Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Chapter 3: To New York

Chapter 3
To New York

To the right of the door of every modern, Eastern Airlines plane, a single word had been stenciled in soft, windswept lettering—Whisperjet. Boarding always stalled as I stood before the threshold, and I smirked when I read that word. Then, as the line began moving again, I would duck the doorway and join my fellow travelers in the slow-motion conga that ended in hoisting bags and jockeying for seats. When I finally reached the tail, I shoehorned myself into my seat.
After taxiing to the runway, the plane would rumble and roar in a crescendo of speed and power. Mass and vibration pulled to the back and compressed into the tail. As the plane stretched forward and then skyward, the tail dipped lower before shooting upward like a rubber band released, chasing the nose into the clouds.
In the back of the plane, sound and movement were amplified. What was a wobble up front became a bronco ride in the rear, and the sound of the tail rending was only the landing gear being stowed.
I sat there to smoke.
In the smoking section, announcements never had a chance against the methodical droning of the engines—high-thrust sitars strapped to either side of the tail. I would light up as the world receded, and then when the cart finally arrived, cough up the bucks for a cocktail or two. 

Waiting in Miami with Tennessee, I knew air travel would never be the same for me. We had made the hop from Key West on one-class Air Florida and then found our Eastern Airlines gate. We were the first to board the wide-bodied jet, and after a bow at the door, I followed him the few steps to the last row in the first class cabin. “Smoking,” he had said when I was booking the seats. He did not smoke.
I took my place by the window, stretched my legs, and shifted about in the generous seat. Soon I had a glass of cabernet. Tennessee sipped chardonnay. As we waited for the L-1011 to finish boarding, we snacked on cheese and fruit. Wine flowed miraculously. By the time the plane was in position for take-off, my perception had softened. The lumbering craft gained speed and then rose smoothly in a soft whoosh of air until we reached cruising altitude. Tennessee dozed beside me. More wine, Puccini on the headset. I lit a cigarette and gazed out the window watching the mango sunset drain to a faint stain. Then, that too was lost behind high clouds in the black sky.
We were heading to New York.
Just six days before, Tennessee had asked me to work for him. He never said what he expected, but I jumped in, doing whatever needed to be done. I ferried Leoncia to and from work. I shopped for food, Tide, and pine oil, as well as wine and Metamucil. I took care of the “creatures,” a bulldog, a cat, and two parrots. I handled many of the routine phone calls from his agent, lawyers, and accountant, and I was available for lunch and dinner—almost always accompanying him to both.
I had moved into his house on the second day. I was given the bedroom in the attic, a room where I could barely stand straight beneath the peak. A bathroom had been squeezed into the far end of the attic, and in the shower, folded bat-like, I practiced the twin arts of contortion and cleanliness.
I brought two suitcases—clothes, a few books—leaving most of my belongings at my apartment. I tossed the bags onto one of the twin beds and sat on the other. I needed to decide where to stow what, and how to rearrange the furniture to make the room my own.
Something was cold—it was wet. I jumped up and felt the damp of my shorts.
The tropics are not for the squeamish. In Key West, roaches resembling armored cars race the streets night and day. I knew two people whose cars had run aground when insulation-eating ants shorted out their wiring. During a cold snap, rats, which normally nest in coconut clusters, grab their families and flee to the nearest house, there burrowing into upholstered furniture. Once, when temperatures had dipped into the forties, I came home to my apartment and turned on the only heat—the oven and burners. I then flopped onto the sofa. Rats ran out helter-skelter.
There were plenty of human scoundrels in Key West too. They were revered. Of all the possible human devilry, and with all the beer-drinking drunks in town, a peed-on bed might be taken note of, but it was no cause for excitement. At least there was a dry bed in the room. I chose it.
When Tennessee heard about it, he laughed. “Perhaps Cornelius wanted to welcome you.” Cornelius had the right temperament, but could barely drag his short boxer legs up the stairs. More likely, Tommy, Roy’s young boyfriend, had left his final comment earlier that morning. Helen had seen Tommy’s tanned, hairless legs flying over the fence early that morning. She assumed he had snuck in to pick up some forgotten item. If he had left his mark in the process, there was really no point in worrying about it—the bed would dry soon enough.

As we continued our flight north, I sipped my cabernet and pondered Tennessee’s sense of time. He worked, slept, ate, swam, and socialized around the clock—a clock of his own making that he seldom bothered to synch with the world—and he never seemed to do any one of these things for more than two or three hours at a time.
A couple of nights before, after returning late from partying at The Monster, I climbed the stairs to my room, and then, undressing, heard the sound of typing. The sound was soothing. I had already become accustomed to hearing it any time of day or night.
I stood by the open window looking out. Beyond the overhanging trees and the covered patio, light spilled from the half-opened door to Tennessee’s studio. After a minute, I abandoned the window, pulled back the covers, and got into bed. I lay in the dark listening to the rhythmic tapping of Tennessee’s typing—soft staccato notes of reassurance. Tennessee’s writing was the river that ran beneath everything else, and just as the orbiting of the earth determined the progression of life beyond our walls, his writing determined the rhythm of his household.
I lay there listening and drifted into sleep.
The next morning, Skye and Gary joined Helen, Tennessee, and me for coffee on the patio. Tennessee went into his studio and returned with pages of dialogue from In Masks Outrageous and Austere, the play he had worked on through the night. Each of us taking a part, we read it for him aloud, and then once again.

“Beef Wellington or chicken kabobs?” The stewardess asked me quietly, but Tennessee awoke as she installed my tray.
Tennessee chose beef, and I followed his lead.
After she left, he turned to me.
“You should call me Tom,” he said. “It’s my given name, you know. Friends call me Tom.”
I had heard him addressed as Tennessee, Tenn, and Tom, and seen no pattern as to who called him what or why. I was glad that was settled—all week I had avoided addressing him by name.
Over dinner, we discussed the plan for arrival: where we would meet the driver, and the business obligations of the next day.
Afterward, I sipped Courvoisier, watching as we crept past luminescent colonies far below. Whispered voices brought my attention back inside. Two stewardesses, fingers covering their mouths, stood in the aisle whispering as they watched Tennessee.
“That’s no disguise—not with those,” one said, as she pointed, suppressing a laugh.
Tennessee was sleeping under a linen napkin he had spread to cover his face. His large trademark glasses secured the cloth and sat slightly askew. Reduced to caricature, he was perfectly recognizable.
I nodded agreement, holding my own laugh. They moved on, and then I stood, stepped carefully past Tennessee, and headed to the forward lavatory.
Passengers stopped me.
“That’s Tennessee Williams, isn’t it?”
“Excuse me, is that Tennessee Williams?”
Of course, I knew that Tennessee was a public figure, but I had only known him in Key West—in his modest home and where he was usually treated as just another islander. We were entering a different world now, a world where he would have a certain stature and be recognized for it. New York was going to be a very different world than I had known before.
             When I returned, I settled back into my seat and looked over at the ghost sitting at attention beside me. A gentle snore filtered through his napkin. I stretched out as far as I could. And then lulled by the gentle whoosh of the air, the warmth of Courvoisier in my veins, and the tinny sound from the headset that drooped off my ears, I slumped low in my seat. Sounds faded to a bare whisper, and soon I too let go as our plane raced the flyway to New York.


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