Winner of the Dr. Neila C. Seshachari Fiction Award
Gary Gildner lives on a ranch in Idaho's Clearwater Mountains. His 19 published books include Blue Like the Heavens: New & Selected Poems, The Second Bridge (a novel), A Week in South Dakota (short stories), The Warsaw Sparks (a memoir about coaching a baseball team in Communist Poland), The Bunker in the Parsley Fields (recipient of the 1996 Iowa Poetry Prize), and a second memoir, My Grandfather's Book (2002), named a Top Ten University Press Book of the Year by ForeWord Magazine.
Read some of Gary Gildner's poetry as well as an interview with Mr. Gildner previously published in Weber Studies.
Lying here covered with silk, feeling absolutely broken, and all Gomez can bring me is skim milk with a little honey. I should throw him out. He knows I can't tolerate anything that smells like a barn, that looks so sickly pale. The dwarf. I've always hated ugly men. Yes, dwarf!
Oh, once upon a time life could be instantly good. I remember when I was twenty-five. I had a stunning tan, a nice apartment near UCLA, money in the cookie jar, and standing six feet two and one-half inches in my underwear—in that town—did not exactly go against me. Especially when I put on the right clothes and huskied up my voice to sound like Bacall. The only problem was trying to figure out how to ease around a certain rooster without hurting myself. Okay, the rooster, really a wart hog, was Bernard X. Fogel, yes, him, the notorious plucker, what difference does it make naming him now? He's gone. Some say ground up into a delicacy. But at that time he was doing me favors: he got his friends Green & Gold to handle my first two scripts, and then he got other friends to buy them. So. Then comes along Carlos, who is full of fire.
Ironically, Bernie was the one who had brought us together, taking me to watch him box that first time.
"You like the broken nose?"
"I'll make an introduction." Bernie liked making introductions.
But he didn't care for me to see too much of the broken nose, and after Carlos and I quietly slipped out of town one time for a week on Baja, for grilled hot peppers and octopus and all the spices, Bernie, when I got back, wasn't calling or returning my calls. Life was suddenly less good. True, I could see Carlos anytime I wanted now; nonetheless I was beginning to feel separate and chilly when it came to the large picture. Also, Carlos' fire in the ring was cooling, and my cookie jar wasn't that big.
Enter Rudy, who showed up like Barnum and Bailey and started right in to make me famous.
He had recently been fired by Green & Gold and was driving nowhere in particular on the Ventura Freeway, thinking about the next payment on his Porsche, about revenge, about this and that, and then about this Mona Johannson. Though I didn't know him, he knew who I was because of my scripts; his thinking becomes more interesting and before you know it he is at my door. A not very tall sort with five o'clock burr on his jowls and a sagging belt. But an alligator belt.
"Let me suggest one or two things," he said.
"About what?" I said.
"Your film scripts, which are really something else."
"Is that so?"
"Now listen," he said. "You know how water trembles at a steady boil? That's half the secret, the tremble. The rest is packaging."
"Who are you, anyway?"
"Rudy Schwartz, your new agent. Why not invite me in?"
"My boyfriend is napping on the sofa."
"This is business."
"He's a boxer. He can wake up swinging."
So we drove around in his Porsche. He explained his former connection with Green & Gold. Then he said he would lay a large wager that only two people on the planet had read my scripts all the way through: me and him.
"Oh, really?" I said. "Why is that?"
"I couldn't stop," he said. "One tasty cliché after another. Unbelievable performances." He kissed his fingertips. "But your name's no good. Tell me, Mona Johannson, when do people want their dreams to come true?"
"I'm still thinking about my tasty clichés."
"Don't pout. They're money in the bank. Now listen to this: Romona Tomorrow. Does it cozy? Does it promise?"
I listened. He said my scripts would never reach the screen. "Face it," he said, "you've been had a little, no offense." But, he said, with some tinkering they could be made into romance novels. They already had the stock and noodles and juicy bits of breast—all I needed to do was strike a match and stretch out the tremble. And never mind, he said, that the stories technically weren't mine to tinker with; no one would notice.
