Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Chapter 24: A Public Reading

Chapter 24
A Public Reading

Gary and Skye met us at the airport in the Jeep. Tennessee sat in the front, while Skye and I took the back seat, keeping a grip on the luggage behind us as we sped down Roosevelt Boulevard.
            Gary cleaned up the guesthouse,” Skye said to me, hollering so that I could hear. “It’s real cute.”
            That was hard to believe. The guesthouse, large enough to hold a bed and little more, sat with its window missing at the edge of the pool apron just beyond Tennessee’s studio. It occupied the corner of the property next to where I had seen more than one eager-to-leave guest hop the fence. It had been neglected for years. In Key West, the moment you relaxed from the battle, an army of fungi, insects, and rodents moved in and found shelter and sustenance in the accumulation of plant matter that rained down from the tropical canopy. I had peered inside the guesthouse once. Blackened walls and ceiling suggested a flash fire, but the odor was mildew. Unseen creatures scurried about in the agglomeration.
            “He scrubbed it out and got a mattress—brought his things over.” Skye beamed with pride. My gut lurched toward the pavement. Had Tennessee grown tired of me? Gary would not have moved into the compound without Tennessee’s permission, and no one had told me a thing.
Skye leaned in close as we slowed to turn onto Bertha Street. “Thank God,” he said softly into my ear. He laughed and put a hand on my shoulder. “We’re so broke we’re already a month behind on rent.”
That was easy to believe. As long as I had known them, Skye and Gary were always scrounging for money. 

“What Gary doing here?” Leoncia asked. She sat at the kitchen island, watching through the glass door, squinting. It was the morning after our return, her first day back on the job. Gary had entered through the front gate carrying a heavy box. He crossed the patio and then turned and walked past the studio.
“He moved in, Lee—while we were away,” I said. “Nobody told me a thing.”
“Lord,” she said. “Mr. Tom invites trouble to this house!” She shook her head. “Can’t be happy without trouble.” She stared a moment at the coffee in her mug and then took a big gulp.
“Wonder who sleeping where . . .” she said, and bent over laughing. Rising back up, she removed her glasses and wiped her eyes on her sleeve.
“No telling,” I said.
The night before, Gary had slept in the guesthouse, while Skye remained in the bedroom adjacent to Tennessee’s. Gary still had not persuaded Tennessee to let him direct the play in Chicago. Skye’s ability to allure Tennessee was his best remaining hope to achieve this goal, and Gary would do nothing to jeopardize that—not while Tennessee was in town.
When I first met him, Gary boasted of the outrageous parties he had thrown at Tennessee’s house during his absence. These parties were an important part of Gary’s self-promotion, whether for professional reasons or just to get laid. I made a mental note to secure my private things before we left town, and realized that whatever happened while we were away, at least the sheets were white. They would not lie.
Two days later, as the first brewing of coffee dripped into the pot, I headed out to feed the parrots and clean their cage. Wearing a flannel bathrobe barely closed by its tie, Gary approached me on the patio.
“You have got to see this spot on my dick,” he said, “It’s almost black—big as a nickel.”
I stopped in my tracks.
“Doctor said he’d never seen such a thing—said it’s OK, though.”
My eyes wandered down his pinched chest to where the robe closed just above the spot zone. With my eyes in the vicinity, I could not help wondering about his legendary calling card—it must really stand out on such a scrawny body.
“Here, I’ll show you,” he said. “It’s amazing.”
The consequences of going further flashed through my mind. Physical intimacy was a favorite device in Gary’s toolbox—I would regret it later. Unlike some bad trick, Gary would not be gone and forgotten before the sun came up.
“I can’t handle that right now,” I said, as I turned and resumed walking toward the birds' cage. 

