The Big-Breasted Pilgrim
Our house in the Florida Keys is down a narrow road, half a mile from a convenience store with a green neon sign that advertises "Bait and Basics." Lowell's sister, Kathryn, called to get us to arrange for a car to drive her from Miami. She considers everywhere Lowell has ever lived to be Siberia, including Saratoga, New York, which she saw only once, during a blizzard. TriBeCa, circa 1977, was Siberia. Ditto Ashland, Oregon. In all those places, Lowell had what he now calls "The Siberian Brides": his first and second wives, who gradually became as incomprehensible to him as foreigners: Tish, who lived with us in Saratoga and later in TriBeCa; Leigh Anne Leighton -- a name so melodic he always speaks of her that way, even though it seems inordinately formal -- who lived with us for a month in Ashland before flying to Los Angeles for her grandfather's funeral, from which she never returned. This was no case of riding forever 'neath the streets of Boston, however: she got a Mexican divorce and remarried a youth Lowell and I recently saw on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, playing soprano sax with a group called Bobecito and the Brazen Beauties.
My own life is nothing like Lowell's. The joke is that I am his Boswell, and to the extent that I used to take dictation in Lowell's precomputer days, I suppose I have been a sort of Boswell -- though I doubt the man, himself, ever scrubbed down a shower with Tilex, or would have, even if shower stalls -- to say nothing of the excessively effective cleaning products we have now -- existed. Nor, say, did we mistake Ashland for the Hebrides, though Lowell and I have inevitably arrived at pithy pronouncements as a prelude to packing up and leaving place after place.
I, Richard Howard Manson, was an army brat, living in thirteen different locations by the time I started high school. The one good thing about that was that it made me pretty unflappable, though at the same time, it's given me a wanderlust I've tired of as I've aged. Lowell makes fun of me for trying to decondition myself by accepting vicarious travel in place of the real thing; I subscribed to almost every travel magazine, and view cassettes of foreign cities, or even silly resort promo tapes, almost every night before bed. Lowell calls this "nicotine patch travel." Passing in front of the TV, he'll drag hard on an imaginary cigarette, then toss the phantom cig on the floor, grind it out, and slap his right arm to his left bicep, exhaling with instant relief. As it happens, I quit smoking -- I mean real cigarettes -- cold turkey. The travel addiction has not been so easy to break, but since I like my job, and since my employer is terminally itchy, he has often been pleased to take advantage of my weakness. The way wheedling wives have talked husbands into second and third babies, Lowell has persuaded me to give a month at the Chateau Marmont, or a few years in a rented Victorian in upstate New York, a try. He never claims we're staying, though he doesn't present the trips as vacations, either. When he had a larger network of friends -- that period, about ten years ago, when everybody seemed to be between marriages -- our ostensible reason for going somewhere would often be that we were on a mercy mission to cheer up so-and-so. Once there, so-and-so would be found, miraculously, to have cheered us up, and so we would stay for a longer infusion of friendliness, until so-and-so became affiliated with the next Mrs. So-and-so, who would inevitably dislike us, or until that moment when a blizzard hit and we thought of being in the sun, or when summer heat settled like an itchy, wooly mantle.
In most of the places we've lived, there have been constants, Kathryn's visits among them. Other constants are a few ceramics made by a friend, a couple of very nice geometrically patterned rugs, and our picture mugs, depicting each of us sitting on camels in front of pyramids. There's also the favorite this, or the favored that -- small things, like jars of home-grown herbs, or the amazing sea nettle suntan lotion that can be ordered by calling an 800 number that relays a request for shipping to the apothecary in St. Paul de Vence. Our Barbour jackets are indispensable, as is a particular wine pull, no longer manufactured. When you travel as much as we do, you can seem to fixate on what looks to other people to be trivia. I make it a point to be casual about the wine pull, letting other people use it whenever they insist upon being helpful, though I often awaken in the night, convinced that it has been thrown away during the cleanup period, and then I go downstairs and open the drawer and see it, but return to bed convinced that I have nevertheless had an accurate premonition of its fate following the next dinner party.
