Monday, September 5, 2011

FOURTEEN: Defying Augury

During the night Caleb was awakened--though he wasn’t sure he had actually been asleep--by banging and clattering. He followed the noise into the parlour and down the short hallway to the kitchen where the floor was covered in pots and pans and serving spoons and bowls. Mummy was on her knees in front of one of the cupboards and she was pulling out cookie sheets.
“I’m sure I have the right pan, darling,” she said. “I have only to find it.”
Standing to one side was George. She was dressed in a nightgown that looked like one of her peasant dresses, though paler in color. She had covered her mouth with her right hand and with her left she was pulling a strand of hair. Caleb had never seen her with her hair down. She looked at him with her usual placid face though her eyes showed more hopeless panic--or simple pain--than usual.
“Mummy has decided to bake your birthday cake,” she said.
“What time is it?”
She looked at the wall clock. “Three-seventeen.”
“Well, dear, it occurred to me that I may not have time to bake Caleb’s cake later today as I have agreed to spend the day helping Mavis Blanchard with her prize spaniels.”
“I’m sure Mavis would understand if you can’t help.”
“Oh, no, darling, Mavis is narrow-minded and she carries a grudge.”
“She may be grateful that you can’t be there.”
Mummy pulled her head out of the cupboard and looked at George. “There’s no need to be unkind, dear,” she said. “Either to Mavis or to me.”
George assured Caleb that all would be well and he went back to the front sitting room. It was dark inside. Temple lay in bed awake. Earlier he had suggested he try the lumpy bed and Caleb the air mattress.
“What is it?” he said.
“Mummy’s decided to bake my birthday cake.” He was standing by the bed. Dappled moonlight came in through the window. “Little creatures were keeping me awake all night anyway."
"Animals? Conscience?"
"Mosquitoes. Mites. Bed bugs."
"I've been kept awake too. Different animals though.”
Caleb put his hand on Temple’s head, his fingers in Temple’s hair.
Several moments passed before Temple said, “My affections do not that way tend,” but his hand covered Caleb’s gently and stayed there a full minute.
“Pardon, my lord,” Caleb finally said. He went to the air mattress at the foot of the bed. “I have shot mine arrow o’er the house. Not to fret. It won’t happen again.”
Temple said goodnight and Caleb tried to sleep.
George succeeded in convincing Mummy to abandon her late-night cake baking and next morning she and Caleb went to the bakery to get a cake. Afterwards they were sitting in the ruins of the Unfinished Church. (All this happened before the Bermuda National Trust closed off the site to visitors.)
Caleb had been talking steadily. She was listening placidly and her smirk had returned.
“If I were an addict," he was saying, "you would be a failure as a sponsor.”
“You have stayed completely away. I spend all my time with him.”
“Which is what you wanted.”
“Your moped broke down the first hour and you never got another one.”
“Who can resist the will of the gods?”
"And by the way, I still can't get used to which side of the road I'm supposed to be on at any given time."
“Mummy would be alarmed.”
“You would help keep me on the right side of the road. Instead you stay apart and busy yourself with your mother and your father.”
“They’re my mother and my father.”
“I bought a sketch book to fill with Bermuda sketches to give you as a gift. All I’ve done is write about him.” He took the book from his backpack and read:
When I look at him, bronze and nut-brown against the blue sheet, his hair turning long and blonde-streaked in the sun,—
“My my.”
“--I imagine him engaged in thrilling sexuality, sustained, swelling chords and gentle glissandos.”
“Playing his own flute, alas.”
He would be as profoundly moving in lithe, luxurious lovemaking as the butterfly that ever-so-erratically plopped on my elbow in Granny's backyard, pulsating sweetly, silently. Would he not make love like velvet? Like the deep and powerful throbs of the ocean current that nearly carried me past the rock where he sat 'like a mermaid' as he later said?”
“There’s a term for this,” George said.
“Mmmm, not exactly.  I was thinking Really Bad Writing.”
I have sat next to him as he lies on the beach, following with my eyes the trace of hair that weaves its loose path from his navel to the puff of pubic gold poking out of the top of his speedo.
“Bruisedly purple prose.”
Caleb closed the sketchbook. “Today, he’s been sitting and stretching and moving in his little running shorts—“
“--that lift the testicles and curve the penis in an arc to the right against the blue stretch of nylon and spandex,” George said.
“You've noticed.”
“Ah, I too could be a really bad writer.”
“Last night I was lying in bed when he came in. I watched him standing in the square of moonlight, naked, his back to me—“
“--as he took his shorts off and put on his scrubs. He stopped to say goodnight. He leaned over to hug me. I kissed him. Quickly. On the lips.”
“And ejaculated in the instant.”
“Not until after he was sound asleep.”
“Criminal waste.”
“Yesterday we went to a beach where there were children playing. It was thrilling to watch him with kids: relaxed, easy, funny, actually talking—even his facial muscles changed.”
“I think I read somewhere,” George said, “that sociopaths often relate beautifully to children.” 
“I hate myself for talking like this about him to you. And yet I do it.”
With the back of her hands she wiped tears from her cheeks. She had not been laughing.
That evening after dinner, Mummy could be heard whispering very loudly in the kitchen to George: “I have forgotten to get candles for Caleb’s cake. Whatever shall we do?”
In minutes George came out of the kitchen holding the cake in front of her. Mummy followed holding a lighted candle of five stacked wax totems. They were the letters C-A-L-E-B.
“George has saved the day,” Mummy said. “She had this candle made in Pennsylvania and she brought it with her just for tonight. Happy birthday, Caleb.”

