burdened with a reptile-obsessed child, resigned themselves to watching a movie whose very existence offended them. The rest of us were gripped by the horror of the film—and amused by the plight of our elders.
Gary was right about one thing, the film was an achievement. It was the most horrifying thing I had ever seen. We talked about it for days.
But no one spoke a word about my neglect of Topaz, or her mysterious midnight fleecing.


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