Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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In April, Boyd’s sister phoned from Los Angeles, where several years ago she had landed a leading part in a movie that flopped, was resurrected for a brief life on cable, and then disappeared. She kept auditioning for more movie parts but never got one. She made some commercials, played dinner theater, took acting classes, worked as a secretary, married and divorced, and had an abortion. She called Boyd one warm spring evening, saying that maybe she was having another nervous breakdown and that she wanted to come stay with him for a while.
“For a week, maybe two?” she asked. “Boyd, I have to get away from L.A. I want to come home to Charleston. It’s so beautiful in the spring when the azaleas are blooming.”
In his mind’s eye, Boyd saw her sitting on her living-room sofa, surrounded by crystals. When he had visited her a few years ago, she had about fifty crystals, each one named, like a pet. A small red one named Rosie was her favorite; she kept it in her purse. She said each crystal had a life force that, if respected, would give you positive energy and heal your ills. She also had two scrawny, underfed cats that sat most of the day on the windowsill, peering outside and mewing at anyone who walked by.
“Gloria, I’d be glad to have you visit,” he said.
“There’s a red-eye coming into Charleston Saturday morning, day after tomorrow. I’ll be on it. Boyd, I’m looking forward to seeing you. Will I get to see Andrea too?”
The question surprised him. Was her memory going? “Andrea got married this winter.”
“I know. I just thought you two might still be friends. Some people who break up stay friends.”
After hanging up, Boyd went out to the deck that his housemate Marty was building at the back of the house. Marty stopped hammering, looked up, and smiled. He was Boyd’s age, thirty-two, a dark, muscular man with a black mustache and a child’s trusting, innocent smile.
About a year ago, Boyd had hired Marty as a carpenter to help with repairs on the cottage, and the two of them had hit it off. Broke and working only intermittently, Marty had recently been thrown out of a girlfriend’s apartment and needed a place to live. So in exchange for a room in Boyd’s place, Marty paid a small rent and continued helping on the house — a fair deal for both of them, Boyd thought.
Women liked Marty’s dark looks, his gentle manner, and his eagerness to please — at least initially. Two or three times in the last year he had fallen in love, and each time he fell hard. He could make Boyd’s rickety house shake from the floorboards to the roof with his vigorous lovemaking. There was no escape: from each cranny of the house, Boyd could feel the ebb and flow of Marty’s bedroom pounding, the hour-long approach to climax, followed by an hour of quiet. Then another hour or more of thumping, followed by an hour of peace. But despite Marty’s efforts, women would grow bored with him after a few weeks and drop him. Each time he was astonished and deeply hurt.
“We’re almost finished with the deck,” Marty said. “How do you like it?”
Boyd sat on the steps leading to the yard, which sloped to the salt marsh. “Very nice.”
“Tomorrow I’ll put on a coat of waterproofing. We could sit out here in the evenings. Perfect place for a party, too.”
“Great,” Boyd said without enthusiasm. Yesterday he’d spent half an hour complimenting Marty’s work, and that was enough.
“Do you think we made the deck big enough?”
Boyd pretended to study it. “Yes, the deck is definitely a fine size.”
“We could put a picnic table over here,” Marty said, stepping to the corner of the deck nearest the marsh. “What do you think?”
Marty looked at the deck with bewilderment, trying to fathom Boyd’s lack of enthusiasm.
“That was my sister on the phone,” Boyd said, “and I’m worried about her. She’s been having some hard times lately, and she wants to come here for a rest.”
“Oh,” Marty said, relieved. Then he got excited. “Your sister the movie star? She’s coming here? She’s going to stay with us? That’s fantastic. A Hollywood actress! Wow! If I had a sister who was in the movies and she was going to visit, I’d throw a party and invite everybody!”
When Boyd saw Gloria at the airport, he was startled: eleven months younger than Boyd, she looked several years older. Her body was stringy and worn out, like that of a fortyish ballet dancer who for years has eaten too little and smoked too much, and her face was lined and haggard. She said she felt exhausted — she hadn’t slept in two nights — but as Boyd drove them home, she didn’t want to rest, she wanted to talk.
