Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Chapter 11: Meeting Texas Kate

Chapter 11
Meeting Texas Kate



Texas Kate emerged from the Air Florida 737 and stood a moment on the platform. She, a younger, taller, and perhaps leaner Dinah Shore, lifted her face to the morning sun. Her hair, high as a Texas boast, spoke of new money, even if, as Tennessee claimed, by Texas standards her money was old—some of it, anyway. She waved to Tennessee, adjusted her short fur jacket, and descended the stairs like Evita Peron. Kate Moldawer may have had children in college, but she moved with youthful confidence, knowing her exact effect. Watching her cross the tarmac, I understood why men presented women with chocolate and roses—but we had neither to offer.
Tennessee introduced us and then, while the two of them caught up, I waited at the luggage platform. Kate’s Gucci bags were easy to spot, and I loaded them into the back of my Datsun. Tennessee took the front passenger seat; Kate sat in back. Under the extra load, the car’s springs squeaked at every bump. I pulled onto Roosevelt Boulevard.
“Now,” Kate drawled, as if slogging through molasses, “did you do this all by yourself?” Stuffed in the back of my eight-year-old car with a dead animal draped across her shoulders, she could have been a petulant drag queen. I looked up into the rearview mirror and saw her tight smile. Her eyes met mine. “Or did you have help?”
“Now Kate . . .” Tennessee said.
I loved her already.
 “Well, if someone had a hot date in this car, the whole world would know it!”
Tennessee barked a laugh.
It was true. My attitude toward car maintenance was informal, and after a period of procrastinating a lube job, I had ceased to notice the racket at all. The air conditioning had been broken for two years. Fortunately, it was a short trip to her house.
As we sped along the highway, she leaned forward, half-shouting against the noise of Tennessee’s half-open window. “I’m thinking of putting the house in Houston up for sale.”
“I can hear you,” Tennessee said, rubbing his ear and turning halfway around.
“They appraised it at $666,000. Can you imagine? That’s River Oaks.” In the mirror, I watched as she smiled and slowly leaned back against the back of the seat. “Of course I nearly fainted when I heard what little places like mine are going for in Key West.”
There is only so much a person can decently mention about money—even a Texan. She waited for Tennessee to ask. He did not. In the mirror, I watched her rearrange herself and push the dead animal off her shoulders. I smiled, imagining what a handful she would be.
Soon we arrived at her home on Elizabeth Street. A two-story sheathed in avocado clapboard, it sat in a luxuriant, if small, garden. A gleaming Cadillac hogged the drive.
She waited for me to run around and open her door, and then spoke to Tennessee at his window as I unloaded her bags.
“Let’s get together real soon. I don’t know what to expect when I go in, but maybe you all can come over tomorrow. We’ll have cocktails by the pool.”
Then, as I followed her up the front walk, she called back to Tennessee. “I’ll check the gin supply. You still drinking white wine?”
“Yes. Frascati, if you don’t mind.”
I dropped the bags inside the door and returned to the car.
“She won’t drink a drop unless it’s Tanqueray,” he said. “If I didn’t say Frascati, she’d buy jug wine.” He grimaced and brushed imaginary crumbs off his shirt. “Now that she’s here, she’s thinking I’m her meal ticket. She wouldn’t come to town if I weren’t around.”
Recently, Tennessee had received word that his net worth was eleven million dollars, and he was certain that meant he was on the brink of financial collapse. His expenses were high. He paid for his sister Rose to live at Stony Lodge, a private mental hospital. He paid Leoncia’s and my salaries, and there was the money he sent Robert Carroll in South Carolina. However, he owned the two houses in Key West outright, and his apartment in Manhattan had been sublet. His house in New Orleans was broken into apartments and  actually produced a nice income. Otherwise, he had the expenses of travel—always first class—restaurants at home, and unknown amounts he gave to friends, as well as others in need.
“She has tons of money,” he said. “I don’t know why she acts poor.” He looked at me and continued. “The gin is no accident. Her maiden name is Schweppe—tonic water. She married a prominent doctor, Moldawer—cleaned him out when she left. Got her eye out for another.” He groaned. “In the meantime, there’s me. No telling what she has in mind for tomorrow, but I’ll have to pick up the check.”

