Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Chapter 28: A House Not Meant to Stand

Chapter 28
A House Not Meant to Stand

Tennessee sighed as he unlocked the studio door, and then closed it behind him. Life in Key West proceeded by rote as we approached the time to return for final previews and the opening. Tennessee labored in his studio, taking breaks to eat, sleep, and swim, the weight of Chicago always on him.
He continued to refuse to discuss House or the Miami play with Gary, who, reduced to a grin and a mustache, moved with oily confidence about the house. His influence with Tennessee was greatest when Tennessee was depressed, and in recent years, Tennessee had a record of plunging into depression after the openings of his plays. Gary was biding his time.
            Skye tried to be playful with Tennessee, but Tennessee would not be distracted.
We were invited to a cookout at Hiram and Tina Keller’s. Brooks and Adrianna were there, as well as a clutch of Hiram’s khakis-and-Lacoste-clad friends. Tennessee barely bothered to flirt, and when he did, he joked at his own expense and laughed with exaggeration. He was drunk before the hot dogs were served.
            Kate took us to dinner one night. The familiarity of the Pier House relaxed Tennessee. Drinks arrived, and then we ordered.
            “André’s come a long way,” Tennessee said. “I think the play will be ready.”
            I watched the play of light on Kate’s hair as she took a swallow of her Tanqueray.
“The play is very angry,” he said. “I don’t know if the audience will stand for it. They’re used to Neil Simon, you know?”
“Tom,” Kate drawled, “There is your poetry.
“Yes, yes—poetry . . . and tenderness, especially Bella. She has such tender moments—heartbreaking, actually. But the play itself is hard. Degeneration of society. Appetites . . . just appetites remain—sex, money . . . pills. A society I don’t know how anyone can live in anymore.”
“Well,” she said, “I wish I could be at the opening. I just know it’s going to be grand. And . . . I know how you worry. When it’s over, we can work on Babe!
Tennessee sighed as he leaned back.
“Glenna will be there,” he said, “Glenna Syse. She’s always fair—and I think she actually likes me.” He cackled. “She gave me a good notice for . . . Oh, what was . . .” He leaned forward. “The Tribune’s tougher—Christiansen.”
“There is word-of-mouth too,” Kate said. “My God, Tom, people will hear about your play.”
He let out a cackle. “Yes, there is that problem too.”
“Stop it. We’re going to enjoy our dinner and forget Chicago tonight.”
I was eager for the opening, but now that it was close, I not only was anxious about the moment of culmination, but what lay beyond it. Bangkok? London? Sicily? Tennessee had talked of going to all those places, but had done nothing about any of them. He had agreed to speak at a Palestine Liberation Organization fundraiser in Boston, but that would be only a two-day trip. Vanessa Redgrave had asked and he had accepted, even though he despised her beloved PLO. “I could never turn down someone with that talent—never.” He had worried that the public might associate him with the Palestinian organization, but now, the Chicago play crowded all other things from his mind. 

A few days before we were to make our last trip to Chicago for the final previews and the opening, Tennessee asked me to make him an appointment with his dentist. “I need to be presentable opening night, you know?” He worried about the teeth in the front of his lower jaw. A few were loose.
On the second visit, his dentist, Dr. Williams, pulled the loose teeth and fitted a temporary bridge, explaining that his gums would have to heal for a month before he could affix a permanent one. That same day, while waiting for our lunch at the Pier House, a Donnatal tablet became stuck under his bridge. Upset, Tennessee could not remove either the tablet or the bridge. I followed him into the lavatory, and while he leaned against the edge of the sink, I managed to pull the bridge from his mouth.
“Damn it!” he said, and then examined what remained of the tablet. “I need that permanent one. I can’t live like this. Call Dr. Williams—I’ll see him today.”
We had our fish and chips wrapped to go.
Later, at the dentist’s office, Dr. Williams again explained that he could not affix a permanent bridge before the gums healed. But Tennessee would not listen, and continued to insist. It was already Friday afternoon and we were booked to fly to Chicago the next morning. Final previews were that weekend, followed by a break Monday, and then the opening on Tuesday.
A compromise was reached. Dr. Williams offered to anchor the temporary bridge so that it would seem like a permanent one, but the earliest he could do that would be Monday afternoon. Tennessee consented. Dr. Williams told his receptionist to clear time in his schedule. When we got back to the house, I re-booked our flights for Tuesday morning. We would skip the final previews and arrive just in time for the opening.
However, Monday, when it was time to return to the dentist’s office, Tennessee sat at the kitchen island dressed in his terrycloth robe.
“You know,” he said, “food could get trapped under this thing—if it’s fixed.” He made a quick check of the bridge with his finger. “Could cause bad breath.”
This was one of the points Dr. Williams had used trying to talk Tennessee out of the idea.
“True,” I said, knowing that in a moment I would be asked to make the call. I hated having to cancel after all the trouble the dentist had gone to.
“Cancel it,” he said. “I can’t afford bad breath—not now.”
I stared at nothing for a moment, and then got up and made the call. Dr. Williams was surprisingly understanding—and clearly relieved. 

