Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Chapter 22: In the Pursuit of Youth

Chapter 22
In the Pursuit of Youth

We cut our trip to New York short. A call from Kate, and we returned to Key West two days early, repacked for a new set of events, and then, accompanying her, hopped a plane the next morning for Houston.
            The day before he heard from Kate, Tennessee received a call at the Elysee from Maria St. Just. Having tracked his movements for years, she knew how to find him when he was not at home.
            “I have always appreciated the Asian aesthetic,” he said into the phone. “No. Maria . . .”
He shifted foot-to-foot as he listened, occasionally getting in a few words. “Who wouldn’t. . . . Who wouldn’t retire to the Orient,” he said. “Well . . . yes, ‘peace of the poppy’ . . . yes, I wrote that.” He laughed. “Poetic, don’t you think?”
“Maria,” he said in a lower tone, “something has come up, you know?” He turned and took a step toward the window. “You might be . . . surprised when you see me next.”
            “No, no,” he said, “Nothing like that. You’ll see soon enough. No, I’m not going to tell you.” He chuckled. “Yes . . . and find out if I can take the Concorde to Bangkok, would you? Yes, from London.”
            For the last month, Tennessee had been talking about finishing his days in Thailand, a country whose people he found charming, and young men agreeable. He talked about going in May, right after the opening of A House Not Meant to Stand—if he could wait that long. I had bought a Fodor’s.
Before that, he had talked of settling in Sicily eventually—on a hillside with goats. Frank Merlo, having Sicilian ancestors, had introduced Tennessee to the island and its culture. Tennessee wrote The Rose Tattoo in celebration of his love for Frankie and the passionate people from that rugged land. Only in the last month had Tennessee mentioned Thailand—and the urge to retreat so soon.
            “I have to go, Maria,” he said. “Vassilis is taking us to see a play. Something Mark’s boyfriend . . . yes, Vassilis’s friend Mark . . . Mark Beard. His boyfriend.” He sighed, and then said, “A friend of Vassilis’s is in it . . . Secret Lives of the Sexists. No, no, you wouldn’t. I have to go,” he said. “Yes, goodbye, my dear.”
Charles Ludlam’s The Ridiculous Theatrical Company performed Secret Lives of the Sexists in an intimate, flat-black, everything-exposed, off-Broadway theater. The play was a social farce, a sexual comedy. Full of slapstick and innuendo, plot twists and outrageousness, it kept us howling. Afterward, we went backstage to congratulate Mark’s roommate, Georg Osterman, on his performance and the success of the production. We slipped in and out quickly before Tennessee’s presence stirred up too big of a fuss.
“You know,” Tennessee said in the cab back to the Elysee, “I never knew Ludlam was so funny. I’d heard of him of course, but when Gary told me he’d directed one of Ludlam’s plays—and its name—what was I to think?” He tucked in his chin and deepened his voice. “Turds in Hell,” he said, and then convulsed with laughter. 

Departing Miami with Kate a few days later, we flew straight into a massive thunderstorm. Our plane shuddered and strained as it struggled west across the Everglades. Flying beneath the roiling clouds, we could almost touch the watery lands. The engines strained, and the pilot constantly adjusted the flaps as we bucked our way toward Houston.
Earlier, when we had found our allotted seats, Tennessee assigned them. “Scott, I’ll need you next to me,” he said. I stepped past him and took the window seat. Kate smiled as she seated herself in the remaining seat—behind him.
“She charged her ticket to me,” he said to me. “First class.”
Our seats were honeyed leather—as were all the seats in the plane. This had to be one of the 727s Continental had bought from Braniff. I had always wanted to fly Braniff, the airline that dared to transform air travel into a flight of the imagination. Braniff’s designers had adapted Aztec and Hopi motifs, painted their planes in bold colors, and jazzed every detail of the airline’s gear and culture. However, when they ran into financial trouble, they sold several of the jets to Continental. There, like wanton women consigned to the convent, the fanciful birds had been stripped of their proud idiosyncrasies and wrapped in the staid cloak of Continental’s livery. Only the Brazilian leather remained.