She said that her ex-husband, who was living at an ashram in Oregon, needed some money to pay off a gambling debt. So he wrote her letters, at first begging for money, then threatening to make her life very unpleasant if she didn’t come up with the cash. “He threatened to write letters to my supervisor at work telling him awful stories about me. Tommy always was crazy. I can’t believe I married him. If I married him, then I must be crazy too, don’t you think?”
“Then Mr. Lindquist, my supervisor, started coming on to me. I figured that Tommy had sent him a letter. You can just imagine what he said. You know Tommy.”
“Finally, I had to quit to get away from Mr. Lindquist. That was months ago, and I haven’t been able to find work since. Trouble comes in threes, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah. Tommy, Mr. Lindquist, and — oh, I forgot to tell you about my neighbor, who poisoned one of my cats. My cat just started vomiting one day for no good reason, and I figured out that this guy next door, who has a crush on me, poisoned her.”
Gloria believed that she knew everybody’s secret motivations. It was her intuitive nature that made her want to become an actress, she had once told Boyd. It was true that she had a gift for mimicry. After watching a stranger for ten minutes, she could imitate that person almost perfectly. She could steal your voice, gestures, mannerisms. Boyd admired her skill. But Gloria thought her talent was more than that: she believed she was psychic.
“Why do you think your neighbor poisoned her?”
“He used to feed her. I let the cat out for a few minutes onto the fire escape every evening, and he would come out his back door and pet her and give her milk and sing this nonsense song to her. But whenever I said hello to him, he would just stare at me with his big, creepy eyes.”
“Maybe he didn’t poison the cat. It could’ve just gotten sick and died. You never did take very good care of your pets.”
“Yeah, maybe,” she said gloomily. She touched her forehead and said, “Suddenly I can’t keep my eyes open, I’m so tired.”
“We’re almost there.”
She blinked against the sunshine and then closed her eyes. “Did I tell you that I’m going to quit acting? I’m fed up with the competition, the auditions. I’ve decided that I’d like to be ordinary, live an ordinary life. Like you.”
She opened her eyes. “Ordinary can be a positive thing. I mean, you’ve got a good job — electronic engineer, right?”
“Oh. Andrea sent me a wedding invitation.”
He looked at her, puzzled by the non sequitur.
“She sent the invitation as a courtesy, I suppose,” Gloria continued. “She knew I couldn’t come. And she sent along a little note, just saying hello, how are you. Did you go to the wedding?”
“I wasn’t invited.”
The day of the wedding, he had drunk a bottle of whiskey in the kitchen with Marty. Boyd drank and drank, but he couldn’t get drunk. The booze only left him feeling as tense as ever. Since Andrea had left, he’d been plagued with insomnia. To wear himself out, he worked extra hours at the office, but he still couldn’t sleep, so he began fixing up the cottage. Andrea had hated living there: the roof leaked and the wind came through cracks in the walls. When she begged him to sell the place, he promised he would make the cottage livable, but he didn’t start on the repairs until after she was gone. Then he fixed the roof, plugged up the walls, and hired Marty to help shore up the sagging wooden front porch. Together they repaired the chimney, sanded the wood floors, and planted a garden and a row of live oaks. Some nights, Boyd went to bed exhausted enough to sleep.
“Marty is looking forward to meeting you.”
“The guy who lives with me. He wants to meet my sister, the movie star.”
“Is he cute?”
She shrugged. “I don’t mind ugly. Ugly men can be very sweet. I think I’d like to marry ugly. Have ugly children. Live in an ugly house. Man, do I feel rotten.”
Boyd drove over the bridge onto Wadmalaw Island. The marsh grass was a pale greenish brown, a broad blanket covering the low, black land.
“What happened between you and Andrea?” she asked. “Why did you break up?”
“Depends on which of us you ask. Andrea kept telling me, ‘I love you, but I’m no longer in love with you.’ That was her explanation. I asked her how ‘in love’ got reduced to ‘love.’ But she couldn’t answer. I asked her if I could somehow get the ‘in’ back — return it to the sentence somehow. She said I was making fun of her. She said my constant mockery of her was the reason she was no longer in love. So why did we break up? In her view, it was because I made fun of her. My view is that our relationship was ruined by the loss of a preposition.”
Gloria looked at him and yawned. “What’s a preposition?”
“Andrea’s a nice person. I always liked her.”
He pulled into his dirt drive and rode through the tunnel of dark green trees until he reached the bright opening.