We arrived in Chicago Tuesday afternoon, just hours before curtain time. We checked into the Delaware Towers and changed. Dressed in our tuxedos, we stopped at Hamburger Hamlet to eat, but Tennessee could manage only a bowl of soup.
Tony joined us at the theater, and, shortly before the curtain opened, we took our seats a fourth of the way back. Tennessee sat on the aisle. He seated me next to him, and then Tony on the other side of me. Tony seemed perplexed.
 “He doesn’t want you to see how nervous he is,” I whispered. “Next twenty-four hours—ignore whatever he says or does.” I turned to survey the audience. The theater was all but full, and a few people were still finding their seats. Bruce Smith sat with friends a comfortable distance away.
The lights soon dimmed; the audience quieted. For once, Tennessee was quiet too, although his nervousness was palpable. 

During rehearsals, I had become completely familiar with the story of the play. When it opens, Cornelius and Bella McCorkle have just returned to their dilapidated house in Pascagoula after the Memphis funeral of their gay son, Chips. They find their other son, Charlie, who cannot keep a job, upstairs in bed with his pregnant, born-again girlfriend. Joanie, their only daughter, has been committed to a mental hospital. Only Bella mourns Chips, and as the other characters pursue various lusts, Bella retreats into a private world of memory and imagination.
Opening night got off to a rocky start. Frank Hamilton blew a couple of Cornelius’s lines, and Peg Murray’s timing and energy were off. However, I was not watching the story of the play that night. I was watching Tennessee on stage, split into the different roles, railing against a society and human appetites out of control—appetites he both condemned and indulged. Society destroying itself from within. As the others, trying to fill the emptiness, chased sensation and material things, Bella remained a flickering hope. Alone, she remembered the promise of life as she mourned her son and the life they all could have had.
When the lights went up at intermission, I realized how perfectly quiet Tennessee had been. He wanted a drink, so the three of us went to Ingrid’s, the theater’s restaurant. There, we met constant interruption. Patrons sought him out, wanting to meet him and get his autograph. Cameras flashed. Tennessee signed programs and stood to mug for the cameras. But he soon tired of it, sat down, and asked me to hold everyone off. Since we had not retreated, the crowd remained, and without moving, towered over him. He began to feel claustrophobic, and my attempts to move people back made it appear he had suffered some kind of spell. Soon, he was on the brink of a real panic.
Gregory Mosher waded into the restaurant, and seeing our predicament, offered his office—and the promise of wine. Tennessee went up immediately with Gregory. I waited for  Tony, who had gone to the men’s room, and then led him toward the theater offices.
            “You handle him so well,” he said. “How do you do it?”
            Usually I was too aware of my shortcomings. I had to think. “Never commit to a definite statement,” I said. “Only say what you can weasel out of.”
            Tony snorted.
            “Really. Anything he can pin on you, he will—first paranoid thought he gets.”
            We reached Gregory’s office and walked in. Tennessee was sitting on the edge of the desk sipping wine. Three bottles of Soave Bolla sat next to him, one opened. He was in no condition to be with anyone outside his closest circle. Gregory had to run, which left the three of us alone. I poured wine for Tony and me.