Tennessee’s annoyance with Kate and the unsettling flying conditions could not dampen his mood. Kate had been able to schedule him quickly with her plastic surgeon, and we were traveling to Houston for the eyelift. Buffed and polished by his stylist the night before, he sported a new cream-colored jacket, its nubby silk still unstained.
As the plane tossed in the storm, he rolled with it, feigning tipsy and joking with the stewardesses. Finally, we broke free. As the clouds retreated behind us, I saw we had climbed quite high. We sailed into the top of a cloud-surrounded bowl, the sun playing on the surface of the Gulf miles below. By the time we arrived in Houston, the sky had cleared completely and it was eighty degrees. We took a cab to Kate’s house. Michael, Kate’s boyfriend whom Tennessee and I met the day we joined her at her pool, would drive the Cadillac from Key West, but would not arrive for a few more days.
Kate lived in the River Oaks section of Houston, a stately district of traditional homes built in the 1920s. In contrast to its neighbors, Kate’s house was a new, contemporary fortress that nearly covered the narrow lot and presented little more to the street than a wide garage and the front entrance, recessed behind an iron gate.
I retrieved our bags from the sidewalk and carried them down the hall to the foot of the staircase. A breakfast room, kitchen, dining room, and study lined the left side of the house. At the end of the hall, a formal living room under a cathedral ceiling spread out to the right, and a landscaped courtyard filled the space between it and the garage. In the hallway, I could feel the draft of air conditioning as I stood before the glass wall, staring at the wilted winter scene.
I was assigned the study and a roll-a-way. I carried Tennessee’s garment bag upstairs to one of Kate’s children’s rooms—they were all away at school now, or out on their own. Finally, I carried Kate’s bags up the stairs and then down the three steps to her bedroom. Her ceiling soared, following the pitch of the roof, and although the room topped the garage, it seemed even larger. From against the distant wall, an imposing throne-bed spread toward us from beneath its satin headboard.
“My closets are down the hall,” she said, leading us in that direction. “Y’all have to see my sunken Jacuzzi.”
We explored the maze of private rooms dedicated to dressing, cleansing, and storage. Kate’s suite was as large as Tennessee’s entire house.
Before dinner, she took us to the third floor for cocktails. Above the center of the house, a simple rectangular room popped up and a small deck extended beyond the glass doors at its end. Its furnishings were Spartan, small enough to fit up the narrow staircase. Kate made drinks at the bar. When she opened the door to the deck, a biting wind blew in, lifting papers off the table and scattering them around the room. The temperature had plunged. Dark clouds muscled in across the sky. We retreated to the living room until the maid called us to dinner.           

In the morning, we awoke to a white world. Snow clung to everything but pavement.
            “It was so warm yesterday,” Kate said. “Welcome to Texas!” We stood in the hallway, near the foot of the stairs, staring into the courtyard through the wall of glass. “Y’all, I can’t remember when I last saw snow in Houston—especially when it stuck to anything. Just look at this!”
            The white blanket on the courtyard had already begun to fray. Grays, browns, and greens peeked out from beneath it. Near the house, drunken bird tracks meandered across the snow. The walk was merely wet. Watching, we could hear the drip, drip, drip from the downspout as snow melted on the roof.
            “If this is an omen,” she said, “I hope it’s a good one.”
After breakfast, we drank coffee by the blaze in the living room fireplace. Tennessee pulled some papers from his jacket and read the first draft of a short story he had begun during the night, “The Donsinger Women and Their Handyman Jack.”
            The Donsinger women spent their days rocking on the long front porch of their hillbilly house and had an improbably tall handyman, Jack, to whom they barked orders as they rocked. Deep in the house and locked in a closet, they kept a “vestigial creature”—a creature not unlike a bulldog in size and temperament. He was their most prized possession. They gained their power by possessing him, but they treated him badly. Jack took pity on the creature, and risking the women’s wrath, slipped him scraps of food and treated him with kindness. He planned to rescue the creature when the time was right.
“Tom, this is fabulous!” Kate said. “I love it!” She turned to me. “Do you realize what an honor this is—Tennessee writing a story about you?”