Lowell is a chef, and a quite brilliant one. He has one of those metabolisms that allows him to eat anything and remain thin. I, too, can and do eat anything, my diabetes having been miraculously cured by a Japanese acupuncturist, but unlike Lowell, everything I eat increases my weight. At six feet, I am two hundred and seventy pounds -- so imposing that the first time I hurried inside to pick up some items at our "Bait and" convenience store, the teenager behind the counter raised his hands above his head. This has become a standing joke with Lowell, who sometimes imitates the teenager when he and I cross paths in the house, or when I bring the evening cocktails to the back deck.Lowell and I met more than twenty years ago, when I was driving for my cousin's private car company in New York City. Lowell was in town, that evening, to be a guest chef for the weekend at the short-lived but much admired Le Monde d'Aujourd'hui. I picked him up at La Guardia in a downpour, and on the way in -- he was coming from a birthday party for Craig Claiborne, in upstate New York -- we talked about our preferences in junk food, rock and roll, and -- I should have been suspicious -- whether any city that was a state capital had any zip to it. But this gives the impression that we chattered away. We spoke only intermittently, and I had little to say, except that I liked Montpelier, Vermont, very much, but that was probably because I'd only visited the state once, during a heat wave in New York, and it had seemed to me I'd gone to heaven. This brought up the subject of gardens, and I heard for the first time, though others no doubt knew it, the theory of planting certain flowers to repel insects from certain vegetables. On the streets of Brooklyn, you didn't hear about things like that -- Brooklyn Heights being the place I had settled when I was discharged from the Marine Corps. I was living in my uncle's spare bedroom, driving for my cousin's car company, making extra money to help support the baby that would be born to Rita and me -- that was going to happen, whether she left me or not, as she was always threatening to do -- though less than four months from the day I picked Lowell up, my twenty-two-year-old, in-the-process-of-becoming ex-wife, as well as the child she was carrying, would be dead after a collision on the Merritt Parkway. In the years following the accident, this has never come up in conversation, so even if I'd been able to look in a crystal ball, I would still have chatted with Lowell about Sara Lee chocolate cupcakes and the extraordinarily addictive quality of Cheetos. I do not care to discuss matters of substance, as Kathryn has correctly stated many times. Both she and Lowell know the fact of my wife's death, of course. My uncle told them, the time they came to a barbecue at his apartment, six months or so after I met them. By that time, I was in Lowell's employ, and he was working on the second of his cookbooks, trying to decide whether he should take a very lucrative, full-time position at a New Orleans hotel. I had become his secretary, because -- as it turned out, to my own surprise -- I seem to have a tenacity about succeeding in minor matters, which are all that frustrate the majority of people, anyway. That is, after some research, I would find the telephone number of the dive shop in Tortola that was across the street from a phoneless shack, where the non-English-speaking cook had used a certain herb mixture on the grilled chicken he had served to me and to Lowell that Lowell felt he must find a way to reproduce. (Not that these things ever struck him in the moment. He often has a delayed reaction to certain preparations, but his insistence in deciphering the mystery is always in direct proportion to the time elapsed between eating and doing the double-take.) My next step would be to send Chef Lowell tee-shirts to the helpful salesman in the dive shop, one for him, his wife, and their two children, and -- FedEx's ideas about not sending cash in envelopes be damned -- money to bribe both salesman and chef. It was a minor matter to get a friend of a friend, who was a stewardess, to use her free hours before her flight took off again from Beef Island to take a cab to the dive shop and pick up a small quantity of the ground herb concoction, which chemical analysis later revealed to be powdered rhino horn (one could well wonder how they got that in Tortola), mixed with something called dried Annie flower, to which was added a generous pinch -- as Lowell suspected -- of simple ginger. Of course I see these small successes of mine as minor victories, but to Lowell they seem a display of inventive brilliance. He describes himself, quite unfairly, I think, as a plodder. He will try a recipe a hundred times, if that's what it takes. But to me that isn't plodding; it's being a perfectionist, which, God knows, too few people are these days.