So I did it. I set the table, and to the pot I added more scented breath, more panting, more silky, a little more good and a lot more rotten. I got such a tremble going that even I was begging for coitus and death and resurrection, all of which I stirred up so smoothly you couldn't tell for sure one delicious experience from another. Rudy, lipping his cigar, said, "Creamy." Then, "Why not name your main woman so her initials are the same as yours—let's say for intrigue?" Then he supervised the photo: I am caught full length before the ocean, in a strapless white shimmering sheath; it is night, or heavy dusk, and I gleam like an angel. That is, the dress gleams. Everything else—shoulders, eyes, long hair—is a different shade of rich wet brown.
"Let's serve," he said.
Out came Comes the Ecstasy, piping hot. With me on the back cover as hors d'oeuvre.
Oh, Rudy. What a clever pair we made, and finally what small, cheerless produce. Yes, he was there for me, in artistic matters, let us say. But in other departments—like life—he was allergic, keeping his distance. Don't breathe on him.
I said, "What am I going to do about Carlos?"
"Yes, Carlos. Who thinks he can still fight."
"What does he think of the book?"
"He's happy for me."
"That's nice, Mona."
"Don't you care?"
"Don't I care? Sure I care. It's a winner. Be free next weekend so we can plan number two."
Embrace Me Darkly proved I was not a fluke. I bought the big house in Malibu, and Carlos, despite my pleading, had his last fight, which all but killed him.
"So, you see?" Rudy said to me later, out of the blue.
If by that he meant that Carlos had enough left upstairs to sit quietly and manage an ice cream cone, or that Do With Me What You Will surpassed in sales even the other two, or that marrying him wasn't such a bad idea after all, I really had no clue.
But the question remains, doesn't it? Why did I?
One Pump. An Investment
Anyway, we got married. I was not yet thirty, I had more money than I needed; the next romance, Kiss Satan Twice, was practically writing itself, and Carlos was holding steady, happy as he would ever be, watering the lawn, waxing the cars. I tried teaching him to read, but he preferred hearing the stories—"Mona, you do it," he'd say, wrinkling his forehead—and that was okay too, a relaxing way to end the day. No, it was more than okay and relaxing—it was sweet and touching to see his face, and often his entire body, respond at exactly the right moments, and to hear him sigh with satisfaction. I looked forward very much to those evenings, as I did to our trips to the book store to pick out new stories, after which we always got helado.
As for Rudy, there were no real surprises. He was my agent, my artistic director, my housemate, occasionally my and Carlos' dinner companion (though not much of a conversationalist except for business matters), and when he thought I needed "new wheels" he was my personal auto adviser. He thought I needed a new car every six months, as he did. More than anything he liked to say, after we got inside the latest buy, "Smell it?"
So what, under the circumstances, could be terribly wrong? No one was getting beat up anymore; no one was drinking heavily, cheating, suffering indigestion, insomnia. Rudy almost even stole my heart once.
We never went anywhere that wasn't specifically connected to selling Romona Tomorrow books—that I can remember—so when he told me one sunny day he had a pair of airplane tickets to Kentucky—"to see something a little different"—I was perhaps not overwhelmed but certainly very curious. And, I'll admit it, hopeful.
After we landed in Louisville, a limo took us to Lexington. The whole trip Rudy kept me in the dark, only a little smile around his cigar.
"We'll see it together" was all he'd say.
You know what I thought passing those gorgeous green pastures and warm woody barns and houses? He wanted to buy us a farm! I had my window rolled down. I was smelling grass and clean air and hearing meadowlarks. I could do it!
"Oh Rudy," I said, and slipped my arm under his.
"Hey," he said. "You haven't seen anything yet."
"I think you're okay," I said.
I might have been sipping champagne I felt so light. I even thought he was doing this as much for Carlos as for us, because all of that sweet tranquility, those gently laid out soft fields would never cause Carlos to jerk up his head and look around, worried, as he sometimes did, even in Malibu. Were the ladies and gentlemen living under Lexington's greeny-blue skies ever startled by sirens in the night? I couldn't imagine it.
When we pulled into the long homey driveway of Three Chimneys Farm, I had to pee—I was that excited.
"Not this one?" I said.
"It's the best," he said.