George wasn't at all certain that Temple would understand the irony of the Government House celebration of the Queen’s birthday. With people avoiding Mummy and with George having to watch Daddy experiencing publicly the failure he feels he's become, she told Caleb she simply didn't want to have to deal with wondering what Temple might say or do at any moment. And so she told Temple that there wasn’t an invitation for him.
Temple said he hadn’t brought anything to wear anyway.
It was a garden party on the expansive lawn of Government House. Caleb thought it was like the hotel grounds in Last Year at Marienbad, but in color and if Robert Altman had directed it.
There was a moment when someone--Lord or Mister Horsefield or Harshfield--said something to George about her husband as he was nodding toward Caleb. And George answered his question without so much as a twitch.
It occurred to Caleb that Temple might have had a very good time indeed.
At nine o’clock, Mummy and Daddy and George went to someone’s house to watch home movies of old Bermuda. Caleb pleaded weariness and a friend of the Ekdahls drove him to Bridge House. He could see Temple sitting on the balcony in the moonlight. 
“Will you let me in? I didn’t bring a key." 
Temple came downstairs and opened the door. He had a nearly-empty bottle of Bush Mills in one hand and with the other he handed Caleb a gin and bitters. In the dark he put his arm around Caleb. He was drunk. “Home is the hunter, home from the hill. How was it?”
“The vestiges of dead empire. Have you been here all evening?”
“The cemetery for a while. Thought I’d take the opportunity to write.” His arm stayed against Caleb’s back, his hand on Caleb’s shoulder. “It’s all crap.”
Caleb put his arm around Temple’s waist and as he turned to face him, he clinked his glass against the Bush Mills bottle to distract him from fears he might have about their near-embrace. “The Queen’s Birthday in Bermuda was all crap,” he said. “Though very funny crap.” They leaned together in the dark doorway. “But only because it was such very sad crap.” Caleb slugged down his drink. “Sorry you had nothing to wear. Put some gin in here.”
“Let’s go up,” Temple said. And by the time they were sitting on the balcony, Caleb had finished the second drink and Temple had poured a third. Soon he was certain he was as drunk as Temple.
“There were the elite and the middle-of-the-roaders and the hangers-on. Though, I was told, not so many people as in years past. Very Cherry Orchard Act Three. There were men in uniform. And women. There were civilians in suits with military decorations and medals. Very Three Sisters Act One. And a man in a vulgar shirt with bright green palm trees and iridescent pink flamingoes. Very Hawaii Five-O.”
Temple was concentrating on rolling a cigarette. It was going slowly. Caleb watched him. Temple said, “You haven’t smoked since Granny’s.”
Caleb smiled. “You noticed!”
“I have. And I salute you.” And he did.
Caleb went on. “During the celebration of the Queen’s birthday at Government House, I witnessed the governor and his wife giving up the pretense of any interest in the people moving through their receiving line just as the military band played The Stripper. And later I saw one of the boys in the band pissing in the bushes while Lady Yesteryear was being helped into a van that would take her and other crumbling ancients of Bermuda society back to the home.”
“You’re fun tonight.”
“I love being with you.” He couldn’t tell if he was slurring his words, but he knew it was difficult getting them all out.
Temple spoke slowly as if he had a ping-pong ball in his mouth. Or marbles. “I always wonder when it will happen that you will hate me.”
“Why me? I don't find myself worthy, so how can I trust it to you?”
“You could turn on me and break my heart in an instant.”
“It’s a pattern, my pattern.”
“I am prepared for, if not always on the alert to, the eventuality of your about-face.” He moved his chair close to Temple’s and Temple leaned his head against his shoulder.
“Maybe I’m doing all this just to get what I can from you,” Temple said.
“Not a surprise. You are a taker of lifestuff.”
“I want to be an artist.”
There was a silence. Then Temple said, “Recently I’ve been thinking if I were homosexual, it would be because of you.”
Caleb smoothed the hair back from Temple’s forehead. “Recently I’ve been thinking we’re both stereotypes, and that would also be because of me.” And then, “Which breaks my heart more than you ever will.”
“If I were sober, I’d be angry. But I’m laughing.” With effort he tossed the cigarette over the balcony.
“When I was in college,” Caleb said, “one of my teachers fell in love with me. You are the universe’s way of righting the balance for the way I treated him.”
“The fall of a sparrow.”
“He told me that he thought of his life as a sequence of eras: The Era of the Pole Vaulter, The Era of the Guitar Player, the Era—“
“—of the Talentless Playwright.”
“God fucking help me.”
“Let’s take the bikes out for a final run around the island.”
             Twenty-seven minutes later they were whipping along in separate lanes around the curve of a narrow roadway between a wall of stones and a wall sheered from the islands’ own volcanic rock when Caleb realized he was in the wrong lane as a bus came directly at him around the curve and he gasped and tried to shrink as narrow as he could, aiming the bike for the tiny space between the side of the bus and the wall of volcanic rock.
The next morning Mummy showed them the newspaper account of a tourist riding a moped--a professional stunt driver--who had been killed the night before in a traffic accident. “She was always so cautious,” her husband said.

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