            “We should leave after the intermission,” Tennessee said.
            I stared at him a moment. I could feel Tony's eyes on me. “What do you mean?”
            “We should go—no, I should go. You and Tony go back—watch the rest. Tell me about it afterward.”
            “No,” I said, “we all came together. Tom, you can’t just leave your own opening.” I pulled a chair up opposite him, sat, and fixed him in the eye. “If you leave, we all leave.”
            Tennessee lowered his head and began rubbing his forehead. “OK, I’ll sit at the bar,” he said. “You two go back to the theater.”
            “What good is that?” I sighed as I searched the room for words. “Look, two more bottles of wine. We’ll take one into the theater.” I reached for a bottle.
            “Well,” he said, “maybe . . .”
            After pulling the cork, I jammed it partially back in, grabbed the raincoat that Tennessee had been carrying, and rolled it around the bottle. I insisted I would carry the coat. We drained our plastic glasses, and then hiding them too, returned to the theater. We reached our seats just as the house lights began to dim.
            I poured Tennessee a glass of wine and then glasses for Tony and me, warning Tony that the rest was for Tennessee.
            When the curtain rose, the cast had relaxed. They quickly found their stride, especially Peg. I too relaxed, certain that with the improvement on stage and the wine in hand, Tennessee would sit quietly and not bolt. I turned my focus to the stage.
As the play continued, Cornelius searched for Bella’s treasure, moonshine money she had hidden years before in a place she had since forgotten. I saw Tennessee searching for the golden touch he had misplaced. When Bella refused Cornelius’s plea to turn over the money should she find it, Tennessee was making a statement to all the people who profited from his work. Cornelius, aggravated by the condition of his aging body and the fistful of pills he must take, spills them. As they clatter across the floor, he bellows about the very medications Tennessee took daily. It was hard poetry in a world gone amuck.
The McCorkles’ neighbor Jessie shows off her new facelift, certain it has restored her to youth and beauty. Tennessee’s feelings about the fate of homosexuals showed in the death of alcoholic Chips, and the fact that no one mourned him except his mother.
If Bella was the dying gasp of love in this world, another neighbor, Emerson, wished to profit from love’s replacement. He schemes to build a chain of Nite-A-Glory motels, a convenience for one-night stands. Charlie’s extravagantly pregnant, fundamentalist girlfriend falls on the floor wailing rapturously in tongues, begging forgiveness for sins of the flesh. From this world, Bella continues to retreat. Then, as in a dream—one that Tennessee might have wished for—the ghost of Chips appears and tells Bella where she hid her treasure, and after she retrieves it, the ghosts of all her children in their youth and innocence appear. Reunited with all she had lost, she dies, complete.
The curtain closed to strong applause, with pockets of real enthusiasm. Some patrons seemed confused. In the lobby, Tennessee endured the handshaking and the post-performance compliments. We joined the cocktail party at Ingrid’s, but as soon as we could, we broke free. The cast party was to begin soon at Arnie’s, a nearby restaurant. However, when we got there, we were told the party had been cancelled. Tony, who had not eaten dinner, and Tennessee, who had had only soup, were famished, but the kitchen had closed. We left to find an all-night restaurant, but a waiter chased us down and said they would cook for Tennessee. 