Inside the house, which was really a big comfortable office, I was puzzled. Rudy and a woman behind a desk talked about his appointment. I used the bathroom. When I came out, Rudy and a man were waiting for me. We walked out back to what our host called the barn. If that was a barn, I was Princess Grace of Monaco. Round, not rectangular, it was full of clean light from a high dome; and there was no barny odor, none. It smelled fresh as outdoors. We stood in the large round main room on a floor that looked made of brick, but which gave a little under my high heels. It was a hard rust-colored carpet, and it was spotless. The entire room was spotless. The only dirt I saw anywhere was contained in a slightly elevated circle smack in the room's center, and even this dirt had been fussed over and raked free of anything—like, say, a pebble or a leaf—that might mar its peculiar perfection.
Around the room's outer rim were the stalls, about six as I remember, each one holding a horse. Not just any horses, our host was explaining, but champions whose bloodlines had brought the Queen of England, not to mention sheiks of the desert, right here, standing right where we were standing, in admiration.
We looked through the bars separating us from these champions and I thought to myself: those aren't just any stalls, either. They were lined with real mahogany paneling, your uptown banker's best, and like the barn's central room they contained no bad odors, only the aromatic scent of brushed thoroughbred. They were so spacious and handsome and un-stall-like, they made it difficult for me to see their occupants. Real horses didn't live here, did they? Each stall was at least as big as my Malibu living room, and except for the golden straw on the floor—straw never allowed to remain soiled any longer than it took an ever-present worker to whisk away that portion a champion might dirty—they were just as nice.
Rudy said, "Mona, come look."
I went over and looked through the bars of the stall where he was standing.
"That's it," he said.
I saw a horse rolling one eye at me. I also saw he was getting an erection.
This was Rudy's "something a little different" we'd flown to Kentucky to see. Or part of that different thing. The other part, he said, was a mare we owned named Nola. I didn't know we owned a horse. At that moment I didn't know anything,
A worker led the eye-rolling stud out of his stall and onto the circle of dirt. So we could have a better look. Rudy gestured his cigar toward the stud's growing member.
"That's what we're buying for Nola," he said.
What was I supposed to do, clap my hands? I remember wanting to say something like that, something deeply cutting, but my disappointment had me surrounded and I couldn't figure out why. Why should I be anywhere near disappointment knowing Rudy as I did? I remember saying, finally, "And where is Nola?"
"In the next room, I guess. Right?" he asked our host.
"She's in the breeding room," the man said.
"One pump. An investment," Rudy said—to me, I supposed, though his eyes were fixed on the stud.
"A pretty good investment," our host said. "This big fellow has produced Derby, Preakness, Belmont, and Breeder's Cup winners the last—"
He recited years and money, sounding both efficient and ministerial—an oddly comforting voice, I remember; and I remember noticing his boots, their rich tone, one with the mahogany stalls, the champions' sleek coats. How did Rudy, who never looked so polished (his little pot rolled over his belt, his chubby cheeks forever in five o'clock shadow), how did Rudy Schwartz get mixed up with this crowd? But mainly I remember thinking, later, after it was all over—after meeting our chestnut mare Nola (whom I immediately loved) and watching the stud mount her in the breeding room, her back hooves padded so she wouldn't hurt his enormously valuable testicles if she got too excited or "too difficult"—I remember thinking as we returned with our host to the main room: I could still do it. I could move here and buy or build a real barn and smell grass that was unlike grass anywhere in California, because now I had another reason, that beautiful mare. Why couldn't I?
"There's not one fly on that stallion," Rudy was saying, and our host laughed: "Oh, there are no flies anywhere in here. Not alive anyway. We have a special system."
Though my eye was fixed on those rich boots and though I could follow the talk around me, I was very deep into this thing I could do. I said, "No, I'll stay outside." Rudy and the man went into the office, and I found a white fence board to put my foot on, a pasture beyond that I could imagine Nola grazing in. Then I heard a whinny and saw, behind me, two of the handlers from the breeding room leading Nola toward a trailer. Quickly I went over to them; I was ready to say, "That's my horse. Where are you taking her?" But I stopped myself. I was afraid they would give me some terrible news that Rudy hadn't got around to telling me yet.
A Piece of Pork Chop
I had to keep busy. Like an automaton, I produced two Romona Tomorrows back to back, Unleash Me Now and Evil See, Evil Do. I asked Rudy if we could please have Nola and her colt shipped to California so Carlos and I could care for them. He said I didn't know what I was talking about. Those were thoroughbreds, not pets, he said. I said I realized that, but couldn't we at least help a little? Like brush them, clean their stalls? He said he'd look into it. He put me off for weeks and finally said the Kentucky people were against it.
