Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Chapter 21: Au Naturel

Chapter 21
Au Naturel

“Oh!” Tennessee called, startled and looking guilty. “You scared me.”
I had walked into the living room with an armload of sheets, and was heading for the kitchen.
Tennessee stood by the telephone table, examining a piece of mail. In the kitchen beyond him, Leoncia leaned against the washer, cup of Tide in hand. She always washed the bed linens before we traveled, and we were flying to New York the next morning.
            “The strangest thing,” he said, holding up the piece of mail. “Look at this . . .” He studied it again. “Frightening,” he said as he held it out for me to see—a Polaroid photograph.
A woman in her late thirties and naked from the waist up, stood in front of a towering hedge. Tennessee’s thumb covered her face, and he would not let go. “They’re cock-eyed,” he said.
“Well . . . look.”
All I saw were two shapely breasts that I figured any woman would be proud of. Otherwise, the picture seemed unremarkable.
“Who is it?” I asked.
“Why would she send me this?” he said with mock horror, and then slipped the picture on top of the other mail in his hand.
In the next room, Leoncia had put down the Tide and was standing with her hands on her hips.
I reached out and tried to grab the photo, but Tennessee swung his hand back beyond my reach. This was going nowhere. I felt the pull from the kitchen.
“She mixed up her Toms,” I said as I turned to go. “Thinks you’re Tom Jones.”
He chuckled and went into his room. I tossed my sheets into the washer, and returned to my room to pack.
Late that afternoon, Kate picked us up for sunset cocktails. Although she insisted on all the courtesies traditionally accorded a woman, Kate could not abide Tennessee’s cars or my car. She drove us in her Cadillac.
“It’s new, ya’ll,” she said. “I want to show it off!” Head back, she closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, and then after a glance in the mirror, spoke as she pulled away, “So Tom, what are you working on these days?”
Masks,” he said, and then sighed. “I grew tired of cats . . . jeweled claws—you know?”
In Masks Outrageous and Austere was one of several plays Tennessee was working on. Now the Cats with Jeweled Claws was another. He changed focus from play to play, as his interest shifted. Masks was about Babe Foxworth, the wealthiest woman on earth, who had been kidnapped and was being held in an artificial, movie-set world. She had a powerful sex drive. I did not know much more than that.
Babe!” she said. “I thought we were going to call it Babe!” Whenever they were together, Kate lobbied Tennessee about this play.
“Well, you know who Babe is . . .” She drawled her vowels out longer than her car. She looked at him, and then back at the road. She was certain Babe Foxworth was based on herself, and had made it clear that she would be perfect to play the role onstage.
“Is my husband still a homosexual?” she asked.
Tennessee chuckled and turned to look out his window.
Kate had no acting experience that I knew of, but she had had some kind of experience in the New York limelight. Tennessee told me Andy Warhol had once interviewed her for his tabloid, Interview. In it, when he asked Kate about a rumor he had read regarding her love life, she responded, “Now Andy . . . you know if it’s published it has to be true!”
“Well,” she said, pulling into the parking lot. “I at least have to be in the dedication.” There was a tacit agreement that lobbying, at least lobbying before cocktails, was to be kept brief. No one was fooled into believing the matter was settled.  
Kate was as radiant as she was artful. She transcended age. She made me wonder at the mysteries of heterosexual lovemaking. Tennessee stood taller when he was with her. After we climbed the stairs to the sunset deck at the Pier House, Kate took his arm. Two steps and she was in possession of the deck. She ordered our drinks. Tennessee paid. 

January was the lull in the tourist season between the New Year and the crescendo of activity that would begin in February. In any season, the Pier House attracted a moneyed crowd, but only fifteen or so had shown up on the deck for sunset that day.
Beneath a line of flat-bottom clouds, the sun lingered boldly on the water. The gap between the water and the clouds glowed crimson, and as the glow spilled forth, it danced across wave tops, forming a path from the Pier House to the sun. High clouds billowed white against cerulean sky.
I left Kate and Tennessee standing at the rail and meandered past the small clusters of people. Kate and Tennessee leaned out over the darkening water as they talked. Although Kate always had an agenda, she was deeply loyal to Tennessee. She was certainly a step up from the rest of the Key West crowd, and her liveliness lifted his spirits.
I found a spot against the rail, and remembered previous Key West sunsets I had watched, first as a tourist, and later while conventionally employed. In those days, I had gone to the square at Mallory Dock, just across Duval Street from where we stood. The Pier House had used strategic plantings to screen the public gathering place from view. On the dock, a more casual crowd gathered: tourists, leftover hippies, and disco denizens, barely into their day. The leathery Iguana Man, as exotic as his leashed creatures, showed up daily. Coins jingled into instrument cases as street musicians played. Tattered hippies peddled candles and incense, and a girl in a granny dress sold organic tacos and juice.
I heard the cheer go up from the dock—a Key West tradition to applaud as the sun’s last glint surrendered to the waves. A few Pier House patrons toasted the sun’s disappearance. Above us, the clouds had gone all peach and Maxfield Parrish, their tops fully enflamed by the disappeared orb.
“I’ll talk to him,” Kate said to Tennessee as they approached me. “He has clients waiting for months, but he might fit you in.”
I wondered what Kate was up to.
“Finished?” she said to me.
I gulped the rest of my drink and followed them down the stairs. 

Late that night, as I was about to go upstairs, Tennessee called me into his room. Clothes, some on hangers, but most simply tossed, covered his bed. It was no wonder that even at his best he looked rumpled. When Helen had lived in the house, she sent most of his clothes to the cleaner, but now that she was gone, his wardrobe had begun to naturalize. Leoncia washed and pressed everything, but she worked on only the worst stains, the ones she could see. The rest, she set with her iron. Tennessee changed shirts often, dropping the discards on the closet floor, later pawing through the pile to find a favorite.
He stood by the closet door.
“Could you reach my bag?”
I stood in the doorway and peered left into the depths of the closet. The bag hung on a hook beyond the pile of clothing. I leaned in, grabbed the clothes rail to keep from toppling onto the heap, and grabbed the bag.
I cleared a space among the clothes he had dropped on the bed, and opened the bag. That done, I turned to leave, but Tennessee stood in the closet doorway again, bent over and rummaging through the clothes on the floor. He was blocking the door to the dining area, but there was an alternate route. His bathroom connected to the front bedroom and from there I could exit to the front hall and up the stairs.
I walked through to the front room. It was dark except for the light spilling past me through the doorway. Skye had come home early, and lay sprawled across the bed naked, face up, his hands behind his head.
“Oh! Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t realize . . .”
I quickened my pace toward the door to the front hall.
“Hey, wait a minute,” he said, raising himself up on his elbows. “Come here.”
I paused, more alert—I was not sure what was going on between him and Tennessee. Seeing Skye sprawled in all his glory confused my feet.
“Sit down,” he said. “We haven’t gotten to know each other yet.”
Somewhere beyond the primitive pull, a claxon sounded in my head. Even as my eyes wandered, a vague, lingering bit of sense—perhaps the knowledge that Tennessee was so close—trumped the temptation.
“Another time,” I said. I made excuses and left.
Later, lying in bed, I considered Skye’s invitation. We got along, but there had never been any real attraction between us. I knew Skye’s loyalties—and his function as Gary’s pawn. There would not be another time. I pulled the covers tight around me, glad that Tennessee and I would be leaving for New York in the morning.


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