Tonight, before Kathryn arrives, Lowell's new love interest will be arriving for drinks. She has no idea that he is a famous chef who has published numerous cookbooks, writes a monthly column for one of the most prestigious food magazines, and teaches seminars on the art of sautéing in St. Croix, where we are put up annually at the Chenay Bay Beach Resort. I have met this woman, who has a name like something out of a cheap English romance, Daphne Crowell, exactly once, when I stumbled into them -- literally -- on the back deck. It was a moonless night, exceedingly dark, and the two of them had gone downstairs to observe our neighbor's speedy little boat coming around the point with another load of drugs. She had been wearing my bathrobe, which she simply helped herself to, after taking it from the hook on the back of my bathroom door. There she was, leaning against the rail at the edge of the deck like a car's hood ornament, when I awoke from slumbering under a blanket on a chaise longue just in time to see her untie the sash and pull off the robe, giggling as she held it forward to flap in the breeze -- my robe -- like some big flag at a parade. I'm sure the silly gesture was equally appreciated by our neighbor, whose own "secretary" wears night goggles for land-to-shore vision, in case the police are waiting in ambush with their panthers, or whatever intimidating beasts they currently favor. Anyway: Daphne is a fool, but nobody ever said Lowell didn't like to waste his time. A recipe he will fret over forever, but any woman will do -- particularly on a night when Kathryn, whom he is still intimidated by, is arriving, all big-city bluster and Oh, how are you doing out here in the boonies? Since starting a graduate program in writing at the New School, she treats everyone as interesting material. She has been trying for years to see if she can make me mad by insisting that I read The Remains of the Day, which -- I have not told her, and will not -- I have, in fact, viewed on television. I understand completely that she wishes me to see myself as some pathetic, latter-day servant who has wasted his life by missing the forest for the trees. If she thinks I live to serve, she's wrong. I simply live to avoid my previous life.
"Everything ready out here?" Lowell calls. He has opened the French doors and is propping them open with cement-filled conch shells. Everything ready, indeed: he's the one who set out the cheese torte, under the big upside-down brass colander. All I had to do was bring out the gallon of Tanqueray, the tonic, and some Key limes. My Swiss Army knife will do for slicing, and even mixing.
"Are you going deaf, Richard? Half the things I ask you, you don't respond to.
"He's mad at me not because I haven't answered, really, but because I refused to drive to Miami to get his sister. The ride wouldn't have bothered me, but two and a half hours with Kathryn in a car would be more than I could take, by approximately two hours and twenty-five minutes.
"Richard...is there a possibility that not only do you not hear me, but that you have no curiosity about why I'm standing here, moving my lips?"
"I thought maybe you'd just had something tasty," I say.
A pause. "You did hear me, then? You just chose not to answer?"
"What's the point of these random women?" I say.
He walks toward me. "I don't know why it upset you so much that she borrowed your robe," he says. "Anything that smacks of exuberance, you insist upon as seeing as drunken foolishness."
"Remember the Siberians," I say. "And the one you picked up in South Beach, who wanted to sue for palimony after one weekend."
He looks at my knife, open to the longest blade, next to the bottle of gin. "This was your idea of a stirrer?" he says.
"She's so spontaneous and uninhibited," I say. "Let's see if she doesn't just use her finger."
As if that were a cue, we hear the crunch of gravel under Daphne's tires. Since today is Friday, she will have spent the day making fruit smoothies for tourists. On Monday and Tuesday, the only other days she works, she has been substituting for a dentist's receptionist, who was mugged in Miami during her ninth month of pregnancy. Six weeks after the mugging, the woman has still not given birth. If nothing happens by Monday, they are going to induce labor -- though apparently what the woman is most afraid of is leaving her house. I know all this because Daphne phones the house often, and when I answer she always feels obliged to strike up a conversation.