"Those horses are investments, Mona."
He refused to discuss it further. I was furious. I knew he simply couldn't be bothered. I was also extremely disappointed, especially for Carlos, because I had showed him photos of Nola and the colt and even said they were coming to live with us, on a farm nearby. I mean, they were my "investments" too! We had been reading horse stories, which he loved, to prepare us for the great day of their arrival. Now I had to tell him they weren't coming. He looked sad. Angry and frustrated, I drew a fat face on a balloon, a face with a cigar in its mouth, and pressed a thumbnail into it. Carlos picked up the floppy rag of rubber off the floor, studied it a moment, then dropped it in a waste basket.
"No good," he said.
"That's right, Carlos, no good at all," I said.
I wondered, later, how significant an impression something like that could have made on a man in Carlos' condition, or if it made any impression at all beyond the obvious fact that a balloon lost its air. The interesting thing was, when Rudy got the piece of pork chop stuck in his throat and began gasping for breath, I myself thought of his face as something very much like a balloon blowing up. But I do not know if Carlos did.
I held his hand.
We looked at each other, not moving, while Rudy sucked in more and more precious air. Or tried to. He seemed terribly caught. One hand knocked over his wine glass. But everywhere else he seemed absolutely still—even his head and neck appeared to be locked in that erect, red posture of a rooster at the peak of his cry. Except there was no cry. At best he grunted as if in prolonged sexual release.
Sweet Carlos, his eyes now round with concern, rose from his chair and got behind Rudy. He put his strong arms around the suffering man's chest and raised him. He hugged Rudy in a fierce embrace. Unfortunately he did not hug in quite the right place for the Heimlich method to take effect—if in fact that maneuver was on his childish mind.
Let's say it was: his expression certainly suggested he wanted to help. And of course that was my testimony at the little inquiry, supported by Echo, my excellent cook, who, at my call, entered the dining room while Carlos was still embracing the spent figure. (Poor Echo, nothing like this had ever happened to her before.) It did cross my mind that my balloon face of Rudy might have made a good detective curious if he had come upon it, though I dismissed such thinking as a foolish by-product of my profession. In any case, two weeks had passed since Carlos dropped the balloon in the waste basket, and by then my efficient housekeeper, Fonda, had disposed of it. When I wept—once, and all alone—my tears were the issue of pure gratitude. At the cremation I wore a stunning black Gaucho hat.
I think if I had not rushed off to Kentucky as I did, my life would have taken fewer bitter turns. But I was mad to see those horses, to inhale them! I bought everything I needed—boots, jodhpurs, gloves. And I insisted I learn to ride on Nola. Of course I was in love with her, and with Nola's Baby, and like anyone in love I had to follow my feelings, didn't I? So when Gerard, the manager of the farm where they stayed, asked me about future breeding plans I said there were none; and to the man Rudy had hired to train Nola's Baby, I said I was not certain I wanted to race him. The man, whose name I don't recall—it is not worth recalling—looked at my beautiful colt, at the ground, then directly into my eyes.
"But this animal has been built to run," he finally said.
"Let him run then—for fun and health," I said. "Beyond that, I'll have to think about it."
This man physically resembled Rudy too much for me to take him seriously. But the exercise rider who gave Nola's Baby his workouts was altogether another matter. He was so supple in the saddle I couldn't resist him. His name had all five vowels: Aurelio. Up close he seemed constructed out of ax handles and pitchfork tines, and for a week steady we gave each other bruises the color of must on red grapes. Our last time together, blowing smoke on the teeth marks in his arms, he asked me, "What will you do with the colt?"
"Maybe set him up in the stud business," I said.
They all thought I was crazy. I didn't care; I was free. And one moony evening I met a heart surgeon hanging on the fence gazing at my wonderful stallion. He said he had a complicated operation in the morning. "This calms me unlike anything I know." I was prepared to fall for him, to drape my body over pasture fences with him forever. He smelled like clover and a clean bath towel. There really was a Sea of Tranquility, wasn't there?