Gloria said, “Hey, you live in an ugly house. I’m so jealous. I want a house just like this. Are you ever going to paint it?”
He drove around to the back of the cottage and parked. As he helped Gloria from the car, her arm felt like a twig in his hand.
Marty was on the deck, adding some final touches to his work, and he hurried down the stairs when he saw the car pull up. He wore a spattered painter’s cap, an old Hawaiian shirt, and cut-off shorts, yet he looked dapper, his face boyish and eager.
When Boyd introduced them, Gloria’s gaunt face went even paler, and, eyes glazed, she limply took Marty’s hand. “You’re not ugly,” she said.
He looked at her quizzically.
“Excuse me,” she said, “I need some rest.”
Boyd led her into the guest room, where she lay down on top of the bedcovers. She folded her hands together and pressed them to her chin as if she were about to pray, then she muttered, “Good night,” and fell asleep.
Later, Marty and Boyd were kneeling in the garden, planting tomato seeds.
Marty asked, “What did she mean, ‘You’re not ugly’?”
“Nothing. A joke.”
“Oh. Is she married?”
“Is she involved with anybody?”
“I don’t think so.”
“She’s not your type.”
Boyd couldn’t think of an answer.
The brim of his cap pulled low to his eyebrows, Marty said, “You think she’s too smart for me.”
“She’s troubled, Marty. Believe me, she’s got problems.”
“So, who doesn’t?”
That evening around ten o’clock, Gloria finally came out of the guest room. Boyd was on the couch reading a magazine. Marty, wearing an Italian bicycle cap, was repairing his ten-speed, which was upended on newspapers in the middle of the living room.
“I feel much better,” she said. She did look better, though she was still very pale. Wearing a summer dress, she sat in the big, soft chair by the stereo, tucked her bare legs underneath her, and said to Marty, “I’ve had some difficulty sleeping lately. I get over-tired. My therapist says that my sleep problems are caused by my fear of abandonment. My father died when I was ten, so I fear being left behind.”
Marty looked at her with great sympathy.
Boyd tried to hide his disapproval. Couldn’t she give her problems a rest? Did she have to talk about her bouts with shrinks?
But Gloria caught his look and said, “Boyd thinks I’m bad-mannered to talk about personal things. He’s very old-fashioned, you know.” Looking at Boyd, she continued, “Your insomnia comes from fear of abandonment, fear of losing control. Think about it.”
Boyd rolled his eyes.
Gloria took a wadded-up tissue from the pocket of her summer dress and delicately blew her nose, one nostril at a time. “I’m sorry, I was so out of it when I came, and my memory is. . . . Your name is Marty, right?”
“Right.” He was extravagantly pleased that she had remembered.
She gave him an appraising look. “You have a nice suntan. You must have some Mediterranean blood.”
“My father’s father was Greek,” Marty said.
She touched her hair. “I need to freshen up. Could I take a shower?”
While she was in the bathroom, Boyd began reading again and Marty sat on the floor, polishing the bike derailleur with a cloth. Gloria was gone only an hour, but it seemed longer. She made several trips from the bathroom to the guest room and back again, and each time a door opened in that part of the house, Marty would look up eagerly from his work.
At last she returned, wearing makeup and very tight jeans. The top three buttons of her blouse were open, showing where her ribs pushed against the skin between her tiny breasts. In the big chair, she positioned herself awkwardly, half-sitting and half-sprawling, so that Marty could see the curve of her hip. She needed a new perm, she said, fluffing up her hair.
Marty said, “I think you look great.”
She smiled and caressed her scalp. “It still is pretty thick, don’t you think?” She shook her head, then threw it forward, her hair coming into her eyes. Marty watched her, entranced.
Irritated by her flirting, Boyd said, “Maybe you shouldn’t stay up too late. You’ve had a long trip and you’re tired.”
“I feel much better. I’m fine, really.”
“You’ve come here for a rest —”
Marty and Gloria, he thought, were like two cars racing toward each other, bound for a crash. But what could he do? They were adults. He said good night and went to bed.
From his room Boyd could hear their muffled voices. Marty laughed his loud, giddy laugh, and Gloria laughed her girlish, tinkly one. There was music from the stereo, something low and bluesy. Boyd couldn’t sleep, so he read a book. About two o’clock he went out to the living room and found them sprawled on the carpet, with tarot cards spread before them.
