Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Chapter 9: At Home

Chapter 9
At Home


“Flora-Jean! Get that child . . .” Never before had I heard Leoncia McGee squeak as she spoke. I had known her three weeks.
She pulled her head halfway back inside my Datsun wagon. “Stop this car,” she demanded, and then thrust her head back out the window. We were in the middle of an intersection, Truman and Thomas.
“You get that child out of the sun!” she squealed.
I bent my head lower to get a better look through Leoncia’s window. Reflecting off whitewashed stucco, the ten o’clock sun nearly blinded me. A young woman and her child in a stroller had stopped in their tracks in front of the Southernmost Holiness Tabernacle, a white stucco fortress with tall, single palm trees flanking its anthracite doors. The young mother made a visor of her hand, and then with a pout, slowly pulled up the stroller’s awning.
It flapped back down.
 “Flora-Jean, where you going with that child?”
Flora-Jean flounced her weight onto the other hip.
“See my mother.”
Leoncia leaned farther out and pointed. “That child needs a shade hat.” She relaxed a bit and dropped her pitch. “Get that child out of the sun. Go on, now.”
“Yes, ma’am.”
“Lord!” Leoncia breathed heavily as she turned and settled back into her seat.
I pulled out of the intersection, and then stopped again as she hollered back out the window. “Hurry up Flora-Jean—don’t let me see that child in the sun again!”
            I studied Leoncia for a moment. The dignity of her bearing shone even as, breathing hard, she mopped beads of sweat from her brow. She tucked stray hairs back into the gray and black mass that had been pulled and secured toward the back of her head. She folded her arms across her bosom. The thick lenses of her cat’s-eye glasses magnified her eyes, giving their movement an exaggerated, aimless appearance. Small, elongated moles peopled the upper regions of her cheeks and stood at attention as if trying to get a better view. She composed herself.
            “Miss Helen, she say not to come over there and work, so I didn’t.”
            Leoncia was in her early seventies and never worked if Tennessee was out of town. She knew everyone knew that. She had worked for Tennessee for years, and for Ernest Hemmingway before that. Before Hemmingway, she had worked for the president of Johnson & Johnson.
            I hoped to hear her stories one day.
She had refused retirement, which Tennessee offered to fund, and continued working five days a week when he was in town. She began her workday sitting at the kitchen island with a mug of fresh coffee. Eventually, she would ease off her stool and begin making beds and collecting laundry. As the day progressed, she returned to her perch more and more frequently for another draft of the aging coffee. She wiped kitchen counters, swept, and sometimes pine-oiled the floors. During her years with Tennessee, she had imposed some semblance of order on his domestic life. Even as her faculties failed her, the house was sustained by this order, and it sustained her as well.
            Tennessee was aware of this, and had decided to allow her to work for him as long as she wanted. Leoncia’s reduced ability to take care of the house suited Tennessee. An electrician once made emergency wiring repairs and recommended a carpenter to replace a rotting section of framing, but Tennessee balked at the idea of paying for anything beyond a band-aid.
“The day I die, this house will collapse,” he declared before walking off.

“How’s Mr. Tom?” Now that I had turned onto Duncan Street, and we were nearing the house, Leoncia’s voice became melodious. “He feeling good?”
            “Yeah.” I glanced at her. “He was tired when we got in, but he swam—slept well after eating some soup.”
            “That’s good. Mr. Tom, when he come back, he has to sleep and eat the soup.” She rolled a laugh. “They wear him out up north—New York City! Always come home, sleep, and eat the soup.” She pulled her purse from the floor as I parked at the curb.
            “He’s fine. He played records on the patio last night.”
            “He played records?” She laughed. “Oh Lord! What he play—Cha-cha-cha?”
 “No,” I laughed too. “Some country thing Gary left.”
The night before, when I went to shower before going out, Tennessee sat on the patio, listening to an Emmylou Harris album. When I finished and was ready to leave, he went into the dining room and skipped the needle back to “Save the Last Dance for Me.”
We had gotten back from our trip that afternoon, and I just wanted to get out—get away from Tennessee, his house, and his crowd. I did not want to think. I left him musing with his glass of Chablis, jumped on my bike, and headed for The Monster.
I chained my bike to a streetlamp on Duval, and as I followed the croton-lined path along the side of the old brick bank, pounding bass quickened my step. Strings of tiny lights twining through corkscrew crotons lit the way. I rounded the corner and stepped into the courtyard. Men crowded the long, covered bar to the left and flowed around tables on the right. Directly ahead, beyond the open glass doors, dancers pulsed to Blondie’s “Rapture.” Projected in black and white on the far wall, an aquatic zipper of 1930s beauties closed and then re-opened. As I approached, jet-blast air conditioning carrying the scents of alcohol, tobacco, and poppers, poured out the doorway to greet me—it was only Monday.
I got a vodka tonic, found a spot, and as I lit a cigarette, began to relax. My feet tapped. I forgot Tennessee, my duties, and everything having to do with Duncan Street. I gave in and allowed my body to resonate with the barrage to my senses.
Since moving to Key West, I had been going out three nights a week—sometimes four. Though shy, after two drinks I relaxed and assumed a stance meant to look friendly and available. Only recently did I think I might be good-looking. And I discovered, too, that many found my height attractive. I was careful to stand under diffused lighting—strong enough to illuminate, but not bright like the spots chosen by the muscled.
I met Alain, a reporter for Le Monde, that night. On vacation from his newspaper job in Paris, he had rented a house, anomalous in Key West, a Swiss chalet built in the early 1900s. Low and squat, its heavy roof sloped gently to the front. A single eyebrow dormer peeked from the second floor.
Alain led me down the hall and into the expanded kitchen, where a loaded industrial pot rack hung over the butcher-block island. Alain pulled a bottle of champagne from the stainless refrigerator, and with that and two glasses, we stepped out into the garden. An aqua glow escaped the pool and lit the undersides of Royal Poincianas. From loudspeakers hidden in periwinkle, Irene Papas sang traditional Greek odes to the swells of Vangelis’s synthesizer. We disrobed and slipped into the water, but before we finished half the champagne, we returned to the house.
However, it was Alain’s friend Javier who was on my mind that night. Alain had introduced us when we ran into him as we left the bar. Javier, from Madrid, was on a break from Harvard where he taught International Law as a visiting professor. While Alain was tall, soft, and wore a silk scarf knotted at his neck, Javier was dark and muscular, coarse hair showing at the open collar of his apricot shirt. Javier would remain in town several days longer than Alain.