Having watched too many opening nights in old movies, I was disappointed. After a quiet meal in the otherwise empty restaurant, Tony went back to his apartment, and Tennessee and I returned to the Delaware Towers. I had had visions of waiting for the reviews while dressed in tuxedos and drinking Martinis around a grand piano.
In the lobby, Tennessee turned to me as the elevator door opened. “No reviews,” he said. “Papers will be here soon—don’t want to see them.” He motioned toward the desk with his hand as he entered the elevator. “No phone calls either—tell the clerk.”
I walked over and left instructions, and then waited alone for the next car.
The next morning, I awoke before dawn and went down to check the papers. Only the Chicago Tribune had arrived. I stood in the lobby and found Richard Christiansen’s review: “Tennessee Williams’ Freak House Doomed by Weak Foundation.” While finding much to like, Christiansen analyzed the play as a piece of literature, one that should come to life on the stage through development of structure and characters, moving and informing the audience. He enumerated the ways House had fallen short. Summing up, he claimed the play was neither brilliant nor a dead end, but takes us “where Tennessee Williams is today.”
As I read his last line, I realized with a start that Christiansen did not consider that destination particularly worthy—regardless of what he thought of the play itself. Since our first trip to Chicago, I had pushed, comforted, and cajoled to reach this point. Had the worth of it been just a delusion? 
I stood there, paper in hand. I could not find my bearings. I closed the paper. If deluded, I at least had company—the cast and staff at the Goodman and many—most—in the audience. Too quickly, I accepted the views of others. I had to learn to trust my own experience—but what had it been?
I stepped into the elevator, pushed the button, and leaned back hard against its stained and dented wall. As the car began to ascend, I let out a laugh. In his dance of deception, Tennessee had used every trick at his disposal. Working under cover of his depleted body, at every turn he had displayed whichever condition served him and his work. I had run in circles trying to support him. I now wondered if he had needed me at all—except as evidence of need.
Still, I had served him.
As I left the elevator, I debated ditching the paper, but smoothed and folded it instead. He would have to face the reviews eventually. I walked down the hall and opened the door. Tennessee stood in the kitchen in his bathrobe. He put down his coffee, and then raked his fingers through his hair.
“The Tribune,” I said, and took a deep breath before handing it to him. I waited a moment, but before he found the review, I went to my room for a smoke.
“This is very good,” he called. “He paid attention. The play was ‘interesting’!” He closed the paper and glanced at the front page. “Christiansen slashes everybody. From him, this is a compliment.” He handed the paper back to me. “Keep that in mind when you read it. We’re over the hump now. Glenna is always sympathetic.”
He went into his room after telling me to alert him when the Sun-Times arrived.
Tired, but too awake to nap, I reread the review, and then turned to page one. I busied my eyes with the news, but my mind went to the future. One more day and we would go to Boston—that part had been decided. I wondered if now that the play had opened, he would have second thoughts about the PLO fundraiser with Vanessa Redgrave. I prepared myself to support him in any lie to get out of it.
After a while, I went down to check for the Sun-Times. The paper had arrived, and I read the review in the lobby. Glenna Syse called the play a winner and, with great emotion, praised its plot, characters, production, and writer. After Christiansen, I had not expected a glowing review. I blinked to clear my vision. There was hardly a negative word.
After a long wait for the elevator, I rushed back to the suite and called through Tennessee’s door. He came out and I handed him the paper.
“Calls me a ‘hound dog.’” He cackled as he looked up from reading. “Told you she liked me,” he said before resuming his reading. “Glenna . . . it’s always good to have Glenna on your side, but it’s Christiansen who sways the public around here.” He tossed the paper on a chair. “I’m going to see if I can get a little more sleep,” he said. “We’ll meet Tony at Khyber India for lunch.”
Relieved that that was over, I picked up new copies of the papers in the lobby and went out for a pot of coffee and breakfast. I returned shortly before noon, and accompanied Tennessee to the restaurant.
“Very good reviews,” Tennessee said as he greeted Tony. “I suppose I had my doubts, but Greg—and André—pulled it off. Peg was brilliant.”
Tennessee was playful through lunch, and then as we finished, he turned to me.
“Tony and I need some time, you know?” He pulled a fifty from his pocket and pressed it into my hand. “Go out and enjoy the day.” He wiped his mouth with his napkin. “Enjoy the evening too.”
I spent the afternoon exploring the galleries at The Art Institute, and in the evening, went alone to see the play again. Having survived opening night and the reviews—and having escaped Tennessee as well—I felt expansive. The performances were flawless. At every poignant moment, tears welled in my eyes. I was in love with Peg. The play catalyzed a release from deep within me, and I felt like I could have floated to the ceiling.
Afterward, I joined the informal group that André had organized. Cast members discussed the play and their roles with audience members who had stayed afterward. I sat sprawled in a chair in back half-listening as my mind busied itself, stitching pieces of the previous months into a whole. My feelings caught up with the fact that the goal had been accomplished. With its triumphs and disappointments, the play was now a living, breathing entity that for the next month would have its own life on the Goodman stage.
Everyone was riding the high of accomplishment. Disagreements and misunderstandings had been set aside. Tennessee sent letters of thanks to both Gregory and André. He acknowledged that feelings had run hot as they worked out the issues, but friendships and professional respect had never been harmed. Gregory and André sent Tennessee similar words, and Gregory sent me a note of appreciation too. It had all been worth the trouble. 

