Saturday, July 9, 2011

TEN: Granny and the Butterfly



            George and Caleb and Temple piled into George's Dodge Pacer (all this happened before the last of the Pacers motored to extinction) and drove to New York. George asked about the memorial service and Caleb told her about Father John Nepomucine. George said she disapproved of religion but that Martin Luther had been on to something. Temple was quiet, thoughtful, a little too pained, and Caleb was certain it had nothing to do with his nose. Most of the drive passed in silence.
            When they arrived in Bronxville, there was light in the sky still and Granny Burden came onto the porch in a white summer dress with lavender splashes and white shoes with heels. Her hair was white and simply coifed. She was smiling as the car pulled into the driveway. She waited for George to climb out of the car and come up to the porch. There was an embrace that both women felt deeply but which neither prolonged.
            Granny Burden was short, slight, sturdy. She had fierce blue eyes and a smile that sprayed wrinkles across her face. There were introductions and declarations of informality and welcome. They went inside and Caleb commented on the way the light came in through rows of tall windows. Granny approved. "My husband designed this house," she said. "He used to say light and flowers are as much a part of a house as is furniture. You will especially enjoy it in the morning."
There were flowers in every room. In the small upstairs bedroom that Caleb and Temple were to occupy, a vase of irises stood on the dresser in the corner and on the vanity a small bowl of roses. There were two single beds separated by a tiny nightstand.
While Temple was in the bathroom and Caleb was putting shirts on hangers, George appeared in the doorway. "I trust you approve of the sleeping arrangement," she said. Her smile suggested the unspeakable and therefore the amusing. Caleb regretted sharing with her the past months of his accelerating obsession with Temple.
"Granny's plan?" he said.
            "Granny leaves the business side of things to me." She came into the room and picked up a photograph from the vanity. "Me at fifteen," she said and put it down without showing it to Caleb. "By the way, Granny approves of you both." She smiled to herself and continued talking confidentially as if they were in a museum or an art gallery. "She said Temple is the best-looking man she has ever seen—even with the bandaged nose."
            "How old is Granny?"
            "My my. The best looking she has ever seen?"
            "She thinks he moves like a Greek god. But not at all effeminate, mind you, says my Granny."
George was walking about the room touching things with a familiarity that made Caleb feel like a voyeur. "It’s the dynamism of opposites that makes him so stunning," she said. She touched the stamens on each of the seven irises in the vase on the dresser. "He's tall and has a beautiful neck, but it’s his carriage that communicates. Spine straight, ribcage lifted, and yet a relaxed rolling pelvis, an easy stride. Hands small yet perfectly proportioned to his arms and his supple, powerful shoulders. And gloriously, a flawless inguinal ligament to move one’s finger along. Apollo’s belt."
Her tone, passionless yet sexual, was for Caleb more inappropriate than ever, perhaps because Temple was in the next room and they were standing in the bedroom that she knew intimately and that he would share soon with Temple.
She opened a lacquer box and touched whatever was inside it. "Granny once asked me how homosexuals have sex. Darling, I have nothing against them, but tell me, do you know what two men do together? I mean, it seems so limited."
            "Perhaps Granny should investigate gay porn."
            The door to the bathroom opened and Temple entered with a towel wrapped around his waist.
            "Dinner soon," George said and as she went, "I'll leave you two alone to work out the particulars."
There was a momentary silence.
            "Small beds," Temple said. He pulled on a powder blue t-shirt. "I better warn you. I've been waking up in the middle of the night screaming or something." He got a pair of jeans from his suitcase. "I haven't done that since I was little. I can't ever remember what I'm dreaming about, but anyway, just in case...." Caleb saw him hesitate a moment, then take underwear from his suitcase. Briefs. He blushed and went into the hall. "I'm not quite finished in the bathroom."

            Granny was proud of her New England ancestry. On one wall of the dining room hung four portraits in oil. "That one," she said, referring to a particularly dour face, "sat in the House of Burgesses with Tom Paine. And next to him is my great grandfather. He helped lose the second battle of Bull Run."