            With a start, I realized that she had admitted me to her camp—the camp of elevated people who had become characters in Tennessee’s work. And although the handyman Jack seemed clearly based on me, she had no assurance that Babe Foxworth was, in fact, based on her—not that I mentioned as much. Tennessee had always been vague about it, and once said to me, “She thinks she inspired Maggie the Cat. I didn’t even know her then.”
            “Well,” Kate drawled like a feline stretching, “You better not read this to Helen. She might fall right off her rocker.”
            “Now . . .” Tennessee said, “leave Helen out of this. She has a very sweet nature. Sings like a bird.”
            Kate shot him a look, but quickly softened it. She could never imagine that she might be rocking on that porch too. She regained her poise. She was above competing with Helen, a woman she might compare to Shirley Booth’s Hazel on speed.
That afternoon, we accompanied Tennessee to his first appointment with the surgeon, and then when we returned, Kate sequestered herself in her room with her phone. There was a community theater production of Streetcar that evening, and she had persuaded Tennessee that we should go.
            “I have got to run to the hair-house,” she said after she emerged. “They can take me in five minutes.”
            It was the maid’s day off, and Kate had had no time to cook. She pressed a twenty into my hand.
            “Wait here half an hour.” she said, “Then go to Wendy’s—you can walk. Make the first left, then it’s two blocks. Pick up some burgers.” She grabbed below her throat as if to stifle a hiccup. She then pointed at herself as she regained her voice. “Single cheese. Get whatever you want for y’all.” Then, almost out the door, she hollered back, “No onions!”
            “My God!” Tennessee said, after she had left. “It’s her dime!”
            “Have a double,” I said.
            “All the way!”
            I ordered a triple for myself. 

Tennessee restrained himself as the play began. With Kate next to him, he did not dare make any loud outbursts, but he soon began turning to me in laughter, or to mock Blanche. The patrons behind us humored him at first, but soon began shushing him with only minor effect. Kate placed her hand on his knee and quieted him—until he began again.
            Afterward, at the impromptu wine reception, prompted by Kate’s earlier calls, I watched as Kate, head high, glided among the trustees, theater management, and the press, air-kissing all the right people. Tennessee talked mostly with the cast and director, except when Kate pulled him away to meet someone of actual importance. I wondered who would be featured more prominently in the papers, Tennessee or Kate, who had been so diligent in spreading the word of her coup for Houston theater. It was a perfect Kate moment—and I loved her for it. I could not remember when I had seen Tennessee so at ease in a group of people—or having so much fun.
            The next day, at Methodist Hospital, the president’s assistant handled Tennessee’s admission. She ushered us to the top floor, a floor reserved for patients needing extra security and other considerations. In the reception area, potted palms lined the cobalt tiled walls. In hallways, men in dark suits passed oil sheiks in full regalia. I had never seen men in Arab dress before. I associated the robes with the Bedouin nomads I had learned about in grade school, but the wealth and power of these men was palpable.
The operation took only an hour or so, and then a nurse wheeled Tennessee back to the room. Above his nostrils, bandages completely wrapped his head. Although sedated, by dinnertime he was ready to eat. The nurse explained that behind the bandages, his eyes were swollen shut, and that I would need to feed him. I cut his steak into pieces. He picked up the fork and fed himself, eating almost all the meat as well as the mashed potatoes—and the peas. I watched in wonder.
I slept on a cot in his room that night, but except for helping him to the bathroom door and back, he needed no assistance.
After another twenty-four hours, Tennessee had passed the crucial stage of healing and was ready to leave the hospital. Giant sunglasses replaced the bandages. Behind them, he looked like he had lost a barroom brawl. Around his eyes, he was swollen—black, and purple. The doctor gave him drops, and prescribed rest.
In the meantime, Michael had arrived from Key West in the Cadillac. We spent the night at Kate’s house, and with the doctor’s blessing, headed out of town the next morning. As we rode through residential areas, Kate put money into the local perspective. “In Texas, people don’t talk about new money or old, they talk about oil or cotton.” She pointed. “That’s oil over there.” From the size of the estate we were passing, I wondered if there was anything left for cotton besides pride. I also wondered which commodity would replace oil as the supply ran out. I had read in Newsweek that by 1990, the supply of oil would not keep up with demand. Conservation measures would have to be in place well before the end of the '80s. By 2000, new energy sources would transform the world.