After the discussion ended, I ran into Gregory outside the theater. He offered me a ride to the hotel. “Any news from Miami?” he asked.
The New World Festival still had not signed a director for Now the Cats with Jeweled Claws, and they were wavering on producing the play at all. Taking the Chicago production to Miami in its place was a possibility that was being discussed, but not officially.
“Nothing,” I said. “Falls hasn’t decided—and Tennessee hasn’t finished the play. Substituting House would be a great solution.” I looked at Gregory. “I think they're trying to keep Tennessee out of the loop until they’ve worked out all the details,” I said. “Keep the fits down to one.”
Gregory laughed.
“You know,” he said, “Tennessee gave André and me—and the cast too—some very kind notes.” He reached into a pocket in his jacket. “He should know the cast had planned to present this to him on his birthday.” He stared at the object for a moment, and then seemed unsure of himself. “It got damaged . . . you can’t let him read anything into that.” He handed the object to me. “Tiffany’s is going to replace it. Just leave it at the desk when you check out, and I’ll pick it up.”
I looked at the large sterling heart chained to a key ring. On it was inscribed “Tennessee: Key to Our Hearts.” A deep scratch ran across it. 

The phone awakened me the next morning. Tennessee answered it in his bedroom. It was already nine o’clock. I showered and, after dressing, went to the kitchen in search of coffee. Tennessee stood in his robe, stirring a glass of Metamucil.
“I need to talk to you,” he said. He brushed at the orange grit on the counter. “You know . . .” He laughed and then looked at me. “It’s been a very long time since I’ve been in love. Actually, I’d given up on the possibility.”
I looked at him, wondering exactly where this was going.
“I have my attractions . . .” He took a breath. “Things have changed. I believe this is my . . . possibly, my last opportunity— Tony. You know Tony.”
I nodded, tentatively.

“From the moment he caught me at The Monster. . . . Well, I’ve seen him a few times now—and we wrote before that.” He took a breath. “We’re in love.” He turned away, and then spoke after screwing the lid back on the jar of Metamucil. “He’s tender, affectionate. He recites poetry.” He stopped a moment. “He reminds me of Frankie, you know? . . . and he wants to be with me.”
A blushing girl stood before me. I did not know what to say. He glowed. He had found the long-delayed thing he had always hoped for. He looked me in the eye. “He’s going with me to Boston.” He stuffed his hands into the pockets of his robe and began moving slowly as he turned to face the other way. “You don’t want to go to Boston,” he said. “You want to go back to Key West. I need you to take care of the house and the creatures.”
My face blanched. I stood, frozen.
“We might go on to London, see Maria. I called the agency,” he said, and then turned to face me. “Jake will have a ticket waiting for you this afternoon at the airport. You’ll need to call him for details.”
He then turned, walked into his room, and closed the door.
The man who had once proclaimed, the attentions of youth are like “fox-teeth in your heart,” was in love with a twenty-four-year-old. Had they actually made love? I had fallen in love with Matthew—and he was my own age. What had come of that?
I stood there stunned. I heard Gary Tucker laughing fifteen-hundred miles away. And then I saw myself pottering about Tennessee’s property, slowly becoming the cavefish Roy had been. I did not want to compete for Tennessee’s attention, plotting to get back on top. I knew if I took on Gary, I would become him, and what was the point? Theater was not my life. I did not write. I had nothing to gain from working for Tennessee but the experience itself.
Maybe Tony was incompetent. Not likely. I knew he worked as an account executive with AT&T. He must have quit. Yesterday? He was bright enough to handle everything I did—and he recited poetry.
He would forget. He would make definite statements, and then when the fun ran out, he would meet a man his own age. Tennessee would need me again.
I called the Continental-American Travel. Jake answered the phone.
“It’s a two-thirty flight,” he said, and then paused. “Coach ticket—boss’s orders. Sorry.”
At that moment it hit me fully. Could it have been my silence? I felt profoundly alone. Why couldn’t I talk to him—make normal conversation? Was it my fault?
Jake’s voice startled me. “I suppose I could make it first class . . .”
“No . . .” I said, “coach is fine.”
I packed my bags. There was plenty of time, but I just wanted to clear out. As I finished, Tennessee came out of his room. We shook hands, although our eyes could not find the path to meet. I wished him well with Tony.
“Take good care of Cornelius and Topaz . . . and the parrots. I’ll see you in a few weeks.”
I took a deep breath. “Tom, that’s not enough. You’re in love. Tony can handle what I do. I can’t just sit on the sidelines. When I get to Key West, I’m moving back to my apartment—look for a job.”
He nodded. “I thought you might.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out his checkbook. Standing at the kitchen counter, he wrote out a check and handed it to me. "Severance.”
I took it, thanked him, and without looking at it, pocketed the check. Then, after hoisting my bags, I rode the elevator down for the last time, crossed the lobby, and joined the crowds on the street.


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