When I began working for Tennessee, I understood that part of my job would be to insulate him from parasites. Tennessee’s friends and associates had encouraged me to erect a stockade. Vassilis said, “Keep him away from these people.” Milton Goldman at ICM said as much too, and before handing it to me, jotted his home number on his card.
I did not call them. I appreciated the gesture, but Tennessee’s world had to be dealt with within its own context. How could a friend in Manhattan or an agent at the world’s largest talent agencies relate to that?
Tennessee grew weary of Helen and sent Gary to evict her from Rose’s house. She moved to a cheap motel. Gary's star continued to rise, but Tennessee was restless. Maria St. Just, ensconced in her home in London, had increased her telephone badgering. She had strong opinions about everything; there was nothing weak about her. She had escaped Russia with nothing, willed her way onto the stage and into society, and then, after marrying one of the wealthiest men in England, had him committed to a mental hospital. After her husband’s mother died, Maria would gain full control of one of the largest fortunes in England—at least that was Tennessee’s story.
Whenever he felt overwhelmed—at least twice a week—Tennessee wanted to fly to London to see Maria. He knew she could straighten things out, but this temptation collided with his fear of her control.
“She wouldn’t stop with my personal life—not Maria. She’d try to take over my business affairs as well—claim I was incompetent. That’s what she really wants—look what she did to Peter!”
The trip to London was postponed time and time again.
Through everything, people from the fringes of the theater world passed through, all with projects that they promised would resurrect Tennessee, if he would give them his blessing—and the rights. Sometimes he encouraged them; usually he turned them down flat.
Then, one evening, Gary handed me a flyer.
“There’s going to be a reading,” he said, grinning.
I stared at the sheet of paper. On it, a tuxedoed Tennessee stood leering in front of a stage curtain. His expression reminded me of Burl Ives eyeing Elizabeth Taylor’s breasts in the movie of Cat—if he actually had.
“‘The Donsinger Women’ at The Sands.”
I stared at Gary in disbelief. I was going to be held up to public ridicule—at The Sands. Of course, few people would know that Jack represented me, but I would be there in the front of the crowd, towering a head above everyone else. Would they associate my height with Jack’s? Would Tennessee laugh and nod in my direction as he told of sex-for-table-scraps behind a dumpster?
“David said I could set it up,” Gary said. David Wolkowski, Gary’s boss, owned The Sands. “Tennessee agreed.”
I wanted to kill him.
“Three bucks,” he said. “Benefit some animal charity—that’ll bring ‘em in. Nobody can resist an animal charity.”
Gary turned, and as he walked off, called over his shoulder, “Sunday the twenty-first—eight o’clock.” He stopped and pivoted. Again grinning, he looked me in the eye. “It’ll be fun.”
Tennessee and I had no plans to leave town until after the twenty-first. Short of a fortuitous calamity, I would have to deal with Gary’s continuing presence and his trumpeting of his coup in arranging the event. 