Then all that sad, sad business with Carlos. My gardener, Monk, watching over him during my absence, took him out for ice cream one afternoon and he strangled the shop owner's dog. "Why, Carlos, why?" I asked, holding his hands, when I arrived home. He could only shiver and shake his head and cry. I combed his hair with my fingers. I wiped his tears. I told him everything was all right and gave him a roll of mints.
I tried to bury myself in the writing of Blood Horse Moon. It wasn't enough. Finally I moved—to a place in the Napa Valley. The Malibu house depressed me, and it was like living in a fishbowl. The dog's owner sued me; then her husband sued me. I had paid the woman quite a lot already for her dog and I thought that was the end of it; but soon she got these "headaches from a recurring nightmare," plus a "rash" on her hands from "the maniac" touching her, and consequently her husband was "deprived" of her normal company, and so on.
"Let the bastards scream," LaVonn, my new agent, said. "Even if we lose we'll win, honey."
Can you imagine my photo between one of Carlos and one of an Irish setter, and underneath the pictures the hideous claim that poor Carlos was driven by "insane jealousy" to murder one of his rivals for my affection? I got headaches! And a skin condition! Which is why I never followed through on my plan to bring Nola and Nola's Baby to my Napa Valley farm; and why I required, nightly, a good masseur to free me from the awful tension.
I also took up yoga, had a sauna built, instructed Echo to cease serving her
delicious creamy soups. I showed her in my medical reference the
section describing a renal calculus, which I was sure I was suffering from. Still, when I least expected it, tears would fill my eyes.
What had I done!
Well, for one thing, I put Carlos away in a private hospital. It was a nice place, but forever. Then—holy God, what a leap—I married my masseur, Algonquin Romain. I even considered changing my nom de plume from Romona Tomorrow to Rita (or Rachel, I couldn't decide) Romain. After all, the former had been Rudy's creation, and now that I was quite literally in someone else's hands, I could try a new kind of book. I was tired of the old mode anyway, those clammy castles and dungeons of seductive slime. I wanted more light in my life!
I asked Algonquin what he thought of the idea.
"Hey," he said, "you know me. If it ain't broke, don't monkey."
Algonquin had blond hair to his shoulders, and shoulders like Tarzan, and when he worked on me he sang along to Sinatra songs, practicing his imitation. It really was very good. If he could have been anybody on the planet, he told me (more than once), it would have been Old Blue Eyes, no question. He also told me he was fifty-one percent sure he was part Indian, hence his first name. His last name, he confessed one night after working me over until I saw stars, came from what he understood to be "the man's" favorite salad. We were lying side by side on our Extra King, olive oil, sweat, and a few salty tears glistening on our tans, and I said, almost out of body, "`The man?'"
"Sinatra, of course."
Well, he wasn't. And looked at me hurt. But he recovered. "Speaking of lettuce," he said, "if you do use my last name for commercial purposes, it'll cost you. I mean, I thought of it first, right?"
So I wrote my eighth Romona Tomorrow that year—Wolf Love, My Love—while trying to ignore (ignore? no, act cool in the face of) Algonquin's private clients. These were lean, stylish women not quite over the hill but standing on it and fierce-eyed to stand pat. He always introduced them to me, either before they disappeared into the bath house or after. He thought this added touch gave them a little extra. Some said they had no idea ("Quinny, you devil"—yes, they called him Quinny) and some even asked for my autograph, but most of them were breezy and detached, or semi-, like a good woodshed.
I said to him finally, tossing back my hair in the manner of his livelier clientele and calling up my most casual, most throaty Bacall presentation, "Look, Mr. Wonderful, how much lettuce would it take for you to concentrate on just one customer?"
"Come on, Mona," he said, Mr. Fairness all the way, "you pay me fine, okay? But I got to make some money on my own. It's a question of self-respect, right?"
I said that was pretty much exactly the question, and citing what Old Blue Eyes would do, right?—let's call it a day?—I paid him off. He went away happy as a big puppy, which was basically how he had arrived, so I could feel relief at least that I hadn't hurt his development. I even joined LaVonn in laughing at her favorite appellation of me in the maggoty press: THE BABY BOOTER.