Much ooh-ing and aah-ing at the front door: such a lovely house, so secluded, such beautiful plants everywhere. The unexpected delight of seeing roses growing in profusion in the Keys, blah blah blah.
She has brought me -- the absurd cow has brought me -- a plastic manatee. She has brought Lowell three birds-of-paradise, wrapped by the flower shop in lavender paper, which she pronounces "coals to Newcastle." But the manatee...we don't already have one of those, do we? No, we don't. We don't even have a rubber ducky to float in the bathwater. We're so...you know...old.
Behold: she has on gold Lycra pants, gold thong sandals, and a football-sized shirt with enormous shoulder pads. The material is iridescent: blue, shimmering gold, flashing orange, everything sparkling as if Tinker Bell, in a mad mood, applied the finishing touches. The sparkly stuff is also in her hair, broken lines of it, as if to provide a passing lane. All this, because she put a heaping teaspoon of protein powder into Lowell's smoothie, gratis. I see Lowell slip his arm around her shoulder as the two of them walk to the edge of the deck. I go into the house to get glasses and ice.
When I return, with the three glasses on a tray, she is in midbanality: the loveliness of the sky, etc. Well: Kathryn's pathetic butler would bow out at this point, but in our house, the servant drinks and eats with the employer. The employer has no real friends except for the servant, in good part because he is given to sarcasm, periods of dark despair, temper tantrums, and hypochondriacal illnesses, alternating with intense self-appreciation. Similarly, the servant has been co-opted by a life of leisure, a feeling of gratitude. Lowell is far easier to take care of than a wife, certainly easier to care for than a child, much easier to look after than the majority of dogs, by which I mean no disrespect to either party, as a dog was the one thing I ever had a strong attachment to and deep admiration for. The Marines, I found out, were sociopaths. Imagine the days of my youth when I thought I would prove my manhood and patriotism by outdoing my army lieutenant colonel father by joining the Marines. Sir, yes, sir! And Lowell thinks there might be a problem with tracking down a particular herb mixture? I could kiss his feet. Though I settle for shining his shoes -- or did, in pre-Reebok days.
Lowell and Daphne have decided to take a ride in the kayak, tied to the end of the pier. This may leave me alone to greet Kathryn, who should arrive in twenty minutes or so, if everything goes according to schedule. Lately, I have begun to think that she is angry because she has had to pity me for so many years. The choked-up version my uncle gave her of the event that ostensibly ruined my young life registered so strongly with her that she has never been able to put it aside. The sheer misery of what I went through gets superimposed, I suspect, on her desire to be competitive with me, makes her back off from trying, more tenaciously, to solve the puzzle that is me: a street kid who gradually became educated (nothing else to do those four long, cold years we lived in Saratoga), only to shun those with similar education -- to shun everyone, in fact. What she doesn't know is that I knew almost immediately my marriage was a mistake, I never wanted to become a father -- the accident was my way out, not only from the situation, but for all time. Daphne could have spooned so much protein powder into my fruit drink it would have had the consistency of sawdust, and I would only have paid her and walked away. I've faltered a bit, from time to time; Kathryn would love to know with whom, and when, but my uncle spoke so graphically to her, years ago, that he managed to instill even future shame -- that's the way I think of the service he inadvertently did for me -- so that she still can't bring herself to ask outright what the story is with some hulking street kid who has no girlfriend and no friends, who is aging companionably, in the lower Florida Keys, with her bizarre, neurotic brother.