            She had spent her youth with live-in housekeepers and capable gardeners. She had grown up, she said, during a time when the only significant question to ask a new acquaintance was, Who are your family? Unlike today, she continued, when the crucial question is, What do you do for a living?
Years ago she and her friends had resented the intrusion into Bronxville of the Irish Roman Catholic Kennedys and they all sighed with relief when the Kennedys finally left.
She told family stories with ease and grace and humor. Caleb was enchanted. Temple blushed, spoke little. George came alive with love of her family. She relaxed, she smiled, color came into her cheeks, and there was even occasional laughter to tears at Granny’s stories. 
            After Granny went to bed, Temple and George went onto the porch to smoke a joint. Caleb demurred. He wanted to believe that he was maintaining student-teacher boundaries—though, Lord knew they were crumbling fast--but he didn’t want to take part in George’s potential stoned familiarities.
            He went upstairs.
            Nearly an hour later George knocked on the door and came in. He was sitting in the dark. He turned on the nightstand lamp. She was smiling and she was flushed.
“Enjoying the late-night toke?” he said.
She sat on Temple’s bed and folded her hands in her lap with not a hint of a smirk on her broad flat face. “The Golden Temple of Idolatry is in the downstairs bathroom. You are missing things.” She beamed. “He’s telling funny stories.” She giggled. “You should come down I think he has more marijuana I hope he does I’m overheated welcome to the Burden-Ekdahl world.”
            A few minutes after she left, Temple came in.
            “Bunky!” he said raising his arms. “You’re awake!”
            Temple responded with exaggerated astonishment. Didn’t Caleb ever go to summer camp? Didn’t he ever have a bunkmate? Well, now he was Temple’s bunky, he said, swinging a pillow and nearly losing his balance. Caleb had never seen him laugh so hard nor so freely.
            “Hey, Bunky!” Temple said, “Tell me a story.”
            “Well, Jocko, what story do you want?”
            “Chanticleer, I want Chanticleer, tell me Chanticleer.” And before Caleb could say a word, Temple began telling the story of Chanticleer. And as he told the story, he undressed. Up over his head went the powder blue t-shirt. Then he sat on his bed and with his back to Caleb he leaned forward to untie his shoes. Then he rolled backwards and took off shoes and socks. Then, still on his back, he grunted and struggled and squirmed as he pulled off first his jeans and then his briefs. Finally he rolled forward again and stood up naked on the other side of the bed.
With his back still to Caleb he said, “Where are my pajamas?” And then with joy: “In my suitcase!” He bent forward to open the suitcase and he pulled out blue hospital scrub pants. Holding them high he shrieked, “I found them!” He did not turn around until the pants were on and the ties were tied. And when, bare-chested, he did turn around, he lifted his arms and sang out, “Very like a king!” The pants rode low on his hips and Caleb tried not to watch the blue bulge bouncing just below Apollo’s flawless inguinal ligament.
Temple climbed into bed. “Good night, Bunky.” He reached his hand to Caleb and Caleb held it for a moment. “Thanks for the Chanticleer story,” he said and he withdrew his hand and turned his back and pulled the coverlet up.
Caleb turned off the nightstand lamp and sat for a minute on the edge of his bed in the dark.
            The next morning, he got up before everyone else and dressed in shorts and t-shirt and flip flops. He got a beach towel and from the library a copy of Lolita—at least, he told himself, it wasn’t Death in Venice--and he went outside. The lawn was lush; sprinklers sputtered at the peripheries. He chose a corner of the back yard just out of the shadows of a tall elm tree and the underbrush that grew beyond it.
He had not slept well. Temple had shifted and lurched the entire night. He talked in his sleep, though not coherently. At one point he muttered Desdemona over and over as they lay facing each other with barely two and a half feet of infinity between them. And once Caleb awoke suddenly to Temple sitting up groaning before he fell back and clasped a pillow to his chest.