The Beautiful Cuckoo
I hated being a divorcée. The word widow had some depth to it, while the word describing my new state was a word like meringue or splits, all surface and flop. I imagined fat men wanting to slide their fingers over me for a lick. I imagined skating on ice and feeling that any second I would end up on my back again, my heavily lipsticked mouth in a round Oh of fake surprise, my silver panties showing like any goo-goo girl's.
So what did I do? I pursued a man who would take all the falls either of us would ever need. Acrobatic, lovely-limbed, silent Stuart Peabody—Stuart Chamberlain Peabody—son of financier Aston Peabody the Third, a man who used his fingers not to lick frosting but to grip hard surfaces and burning beams and, on rare occasions, to speak. A professional stunt man. A man hired, in this particular instance, to dress as a desperate woman and cling to the edges of turrets and cliffs and almost drown in a boiling sea.
We were in Scotland to watch Do With Me What You Will become a film—and for LaVonn to cook up some Romona Tomorrow publicity—but I had eyes only for the man in the raven wig. I demanded a book that would show me how to sign, and LaVonn hustled someone off to Glasgow to find me one.
His privacy (others said aloofness) thrilled me more than his daring. LaVonn, in her way, was thrilled too: with his dark good looks, his patrician pedigree, the "tragic impairment,'` and especially with the ink she could get. And she got it: QUEEN OF HACKS WEDS BLUEBLOOD MUTE.
"Honey," she said, "not even you could have invented this one."
What brought us together—that is, what attracted him—was Romona Tomorrow. He claimed to like my books. I didn't believe him, I thought he was mocking me, and I said so on a piece of paper. He wrote back: "I do not mock you. I read them as metaphors for lost innocence."
We were married on board a rented sailboat off Point Reyes. My guests were LaVonn, Monk, Fonda, and Echo. He himself had no one he wanted to invite. I'd asked him—signing—"No family?" He just shook his head. Immediately following our honeymoon he left for a shoot in Brazil, taking his sleeping bag, a toothbrush, and that harmonica he could somehow hear.
LaVonn called him "the beautiful cuckoo, no offense, honey."
It was true that the apartment he gave up after we were married had contained nothing except a refrigerator for the Czech beer he liked, plus the sleeping bag and harmonica when he was there, but what does that prove? Stuart could have laid his head down anywhere: on the deck of a sailboat, on a pile of wet rocks, in the desert, even in a luxury home full of furniture, like mine.
"These rich guys can sometimes be real funny," LaVonn said. "Look at Howard Hughes not cutting his toenails."
If I had told her he wrote poetry, that he was perfect, she would have rolled her eyes. Or stuck a finger in her mouth pretending to gag. "Tell me what you talk about," she said. "I mean when he's actually here."
He would simply sit and look at me. Sometimes he'd play his harmonica sweetly as the calls of two birds speaking in the distance. Sometimes he would scribble in a small notebook he carried, or perch in one of my orange trees, like a boy, and eat an orange. Or grill fish outside for all of us (Echo, Fonda and Monk adored him). Or scratch under his cast with a straightened wire hanger after he'd broken his elbow on a shoot.
But an actual exchange of words, either with our hands or on paper, did not happen very often. I didn't care. Because when he did talk, I felt I was listening to a clutch of flowers opening, or the moon move across the sky; he might be describing a lizard or washing his hair under a waterfall or waking up covered with fresh snow and smelling Husky breath in his face, and I could only respond with the ohhhs and ahhhs of an audience, happy to have him back.
Yes, he was gone a lot, as he had told me he would be. I could live with that. In fact his absences gave us memorable reunions.
"Do they?" his sister said, arching an eyebrow.
I had known nothing about Louise, who contacted me about a year after the wedding—maybe sooner, it's hard to remember. Anyway, Stuart was in Africa and she requested a meeting. She wore white gloves and a Jackie Kennedy pillbox hat with veil. She had flown all the way from Connecticut to tell me her brother had been running away from a deeply personal loss for over twenty years, and would not stop now, she was afraid, no matter what had taken place off Point Reyes.
The interesting thing to Louise, she said, was how little I resembled "the lost Susan." The interesting thing to me was how Louise had removed only one glove—from the hand she used to lift her teacup.
"Though I am sure Stuart meant well," she said, "and is no doubt trying his best, there is no relationship, however unusual, that will satisfy him, I fear."