They descend into the kayak. Daphne has found something, already, to giggle about. She has left one shoe on the dock, it seems. I am summoned to help. Once seated, Lowell doesn't want to risk toppling the boat, I suppose. I don't play deaf; I respond to his entreaty, and at the edge of the dock I bend and pick up her gold flip-flop, for which she thanks me profusely, and then Prince Charming and Cinderella set sail. Which leaves me with the four-cheese tortes with rye saffron crust that I don't mind being the first to cut into, taking out a neat wedge with the knife and admiring its firm, yet creamy consistency. It is flecked with rosemary and ground pink peppercorns: the appetizer other chefs have been stealing and altering almost from the minute Lowell invented it. What none of them have guessed, to my knowledge, is the presence of the single simmered vanilla bean. I bite off a tiny piece, chew slowly, and consider the possibility that anything as ambrosial as this might be interchangeable with love.
The Triple J Cab pulls into the drive as the sun is setting. Kathryn alights from the front seat -- wouldn't you know she'd be so ballsy, she'd sit up front. She seems to have only a small bag with her, which means, thank God, she won't be visiting longer than she said. But then, from the backseat, a skinny woman emerges, holding her own small bag, wearing a beret and a long white scarf, which matches her white shorts and her white tee-shirt, over which she wears a droopy vest. "Paradise!" she exclaims, throwing back her head and enthusing, as if the sky were awaiting her verdict. Yes, indeed -- but who is she?
She is Nancy Cummins -- Cummins without a "g" -- who is en route to a bris to be held in a suite at the Casa Marina Hotel, in Key West. She is an acquaintance of Kathryn's from New York -- a highlighter whom Kathryn arranged to meet at JFK, when it turned out the two women would be taking trips at the same time, almost to the same destination ("Highlighter" -- meaning that she paints streaks in rich people's hair).
I carry their two small bags. Inside one, it will later turn out, is a narcotized kitten.
"Where's my brother?" Kathryn asks. Rushing to also ask: "Did he forget I was coming?"
"He's in a kayak with his girlfriend," I say.
"See?" Kathryn says to the highlighter. "No one meets anybody in New York; you come to Siberia, and bingo."
"Bingo," I say. "I haven't thought of bingo in a million years."
"They don't play games. They read books," Kathryn says to the highlighter, as if I'm not there.
"You know," I say, realizing I'm about to make a fool of myself, but not caring, "when she said you were a highlighter, I thought at first she must mean of books. Those yellow markers you underline with. You know: highlighters."
The highlighter says, "I've always stayed as far from school as I could get."
I put their bags on the kitchen counter. It's only then that the highlighter unzips her bag and removes what I take, at first, to be a wad of material. It is a six-week-old black kitten, sleeping what looks like the sleep of death, though the thing does twitch when she puts it on the counter.
"Isn't it adorable?" Kathryn says.
Oh, absolutely. Now we have a cow, a manatee, and a kitten.
"Did he chill my favorite wine, or did he forget?" Kathryn wants to know, pulling open the refrigerator door. In the shelf sit four bottles of Vichon Chardonnay, with two cans of Tecate at either end, seeming to brace the bottles like bookends. Kathryn plucks a bottle from the shelf and closes the door. I open the drawer and silently pantomime that I would be happy to extract the cork. But no: she's a liberated woman, none of that harmful stereotyping of the helpless female allowed. Flip forward until two A.M., when I'll have the anxiety dream.
The highlighter opens the door and seizes a Tecate.
"Key lime?" I offer, reaching behind the slightly quivering kitten and extracting one from a basket.
"What do you do with it?"
"You squirt some in your beer," Kathryn says.
"I hope...I hope it isn't too much trouble, my just, you know, coming here," the highlighter says, as if the idea of limes used to enhance the flavor of drinks has just defined some complexity for her.
"Look at this! Next Sunday's Times Book Review -- by subscription!" Kathryn says.
"Yes. We alternate with our reading of The Siberian Daily."
"Didn't I tell you he has a clever comeback for everything?" Kathryn says.