“We’re reading my future,” Marty said.
“Boyd doesn’t believe in this stuff,” she said.
Pointing at the cards, Marty said, “I’m going to have an exciting summer!”
“I have no doubt about that,” Boyd said, and returned to bed.
He read some more. At dawn, his bed began vibrating. Then he heard someone groan in Marty’s room. “Oh! Oh!” It was Gloria’s voice.
He put his pillow over his head and tried to sleep.
He got up early, ate breakfast, and went out to the deck, where he watched a great egret moving slowly in the marsh cordgrass. The bird was watching for prey. With each step, the egret lifted its leg high and then lowered it delicately into the mud. The bird’s walk was both awkward and a slow-motion glide, leaving the high grass undisturbed. Then the bird stood perfectly still while the sun rose over the trees on the other side of the marsh, breaking through a light morning fog.
“Hey, pal!” It was Marty, dressed in a robe, kicking open the back door, making it rattle on its hinges. Carrying a bowl of cereal in one hand, he waved a spoon at Boyd with the other and shouted, “What a morning!”
Alarmed, the great egret flapped its long wings and slowly rose into the air.
“Look at that!” Marty cried.
They watched as the egret flew away toward the far line of trees, where it coasted down, disappearing into the creek.
“I love living in the country,” Marty said. He stuffed a spoonful of cereal into his mouth and chomped, looking at Boyd with an unself-conscious affection.
Gloria came out wearing a robe, brushing her hair, looking at them carefully.
“We just saw an egret in the marsh,” Marty said. “We saw it fly away. Lots of birds out here.”
She moved to the edge of the deck. “It’s nice to be home.” She spoke so softly that Boyd could barely hear her.
“Would you like some cereal?” Marty asked.
On his chin was a drop of milk. She pointed to her own chin and whispered, “You’ve spilled something.”
He wiped off the milk and gave her a long look that was so frankly grateful and hungry that she turned away and said, “Marty . . . don’t.”
She stepped away. “I can’t deal with this.”
Marty reached out for her arm and missed. “Deal with what?”
She went inside and he followed.
Boyd decided to leave them alone for a while, so he went downtown. When he returned that afternoon, he found Marty digging in the garden.
Marty said, “I don’t know what I did wrong, but I think she’s upset. She said she needed to be alone and went off to her room.”
“You started things pretty quickly.”
“She was the one who started it. I said no, we shouldn’t. I said let’s wait, but she kept pressing and —”
“Spare me the details, will you?”
“I know that women lose interest in me because I don’t have much money. I guess you can’t blame them for wanting a man who could take care of them.”
“Gloria isn’t thinking about that. She’s worn out. You saw her yesterday. She almost fainted when she got here.”
“She thinks I’m a jerk.”
Boyd suggested a plan. “Let’s set up the barbecue on the deck,” he said, “where we can grill chicken and new potatoes, and we can drag out the kitchen table and chairs, open a bottle of wine, and toast the April sunset. The sound of a party will bring her out of her room.”
Later, when the chicken fat was snapping on the hot coals, Gloria wandered out onto the deck. She blinked vaguely at the sky and said, “I lost the whole day, didn’t I? I can’t sleep decently in my apartment in L.A. One of my neighbors plays the TV all day long and half the night. I can hear it through the walls. Oprah, Arsenio, game shows. You ever notice how much clapping there is on TV? Bang, bang! Like gunshots. I can’t get any rest.”
She ate the chicken with a delicate ferocity, chatted with Boyd, ignored Marty, and returned to her room to sleep some more.
That night Boyd dreamed he was standing over an open grave. Looking down, he saw Gloria lying in the dirt at the bottom of the grave, wearing a bright dress, her eyes closed. Her face was pale and peaceful. He took a handful of dirt from a pile nearby and threw it onto her chest, and she opened her eyes and began shouting at him in a muffled voice. She sounded urgent, yet very far away. He began shivering. The shivers ran up his spine, down his arms and legs. Then it was black, black all around. But as his eyes slowly adjusted to the blackness, he realized that he was awake in his bed, and that the bed itself was shivering.