“Hi-AI-ai!” Three notes. Helen was excited.
I turned to see her struggling down the steps to the patio. Leoncia mopped her brow as she watched from her perch in the kitchen.
“How’s the mother to be?” Helen said, as she approached me.
“She’s calming down.” Juanita was marching around the patio table, her head cocked sideways. She eyed the grapes I had laid out for her, gashing them occasionally with her beak. I had been told that Juanita was a Double Green Amazon parrot, as was her mate, Pepe. They lived in a cage in the patch of jungle at the side of Tennessee’s studio. Tennessee had recently had someone clip their wings so they could come out of the cage without easily escaping. I was trying to re-tame them. After several years with little attention, they had grown untrusting of humans.
A few years before, I had shared my apartment with a parrot while his owners took a half-year vacation. However, that had not prepared me for the development at Tennessee’s house—the prospect of new life. Juanita had, three days before, produced a single egg. Several times a day, Tennessee, Helen, and I paraded out like grandparents-to-be to check the egg. Juanita, however, seemed only confused, as she danced around the egg, cocking her head to one side and then the other. She had no mothering instinct, and rather than sit on it, along with Pepe, she usually eyed it quizzically from a distance.
In a household that included parrots, someone might be expected to have an idea of their normal behaviors—or think to consult a reference. Instead, we simply deduced that parrot eggs did not require the heat of a rump to develop.
 The animals were my responsibility. Besides the parrots, Tennessee owned an English bulldog, Cornelius, and Topaz, the cat. Cornelius, when he was not sleeping, sauntered in and out of the house, dragging his stubby legs up and down the three steps. He was content to stay close. Topaz lived in the jungle that defined the periphery of the property and unknown places beyond it. I rarely saw her except when she came into the kitchen for food. Always bedraggled, her long, buff-colored hair full of debris, she had no interest in me, and had hissed the one time I thought to brush her out. I could never remember her name.
“Shiver me timbers!” Helen called out, and then laughed as she tilted her head to stare Juanita down. We were under strict orders to teach the birds to cuss like sailors, and while there was a good deal more salt to my own efforts, this was about Helen’s limit.
Tennessee had fantasized a scenario with parrots. “HA!” he roared. He closed his thumb and forefinger on the imaginary handle of a teacup. “White-haired ladies, brittle as autumn leaves, tea…literary discussion—and me. We sit at the table discussing Proust. I drop something—grapes! Out from the bushes, Pepe and Juanita swagger and squawk. They spy the grapes. Wolf whistles—a blue streak of cussing.” He bent over, laughing. “Our gentle ladies panic. ‘Oooo!’ Wings flapping. Birds cussing—running between legs for the grapes. Pan-de-mo-nium!”
Truth was, those birds were as good at aping language or responding to a command as they were at caring for the egg. Having had them for years, Tennessee had to know this.
Although my hands and ears had suffered from their beaks, my efforts with the birds had calmed them around people. Despite poor verbal results, I continued working, hoping to get them to speak more. They increased their frequency of hellos, although I could not claim I taught them that. They learned to screech the first two syllables of the dog’s name, “Cor-NEE!” However, like me, they eyed the cat uneasily—never remembering her name.
Helen turned to me. “I have to take care of some business in town.” A broad smile crept across her face. “My check came in, huuuh?”
Tennessee had told me Helen received a small income. Her grandfather had, many years before, patented new technologies for the railroads. Some of the applications were still in use. The proceeds from the patents went to a trust fund that paid out monthly to the heirs, including Helen. From what I could gather, her income allowed her to travel, but on a very strict budget. I had seen her secret economies—discreet privations that allowed her to spend publicly in small bursts of generosity. She had charge accounts in town, and having heard mumbled comments, I knew she had overdue bills. I doubted she could have stayed afloat had she had to pay rent.
Tennessee had been worrying about how to shake off Helen for the afternoon. “They don’t get along, Baby,” he said to me. “Kate has no use for Helen—she can’t let things lie. Putting them together would be like feeding a broken bird to a hungry cat.”
The arrival of Helen’s check solved everything.

“Well, what did you think of Michael?” Kate asked as she smoothed the coral dinner napkin she had just placed on her lap.
We had regrouped at the Pier House restaurant for dinner after spending the afternoon by Kate’s pool, followed by a trip home for Tennessee’s nap. We sat at a table in the center of the restaurant—not a spot Tennessee would have chosen. Kate had brushed aside the young man who tried to seat us. “This way,” she said, and with the same bearing she had displayed descending the stairs from the plane, led us to an empty table right in the center of the room. With her presence, Tennessee’s recognizability, and my seven-foot height, our entrance hardly went unnoticed.
Many tourists came to Key West fascinated by its famous authors. Hemingway was no longer available, although his house could be toured and the descendants of his six-toed cats could be seen fat-footing every corner of the island. Occasionally, we would open the door to find tourists leaning against the picket fence, staring at the house. A few came up and knocked on the door, hoping for an autograph or just to express admiration. When we ran errands in town, tourists sometimes stopped Tennessee on the street. He was always pleasant despite the interruption, and as often as not, entertained them with a story.