The twenty-first came quickly despite, or perhaps because of, my growing anxiety about it. Gary had kept up the buzz and excitement, and on the day before the reading, announced an additional feat. He had convinced Jeanne Wolf from Entertainment Tonight to come down to film the event.
I was certain Gary had gone too far. Magazines like People and shows like Entertainment Tonight had launched in recent years and found immediate success, but they seemed just a half step up from the supermarket tabloids from which they had sprung. Featured commentators with the intelligence and glitz of Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, or their male counterparts, gushed about entertainment news and gossip. Tennessee would not stand for this. He had already protested that the money from his reading was going to an animal charity, not that he cared about the money, but animal charities were in no way related to his work. Although he knew this had been Gary’s doing, he was unaware that Gary expected the charity to be the compelling draw.
The next morning, Jeanne Wolf and her crew arrived at the house without warning. Gary had failed to tell us to expect her early to tape an interview. Although surprised, Tennessee agreed to it, and went into the house to prepare. I stayed and helped Jeanne and her crew set up.
“How do you do it?” she said. She and the crew were moving patio chairs, setting up lights, taking light readings. “It must be difficult . . . juggling all these people and hangers-on . . . things you have to deal with.”
I relaxed.
“I’ve been around many people like Tennessee,” she said. “I know how it is. Looks like you do a great job.”
She had a smile that could have melted Alaska and her eyes showed that she really did know. I wanted to tell her everything—and I did—until Tennessee reappeared all washed and combed and ready for his close-up.
That evening, we arrived at The Sands half an hour early. We parked in front of the timber-and-glass fantasy—a collision of Mies van der Rohe and The Bridge on the River Kwai. The doorman pointed us toward the makeshift auditorium. A platform had been built next to the building, and facing it, ranks of folding chairs had been set up across the beach. Jeanne’s crew was testing equipment. A couple dozen people, Hawaiian-clothed snowbirds, had already taken seats. Having heard no revisions of the story the last week, I feared the worst.
Tennessee surveyed the gathering crowd. Seeing the belly-rolls, blue-hairs, and neck-hung Nikons, he had an attack of nerves. Gary, production manager for the event, approached us from the building.
“Tom, come on inside,” he said. Then, recognizing Tennessee’s condition, he lowered his voice. “We still have time for a drink.” I followed Tennessee and we took seats with Gary at the closest bar. “Tom," Gary said, "would you like a glass of white wine?”
I nodded agreement and Gary ordered three—always doubles at The Sands.
Tennessee joked nervously about other crowds he had entertained, and when we finished, it was nearly eight. We went out to face the crowd, which now spilled beyond the chairs. I took my seat in the front, but when Tennessee reached the microphone and gazed across the crowd, he seized up again and retreated toward the building. I stood up to follow, but Gary motioned for me to stay.
 “I’ve known Tom for years,” he said. “I’ll handle it.”
New worries added to my anxiety, but relieved that Gary had taken Tennessee off my hands, I sat back down. I tried to soothe myself, knowing Gary did have a lot of experience with Tennessee.
The hands of my watch crept around the dial. I wound the spring tight. Eight twenty-five came and went. The crowd grew more restless. I went back inside to find Tennessee and spotted him at the bar. Gary rushed over and blocked my progress.
“He’s fine,” he said. “He’s just having a last drink.” He grabbed my forearm gently. “Go on back. We’ll be out in a minute.”
Tennessee was on his third Martini—at least. There was nothing to do but wait. I had seen him will himself sober. I hoped he could do it this time. I told Jeanne’s crew that he would be out momentarily, and then took my seat.
Ten minutes later, Tennessee was introduced, and after a sway and a big inhale of air, he began to read. Immediately, I recognized the story had taken a completely new tack. My worries about my fate began to subside. I barely recognized the story—and certainly not myself as Jack. Released, I paid better attention. However, Tennessee’s delivery, which had started well, soon deteriorated. He lost his place several times, and although the sound system functioned perfectly, he frequently forgot to speak into the mike. At times, he mumbled or his voice trailed off. People began hollering for him to speak up.
“If you’d just shut up, you could hear me!” he shouted, and then nearly toppled as he stooped down to pick up a sheet of paper that had escaped his grasp. He was all thumbs re-ordering the manuscript. At one point, he threatened to walk off. Although relieved by the changes in the story, I was embarrassed for Tennessee. I blamed Gary. Had I known he would let Tennessee drink so much, I would have put my job on the line to stop it. I should have.
Gary stood on the side, a grin deforming his bushy lip. To him, Tennessee’s drunkenness was an appropriate expression of his character, and its public display an integral part of the realism of the event. I hated him. Anyone wanting to make the case that Tennessee had become completely captive to his demons would have had to look no further.
After he finished reading, Tennessee bolted. I caught up with him, and when we got to the house, he began complaining. “They were animals—barked so loud they couldn’t hear me. Did you hear them?”
I stood silent.
“Who kept turning the microphone off?” His eyes darted about the room as if the culprit might be at hand. “I know who . . .” He stormed into his room. Before slamming the door, he yelled, “The Gelbs were behind this—and their New York Times. I know it!”

I wondered what part of the reading Jeanne would be able to use—even with skillful edits. The evening had been a complete disaster. Surely she would not show Tennessee drunk and rambling on Entertainment Tonight. I retreated to my bedroom. I did not want to encounter Gary when he arrived home, boasting of his success.


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