“My God!” It was Gloria’s voice, coming from Marty’s room. “My . . . God!”
He was awake the rest of the night. At the office the next day he was exhausted and couldn’t work. Staring at the papers on his desk, he kept thinking of Andrea, of how her lips had turned crimson when he kissed her.
Returning home that evening, he saw Gloria and Marty standing on the front porch, each wearing a painter’s cap, their faces flecked with pieces of dried paint from scraping the window frames.
“We’re going to paint the house,” Marty said. “We figured on white for the frames, navy blue for the rest of the house. What do you think?”
The next three evenings when Boyd came home, he found them on the porch, scraping hard on the window frames, though they weren’t making much progress. Each evening they looked sleepy-eyed and guilty, and they talked in slow, low voices, all the tension wrung out. They yawned like children who have spent their long day chasing the lush heart of pleasure.
Although Marty and Gloria stayed apart at night now — there was no rocking of the house to wake Boyd up — he still couldn’t sleep. The cottage smelled of sex; the smell was in the upholstery and the drapes, in the walls and floorboards. Whenever he turned off his bedroom lamp, a waxing moon sent a bright light through cracks in his curtains onto his bedsheets. So he paced, read magazines, wrestled with the sheets, went out to the deck and looked at the nearly full moon, then returned to his bed and wrestled some more.
On Friday evening as Boyd drove up to the house, he saw Marty sitting alone on the porch, wearing his only suit — a badly fitting black one — with a white shirt, a dark tie, and scuffed black dress shoes. Boyd had seen him wear the suit only twice, once to a wedding and once to a funeral.
“Why are you dressed like that?”
“Gloria said I should put it on. I have something important to ask you.” He pulled at his collar, then checked the knot in his necktie. “Can Gloria live here in the cottage? I mean, can she stay here until she finds a job? She wants to leave California.”
“Why are you asking me this? Where’s Gloria?”
“I asked her to marry me. We would have a long engagement. I just want you to know that. We wouldn’t get married right away.”
Boyd was amazed: their eccentricities were limitless. “She said yes?”
“But she wants your blessing before we can get married.”
“Your blessing. Or she won’t marry me.”
“I don’t understand.”
Marty looked helpless. He opened his mouth, then shut it. Obviously he wasn’t sure what Gloria meant either. Yet Marty seemed to agree with her: they needed a blessing.
Boyd thought for a moment. “A blessing used to be a serious thing, Marty. In the old days, a father gave his blessing if he thought that the groom was suitable. No blessing, no marriage, I suppose. All I’ve heard about this is from old movies. Is that where Gloria got the idea?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’m not her father. And we’re not living in the old days or in the movies. It’s not my place to give a blessing. You two are going to do what you want, no matter what I say. So what’s the point? It doesn’t mean anything.”
Marty blinked. “So you won’t give it?”
Boyd looked across the yard at the yellow woods; the sun was melting into them like butter. Crestfallen, Marty was staring at the ground. Boyd was almost envious of Marty, who was so frankly, unabashedly terrified of being alone.
Boyd asked, “How do you give a blessing?”
Marty looked up, hopeful.
Boyd remembered a scene in a movie: James Stewart and Doug McClure in Shenandoah. Young Doug was asking for old Jimmy’s daughter’s hand in marriage; the characters were sitting on a porch, if he remembered correctly. Here we are, Boyd thought, on a porch. So far, so good.
In a booming, mock-serious voice, he said, “You have my blessing, my son. Go forth and multiply.”
“Is that it?” Marty asked, after a moment.
“That’s it. With a handshake, I guess.”
“Thanks!” Marty grabbed Boyd’s hand. “I’ll tell Gloria,” and he hurried inside.
Boyd sat down on the steps, smiling to himself. He had performed the right gesture, even if he still was not sure what it meant.
But as the woods grew darker, the full moon, big and bright, came into view, and he realized how tired he was. Would he sleep tonight? Or would he roam the house like a ghost? He began counting the hours he had slept this week, but that depressed him, so he stopped. He thought about Andrea. Where was she now? Cooking supper? Watching a movie? Making love?
The porch began to vibrate underneath him.
He jumped off the steps into the yard and looked at the cottage. The lights were off. The moon was reflected in a black window. Even in reflection, its swollen, harsh light made his eyes burn.