Kate, however, came from neither oil nor cotton—nor Schweppes’ tonic water, for that matter—she came from land. Her great-grandfather had been part of the corps that surveyed the State of Texas, mapping vast tracts of land at a time when the state had little money. He was paid in land grants. Part of the land that remained was a ranch that her brother owned an hour north of San Antonio near the Guadalupe River. It was there that we were headed.
Kate drove us through Houston, and then Michael took the wheel. Beyond the suburbs, the flat ribbons of I-10 stretched to infinity; the gray sky quashed any color in the landscape. However, as we sped westward, the clouds gradually lifted and thinned; the terrain dried out. Dormant fields gave way to grazing land. The road raced on, endless as time itself.
Eventually, Tennessee grew restless. Finding a diner under a mile-high sign, we stopped for lunch. After the long drive, it took a minute to find our legs. Kate, in jeans and a blouse, had dressed for Texas. Michael looked like a one-man, Ole Miss frat party. Over wool trousers and his shirt, Tennessee wore his dead animal, a waist-length coyote parka of mixed colors. His bearded head rested atop the fur—purple eyes behind Sophia Loren sunglasses. Looming above the rest, I wore jeans and a caution-yellow shirt.
The big-haired waitress inventoried us without skipping a beat. The chicken-fried steak she recommended was good, if mysterious, and we got out of there without any of the locals overhearing the cracks we made about their appearance.
After lunch, I took the wheel. With the heavy food, the again-graying sky, and the relentless monotony of the road, everyone else was soon asleep. I had long looked forward to the day that computers would be part of daily life. Kate, always seeking a good deal, bought her 1981 Cadillac after the following year’s models were introduced. The car not only had a computer, it had the brand new V8-6-4 engine, the pride of the Cadillac division. To conserve fuel, the computer could shut down or fire up cylinders depending on the need for power. The display could be switched to monitor various functions. I was thrilled to drive such a cutting-edge machine, and passed the time all but mesmerized as I switched between display modes.
Eventually, I turned off the Interstate onto the road to Boerne. Kate had said the ride would take an hour after that. The two-lane highway followed the now-rolling terrain around low hills creased by creeks and arroyos. Junipers, sumac, and live oaks populated the land sparsely. Twice we ambushed deer, sending them back into the brush with a flash of white tail.
The curving ride awakened my slumbering companions. Tennessee sat in the front passenger seat, slumped low. Despite the warmth of the car, he kept his hands in the pockets of his dead animal, the fur pulled tight around him.
“Are we seriously close?” he asked.
“This is Texas, Tom,” Kate drawled from the rear. “Everything is close.”
He shot a look over his shoulder.
            “When we reach Nevada,” he growled, “I’d like to stop for a little blackjack—if it isn’t too much trouble.”
            In the mirror, I saw Kate’s face pressed into Michael’s shoulder as she silently laughed. Facing forward in his seat again, Tennessee battled a smile.
            When we arrived at the entrance to the ranch, Kate hopped out to open the gate, and after she jumped back into the car, I drove the mile down the gravel lane and parked in front of the house. Her brother, a physician in Houston, rarely escaped the city to enjoy the spread. We would have the place to ourselves.
            Kate had packed the essential supplies: gin, wine, and ready-to-heat food. We decompressed with a drink, relaxing while Kate decided who would sleep where. Michael lit a fire in the fireplace, and when it grew dark, Kate went to the kitchen to prepare dinner.
            “Y’all are just going to have to eat what we have,” she called.
The house reminded me of a ranch from an old TV western. Although it had electricity, running water, and a flush toilet, there was no central heat. Large stone fireplaces dominated each room. Comfortable old furniture faced each fireplace.
The bed in the main room would be mine. Exhausted, we turned in early, but I could not sleep. Late in the night, after the frost had settled beneath the silent procession of stars, I lay curled under the quilts in my too-short bed. Staring into the fire, listening to pops and whistles, I remembered the fires from camping trips in my youth and fantasies of Hardy Boys adventures in the high chaparral. Light danced in the amber eyes of two cast-iron owl andirons. Their focus dimmed as logs burned to embers, then flashed anew when added wood caught fire.