            Granny’s ancient gardener, Mr. Church, was puttering along one side of the house. A child's voice called beyond the garage where the gables of a neighboring house lifted into the sky. There were birds and the hum of bees and summer garden smells. Caleb lay on his back and closed his eyes against the morning sun.
The irregular sounds of ancient Mr. Church pretending to keep up with Granny's gardens eventually found a rhythm in his ears. He sensed, too, the presence of awakened people in Granny's house, the possibility of intrusion at any moment. George could come out with cups of coffee in her hands to stand over him and stare at his body and say something about it or Temple or both. Or Temple could come, though not simply and effortlessly, for what would he actually do? How would he make his entrance? What excuse could he articulate beyond the joy of lying in the sun with Caleb?
            Caleb turned onto his stomach, opened the book, rested his chin on his folded hands and for several minutes he watched the house. A butterfly bobbed about. It came close and weaved out of his vision, then returned. At last it alighted on his forearm, scrambled in the hairs, then settled. Slowly the wings opened and closed.
            The screen door burst open. Moving only his eyes, Caleb looked up past the book, and between the gentle pulses of the butterfly wings he saw Temple coming down the stairs wearing blue running shorts and running shoes without socks. A towel was hanging around his neck. His hair was wet and combed back and one curl had sprung forward onto his forehead. He walked toward the rose bushes growing near the garage against a trellis heavy with cascading blooms. He touched petals with his fingertips. He looked up to the eaves of the garage roof. A swarm of wasps moved tightly in the half-shadow. Through the slow throbs of the butterfly's wings, Caleb watched as Temple disappeared behind the garage and a few moments later appeared on the other side.
Is he pretending he doesn’t see me?
Then, looking up into the leaf layers of the elm tree where two squirrels were chattering at each other, spiraling around branches, leaping from limb to limb, Temple walked toward Caleb. And Caleb, not wanting to disturb the butterfly, was about to say, Don't come any closer, when the butterfly lifted off his arm and fluttered about for a few seconds. It traced a pattern around Temple, who was preoccupied with the squirrels, and then it bobbed away.
            "Hormones," Caleb said. "Chemicals."
            Temple frowned. "What is?"
            "The butterfly on my arm. Must have sensed my fear that you were getting close."
            "The squirrels aren’t concerned. No fear there."
            "Sit with me."
            Temple moved toward him still frowning and cast his shadow on Caleb and Caleb's book. "What are you reading?"
"Where are Granny and George?"
"Granny's still in her room. George took her a tray of something a while ago." He turned toward the sound of Mr. Church, who had come around the corner of the house dragging a small branch behind him.
"Granny's going to have to do something about Mr. Church," Caleb said. "One day they'll find his bones caught in the brambles or in the rose trellis. They'll have to check dental records to make sure it's him."
"I was full of crap last night," Temple said.
Caleb let only the slightest beat pass before he said, "George came into the room to talk, but she was so stoned she couldn't."
Temple was examining a spot on his forearm. "Yeah, we both got pretty stoned. I talked, she smiled."
"You both were funny."
There was a pause. 
Finally Caleb said, "Did I snore last night? I'm told I snore." He laughed. "I'm not at liberty to say who told me, but I wonder if that’s why at one point you woke me."
“I wonder if I talked in my sleep," Temple said. And then, "Temple Lubiak’s Secret Dream Life." He smiled humorlessly and shifted his weight to his right leg. For nearly a minute he puzzled over the spot on his forearm. Then he shifted to his left leg and, without warning, each of his hands grabbed an end of the towel and they held it above his head, twisting it tight. He spoke slowly. "I. Am. A. Man." He growled and pulled the twisted towel tauter. “I Am A Man.”
Caleb looked into his book. "And you'll spend the rest of your life proving it." 
Instantly he regretted the words. He could sense Temple blushing, though he didn't look up.
Temple turned to walk back to the house. "There are worse things I could do with it," he said.
Granny Burden appeared in the doorway. "Boys, come in. Georganne has been making waffles. And there are fresh blueberries."

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