“Well, what do you think?” Kate repeated.
“Huh?”
“Michael. What did you think of Michael?”
“Oh, yes. Michael . . .”
Kate stared at him, and then turned quickly to follow his line of sight. Donny Osmond’s double sat three tables over. “Tennessee,” she said, “we are talking about my man now. The one I am dating—not some damn boy across a restaurant.” She pierced him with a look. “He’s straight,” she hissed.
“I hope he’s straight!” Tennessee said with double her volume. “I’d hate to have to break the bad news. Yes, Michael looks straight to me.”
“Now, come on!” she said, “I had you over for a swim—to introduce you. I’d like to know what you think.”
She tossed her hair and then flounced against the back of her seat, mock-pouting.

We had arrived that afternoon at Kate’s for “a cocktail and a swim.” Her house was modest in size, furnished for relaxation and comfort. Stuffed bookcases lined the walls and the stairway landing. A maid moved quietly about, cleaning the adjoining rooms.
“Let’s have a drink!” she said. She moved to the makeshift bar on the island that separated the kitchen from the rest of the room. She poured herself a Tanqueray and tonic, and then pulled a sweating bottle of Frascati out of the ice and held it high for Tennessee to see.
“Don’t know how much drink you men drink. I’ll let you pour your own.”
Tennessee poured himself a glass of wine; I chose Tanqueray.
She pulled open the sliding glass door, and we walked out onto the covered patio. Palms and green philodendron shields surrounded us. A thin arc of water splashed into the azure-tiled lap pool.
Kate, already in a bathing suit, led us to the pool and then stepped down into the water, submerging herself to the neck. Tennessee and I disrobed to the trunks we wore beneath our shorts. Having wet all but her hair, Kate left the pool to lie on a chaise lounge on the deck. Tennessee swam a few laps, but frustrated by the length of the pool and the constant turns, got out and joined her on the deck. After a quick retrieval of my gin, I returned to the pool to soak.
“Hello!” The curly blonde head of a bronze-faced man was poking through a narrow opening of the door. Disembodied, he was a living trophy from a hunting lodge wall. He smiled broadly.
“Come on out,” Kate said. “Join the party.” She sat forward and chased some drink spillage down her cleavage with a napkin. “Y’all . . . I want you to meet Michael,” Kate said, and then stood. “We’ve been dating a little while now.”
Michael brought the rest of himself through the doorway and she put her arm around his waist as he shook our hands.
“I didn’t want to mention him—not until we had a few dates.”
“Am I a keeper?” he asked with a laugh.
“Good Lord—my manners!” She turned to him. “There’s Tanqueray in the kitchen. Can I get you a drink?”
He brought his hand forward, revealing a full glass.
Michael stood about six-foot-two. Below the thin gold chain around his neck, his melon Polo rode close on his softly muscular torso. He wore a heavy gold bracelet, and below his khaki shorts, a forest of curly blonde hairs covered his beefy legs. He looked like the embodiment of the New South salesman—the kind anyone would bet on. He was about thirty-five years old, at least ten years younger than Kate—the best that I could tell.
Kate, of course, was introducing Michael to Tennessee. After a little small talk, I returned to the pool while the three of them hobnobbed on the patio.
On the way home, I learned from Tennessee that Michael was leaving town that afternoon. Although he was now spending as much time as possible in Key West, he had business to attend to.
Rome or Athens,” Tennessee said, and then chuckled. “I’m sure Kate meant Georgia.”

The Pier House waiter arrived to take our drink order. Kate sat up and turned quickly toward him.
“Two Tanquerays and tonic . . .” She looked at me for approval. “Two . . . and do you have Frascati?” The waiter thought a moment before shaking his head. “Well, white wine then. That is what you want . . .” she turned, half-asking Tennessee.
He nodded.
“OK, now . . .” she said, as she closed her eyes for a moment.
The waiter hesitated, but when Kate turned to face Tennessee, he left. She let out a sigh, and with it went half her confidence, but none of her determination. “What do you think of Michael?” she said slowly.
Tennessee sipped his water. “Well, my dear . . . I have no trouble seeing the obvious attraction.”
That was all he said, leaving her to extract whatever meaning she chose.

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