Tennessee occupied the next room. He had known he would be up in the night writing, but insisted he could tend his own fire. However, in the middle of the night, when he had waited too long to add wood, he had to call me in to coax his smoking logs to flame.
Earlier, at the sign of Tennessee’s first yawn, Kate and Michael had run off to claim the bunkhouse.
The next morning, after Tennessee and I arose and showered, he went into the kitchen to rummage for food. Kate and Michael had not returned. It was already an hour after dawn and Tennessee was impatient. We had planned to go to San Antonio for the day.
“There’s no food worth eating here,” he protested. “And she’s still out there with that . . . gigolo.” 
As I examined the stovetop percolator, trying to think what amounts and which timing might work, Kate and Michael bounded in the door. Kate pushed back her wet hair and fastened it with a clip.
“You know,” Tennessee said to her, “That sadist gave me no anesthesia at all—not one bit. Most excruciating experience of my life!”
Kate looked him dead in the eye. “I think we’d better head for San Antonio,” she said. “We’ll stop for breakfast in Boerne.”
By the time we reached San Antonio, the sky had clouded up again. Kate drove into the center of the city and then slowed as we passed the Alamo.
Tennessee stared at it a moment, and said, “The building is not impressive.”
            “Well Tom,” Kate said, “the city’s all grown up around it now—crowded in on it.”
“Yes,” he said, looking again out the window. “But you can feel the bravery. Each man dug in, refusing to yield—fighting to the death.” He sighed and turned back as the building slipped away behind us. “Must have been writers.”
Kate parked a few blocks farther on. “I’ll show you River Walk. We can get some lunch there.”
As we approached it, the land fell away, revealing a sunken world along a snaking river. Shops, hotels, and restaurants with bright awnings and umbrellas lined the crowded walk along the water. A sightseeing boat glided under a Spanish Colonial bridge that carried Texans in the bustling world above.
A tiny smile graced Kate’s lips. We had found the Emerald City. Michael walked over and embraced her.
“Surely,” Tennessee said, “there’s a bowl of good soup down there somewhere.” He led the charge down the steps. He seemed oblivious of his swollen, purple face, and after we found a bar and had our fill of soup and Reuben sandwiches, declared we would stay the night at La Mansion del Rio. We followed him across the bridge to the hotel, but when Tennessee spoke to the clerk, the hotel was completely booked. Hoping for a cancellation, he left his American Express card, and we spent the afternoon walking the path along the river, poking into shops and stopping occasionally to warm up with Irish coffee.
At the end of the day, rooms were available. Exhausted, and without razors, toothbrushes, or changes of clothes, we checked in, showered, and fell asleep. Only the next morning did I realize we had not brought Tennessee’s briefcase, usually kept as close as nuclear codes. 

Three days later, and with great relief, Tennessee and I took our seats on the plane. The final days in Texas had seemed as endless as the state itself. Tennessee was eager to return home, and I had had no chance to escape him or my duties since we left home for New York nearly two weeks before. I longed for an evening with men my own age—cocktails and possibility. I could feel it in my bones.
After the trip to San Antonio, we had returned to the ranch to gather our belongings and spent the night before we continued back to Houston. On the following day, Tennessee passed the surgeon’s exam and was declared sufficiently healed to return to Key West. The swelling was down, but he was still black and purple with new, orange highlights around the edges.
“No anesthesia at all!” he barked at Kate as she drove us back to her house. With a look, she waved him off, and then snapped the radio on.
The next morning Kate dropped us at the airport. As the plane taxied out to the runway, I could not wait to be seven miles above the world again—if only for a couple of hours. Nothing was more peaceful than looking down from an unreachable place—vistas unspoiled by the clang and din of business far below.
            After take-off, I watched as Texas slowly receded. Tennessee sat on my left, his head in a book. When our climb was complete and the plane leveled, he laid his book in his lap, turned, and gazed past me out the window. I studied his face, wondering how it would look after the tissues healed—if the result would be what he expected, or even worth it. He seemed lost in thought.
           “You know,” he said, continuing to look to the beyond, “she made me pay for her hotel room too.”


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