Earlier that day, after our 737 had pulled to a stop near the Key West terminal, I stepped out of the plane, and pausing before descending the rolling staircase, took a deep breath of the tropical air. Late autumn was dry season in the Keys, and the lowered sun cast sharp shadows on the tarmac. Tennessee and I climbed down the stairs and crossed the apron to the terminal. Porters scurried, unloading baggage. Under a low roof, the open-air baggage platform extended from the side of the terminal. Soon, it swarmed with travelers and airline employees. Grateful for the length of my arms, I reached into the chaos, and retrieved our bags.
            “Hi!” Helen called as she waved a doughy arm out the window of the Escort. She pulled up and parked in the fire lane. I wondered which enthused her more—seeing us again or not having to clamber out of the car.
            I loaded the bags in the back as she chattered about every unimportant thing that had occurred in our absence. She continued until we reached the house on Duncan Street.  
            “Maria called,” she said in a sober voice as we entered the living room. “Twice.”
            I had heard Maria St. Just’s name mentioned in New York, but I had not learned much about her. I gathered that she lived in London.
            “She wants you to call right away.”
            “Oh, Maria . . .” Tennessee sighed. After a moment, he looked up. “It’s too late—there’s a five hour difference.”
            I considered asking him about her, but decided to wait until we had settled in.
            “Maria,” Tennessee said to me as he began shuffling through the pile of mail on the telephone table, “is a woman you want for an ally.” He laughed. “She was born in Russia—Maria Britneva. When she was a year old, her mother escaped to London with the two children. They left the father behind.” He chuckled. “A sort of sacrifice to the Bolsheviks.”
            He dropped the mail on the table, and I followed him to the kitchen island.
With a mighty effort, Helen popped the top off a carafe of Chablis. “There!” she said. “Congratulate me, huh?” This was her first success at opening a Taylor carafe. She filled three glasses.
Sitting on a stool, Tennessee raised a glass to Helen. “Well, you’ve made yourself completely indispensable now.” He took a swallow, and then turned back to me.
 “Maria’s mother was uh . . . socially ambitious, and Maria—she skipped childhood, you know—learned very quickly. The best schools and all of that. No one knows where they got the money—I can only imagine.” He rolled his eyes and laughed before draining his wine.
“Eventually, Maria snagged a suitable man. Peter Grenfell, the Lord St. Just. She married him, and then had him committed to a mental hospital—immediately.”
He barked a laugh, and then refilled his glass.
“You see, he’s really a terrible case—completely unstable—made worse by Maria’s attentions. She keeps him . . . some run-down asylum. Claims she can’t afford even that. Well, she has done some acting, but the stage is not Maria’s venue.” He stood up and then continued. “Second wealthiest man in England—still, I wouldn’t want to be the Lord St. Just!” He took a swallow of wine, and then turned to Helen. “Where’s my address book?”
“It’s on the telephone table,” she said, pushed herself up, and then walked heavily toward the stand. “Oh no, it must be in your bag.”
“I’d better call her.” He went into his bedroom, retrieved the book, and as he sat down in front of the phone, began leafing through it. “She’ll be here on the Concorde,” he said, “if she thinks I’ve waited a moment to call her—and she’ll send me the bill!” He put his finger on the number as he continued speaking. “I hope it’s not raining. She’s trying to wear me down. Thinks I’ll pay for a new roof for the Gerald Road house. She’ll have Wilbury too when the old dowager dies—oldest Palladian house in England. Rotted downspouts, I’m told.” He dialed the operator. “She’s locked him up, gotten his money, and now she’s too damn cheap . . .” He gave the operator the number.
Helen and I went back to the kitchen and the wine.
She downed what remained in her glass. “Maria will come if she thinks he needs her.” She put her glass down. “I’ll have another, huh?”
 “She’ll order everyone around—then clear us out. Nobody argues with Maria. She likes you, you’re in. If not—out with the trash.” Helen scrounged in her purse and then popped a pill. She reached over and laid a hand on my forearm. “Listen,” she said in a force-calmed voice, “Maria might like you.”
I was not sure what to make of that.
“Well,” she said, “we’ll see what Tennessee has to report.”
Tennessee soon finished his cheery telephone performance, and then retired to his bedroom, reporting nothing at all.

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