Leaving, she said wasn't it too bad that Stuart's marriage had to be reported in that kind of newspaper. Oh, she added, I was free of course to tell her brother that she had paid me a visit.
I did tell him. He said nothing. A few days or weeks later I brought up her name again and asked if there was anything he wanted to discuss. On a piece of paper he wrote: "Louise is a whiner and a snit." Then he kissed my nose.
"Well," I said to LaVonn, "sometimes Stuart and I talk about his family. The Connecticut Peabodys."
"How very fascinating," she said.
But I couldn't leave it alone. Couldn't disbelieve, entirely, Louise's story. It came after me in bed, in the shower, at the table, when I was writing—hounded me until I believed all of it and more! Which brings me to Bobo, my first infidelity, followed by Tug, followed by—I really don't remember their names, only that they all seemed to sound like toilet bowl detergents. Perhaps a dozen of them: beach boys, waiters, they only needed two things, eagerness and nice teeth. I couldn't stand a dirty smile. I brought them home when Stuart was away. I wanted no talk, no lingering over drinks, no phony preliminaries. I would simply say, throaty—and bored already, as if this poor dog possessed but one small trick—"What are you really good at?"
Echo stopped speaking to me. So did Fonda. Monk, who kept my grounds immaculate, was himself a nervous mess. He asked me, under the orange trees, if he could say something.
"Say it well," I said.
"This is no good, Mona, what's going on."
So I gave each of them an envelope containing nice checks and their notices. And at my first opportunity I told Stuart everything.
"What are you going to do about it?" I demanded. Yes, demanded.
He had barely stepped in the door from I don't remember where. But I do remember he looked away for a long time. Finally he said—signing—that he had hurt me terribly. He knew that. All of this was his fault. Completely. Could I ever forgive him?
Forgive him? Was I understanding this? Could he write it out?
He wrote it out, his hand trembling, his eyes moist. I read it—twice—then ripped the paper into the smallest pieces I could. It seems there was a point at which I might have stopped this hysteria, a very clear moment when I might have taken a deep breath and burst into tears of sorrow—and gratitude. But I did not. Why is that? Why are we given such clear, intelligent moments of possible salvation and then do nothing about them? I told him to go play his ridiculous harmonica for somebody else. Maybe that somebody would enjoy its sad squawk. I never did.
Cry Deep and Fly came out of my pen smooth as butter, in less than two months, a record for me.
After Stuart, getting married and divorced was no more exercising than buying shoes. Walter presided over one of our finer retail chains and was so painfully, pontifically dull I couldn't even get a minor character out of him, never mind an entire book. If you are still up and presiding, Walter, I am sorry I couldn't have been better about what you might do to relieve yourself; but darling when you began, yet again, to intone at yet another dinner party about how full you were of the greasy ungrateful unwashed and their liberal crap, the truth is I just didn't stop to think. Discharge in your derby? Fill your fedora? Oh well.
Ironically, Dee Dee Vespucci, the still youngish rock and roll singer-composer, started to do (though not in public and not in his hat) what I had suggested Walter might do. After years of his particular habits of abuse, poor Dee Dee came into our union and within six months began fouling the bed, crying like a baby about it. His doctor prescribed sundry medicinals and a special rubber garment which I made the mistake of calling a diaper once too often, and, well, some friction developed. I offered him to LaVonn (without mentioning his problem), and she was quite tempted—she loved his craggy profile, said it was Lincoln's to a T if you ignored the bright white hair; but upon thinking it over she said her schnauzers probably would hate her they were so possessive. In any case, I at least got parts of Betrayed by Morning out of Dee Dee, those good weeping sections.
And finally in this cloggy vein, Demulcent, the philosopher from Berkeley, whose British breeding helped me achieve fifty with a certain ease and detachment—and two Romona Tomorrows as poisonous and eerily sexual as any I'd written—and who then broke down—or out—into a maniacal scrotum. Sometimes it's impossible to know, even with decent references, what you'll end up with. So I did what was necessary and, God, what a Festschrift they had down at the flatulent press. But no, no, no, I did not have a growth "the size of a biceps"—or any size—at the front of my brain. Nor did I "blow up to 300 pounds" and take to my bed "attended by a chimpanzee." I could then, and to this day still can, slip quite easily, thank you very much, into the same raw silk I wore on the cover of Comes the Ecstasy, et al.
No, the truth is I simply dismissed Demulcent, and he wagged his nasty tongue. I had long admired his expertise in philosophy, indeed he improved my understanding of certain medieval thinkers, but his sudden enthusiasms—and our almost endless discussions of them—finally exhausted me. I could accept his hairshirts, his desire to sleep out of doors on cold ground, even his monstrous pet capybara. However, I could not accept, in medias res, his conversion to tap-dancing. It drove me crazy. I never knew when the tapping and leaping would start or where it would lead him. (Sometimes his moods propelled him to my black marble writing table. While I was working!) Thus his departure.
But all was not lost. For the first several months of our marriage he still enjoyed taking his lunch at the Bethel Mission in San Francisco—an old habit from his teaching days. He would drive down from the Valley and ponder in a new light, he said, the difference between what is and what might be. Thank God he did, for it was at the Mission where he met the remarkable Vincent Gomez ladling out soup happy as a clam. Thus did I acquire, under one hat, a replacement for Echo, a chauffeur, and an all-around handyman. And none too soon, since the parade of fry cooks through my kitchen had nearly destroyed my digestive tract. Hear me then, Demulcent, you mucus. I credit your presence for all of the cruelest torture devices in both Sweet Thorns at Midnight and Goddess Breath in Stone, but I can only be grateful to you for bringing me good Gomez.
How could I manage without him? He goes with me everywhere, occupying the next seat where otherwise a blowhard with gold chains and hammy elbows would likely surface to drain me, reconstructing step-by-step his rise to first class. He sees to my luggage and carries the itinerary. He will even perform a sudden back-flip, landing on his hands, if I fall gloomy. Oh yes, this short but powerful man can turn himself over as smoothly as the most acrobatic elf, grinning like a Gypsy who possesses the sky, the greenest valley, and the eye of every songbird in between.
Or I should say he used to do that. We are both stiff and creaky now and perform for no one. I am often tired and yet my formerly faithful nostrum sleep evades me. This is my dark moment. I drop the pen; I ease my weary head to the pillow, and my eyes pop open like some porcelain doll's. Look here. My God. Sad frumpy lump I've become, all stuck to the floor. I call out, "Help me!" Or I dream I call out. It all seems the dreary same.
"Vincent, say something clever, please."
"Do you still want to be on a postage stamp?"
"Of course. Wouldn't you rather lick me than Nixon?"
"So you feel okay?"
"Do you know where I met Walter? In the recycled air of some glittery emporium he owned, signing his copy of Cry Deep and Fly. `Come fly with me,' I wrote. Heavenly God, how that mortifies—no, hurts—my brain to remember. And the red-eyed Dee Dee? More pain. Perhaps I do harbor a tumor. I can only recall our notorious photo: he swathed in the nation's flag, I in almost nothing, the caption blathering `Vespucci Croons Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow.' My philosopher? He had invited me to his classroom, to join a discussion of good and evil. I only retain the generous applause at my entrance. No, unfortunately, I do not feel okay. I feel like I sound, about two hundred years old."
"At least nothing is broken."
"Dear Vincent, have you never taken marital vows?"
"They are so easy."
"Some things are."
"Well put. Some things are. But now try to make a list of them."
"I would rather make a soup."
"Score two! My word, you're a slippery midget. Where did you really come from?"
"A place you never heard of, Mona."
"I suppose you had a miserable childhood."
"You may suppose that. But I like to remember it. And the older I get, the better my memories feel."
"You are hopeless."
"Maybe you would like a bowl of soup. It's vegetable."
"I would like to know how I could make those vows so easily and so often. I think there's even someone I haven't recorded—who came and went like a skimpy moth. Help me out here, Vincent."
"I'll bring the soup."
"Season it with sweet Keats, who left us so young. He never saw thirty, Vincent, never saw twenty-eight. `O what a misery it is to have an intellect in splints!'"
"That's loss. He was an angel. You are an angel. I am only flapping my fleshy arms."
"No more of that for a while."
"Vincent, listen to me. I want a happy ending. Write that down, please. In fact, dear friend, declare it—that very sentence—to be Romona Tomorrow's exit line. Said slowly…with full-throated verve…like something rare upon the earth."
Doubtless everyone will understand.