As if this weren't a put-down, the highlighter extends her hand and says, "I can't believe my good fortune in being here. I mean, it's very generous of you to have me. Because what a coincidence, my flying to this part of Florida -- I guess I'm in the right part of Florida! -- just when..."
I shake her hand. It is what we might have done from the first, if she had said immediately how happy she was to be where she was, and if Kathryn hadn't plunked the two bags in my hand. Does this happen to other people? This finding oneself suddenly greeting someone, or introducing oneself, long after things have gotten rolling? Roger Vergé once introduced himself to me on the second day of his visit, following his dinner of the night before, and after preparing lunch, for which he'd had me shop earlier that morning. Does some strange, sudden formality overcome people, or is there something I do that makes them feel so immediately a part of the family that they forget social form? I've asked Lowell, and that is his explanation. Just as his sister would never miss an opportunity to express skepticism about me, Lowell lets no opportunity pass when he can reassure me of my worthiness, by putting a positive spin on things. Leaving aside those periods when he is too depressed to speak, that is.
"And so you...you stay out here and create recipes together?" the highlighter asks.
"That sounds so domestic," I say. "No, actually. I have nothing to do with composing the recipes, and now that Lowell has mastered the computer, I sometimes don't even -- "
"Tell her about tracking down the powdered rhino horn," Kathryn says, stroking the collapsed kitten.
"She's talking about my tracking down an herbal mixture Lowell had interest in," I begin.
"Did you go to jail?"
"For importing the rhinoceros."
"I didn't....I didn't import a whole rhinoceros."
"The drug smuggler around the corner would probably be willing to do that for a price," Kathryn says.
The highlighter looks at me, wide-eyed. "She told me about the guy who runs drugs."
"And did she tell you that we disapprove, and that we're spying on him for the federal government?"
"Only kidding. We don't care what out neighbors do."
"For one thing, you'd have to be delusional to live here on the edge of nowhere and think in terms of having a neighbor," Kathryn says.
"I know everybody in my building," the highlighter says. "Of course, there are only four apartments."
"Apartments," Kathryn muses, strolling onto the back deck. "Can you stand here and imagine one going up across the way?"
"No," the highlighter says.
"We've left places because of equally ridiculous scenarios," I say.
"Kathryn told me that you two have lived just about everywhere."
"She did? Well, as an adult I've only -- "
"Rhinoceros," the highlighter says. "Isn't that an aphrodisiac, or something?"
The wall phone rings, sending a short spasm through the kitten, who has dragged itself almost underneath it, before collapsing again.
That is what we were doing, what the three of us were talking about, when a chef whose name I faintly computed called from Coral Gables, in quite a dither, wanting me to inform Lowell that George Stephanopoulos would be calling momentarily.
The president, it seems, is a lover of mango. He has recently sampled Lowell's preparation of baked mango gratinée -- usually served as an accompaniment to chicken or fish -- at the home of a friend, who prepared it from Lowell's newest cookbook. The president loved it, as well as the main course, which was apparently prepared out of the same cookbook. Furthermore, Mrs. Clinton has become intent upon sampling some of Lowell's newer dishes (but no chocolate chip cookies, goes through my mind) and wonders if they might recruit Lowell to cook for them during an upcoming weekend at a friend's borrowed home in Boca Raton. Mrs. Clinton will call herself, to confer about the menu, which would be for ten people -- three of them teenage girls -- whenever it is convenient.
I cover the receiver with my hand and whisper: "When can you talk to Hillary?"
Kathryn, from the back deck, maintains this is all a prank.
"Any time," Lowell whispers back.
"Would Mrs. Clinton be able to talk to Mr. Cartwright now?"
"Probably she would right after the Kennedy Center performance," George Stephanopoulos says. "Give me five minutes. Let me get back to you on that."
The phone doesn't ring for an hour. By the time it does ring, the kitten is upright and spunky, chasing after Key limes rolled across the kitchen floor.
"George Stephanopoulos," the voice says. "Are you...there's a landing field in Marathon, correct?"
"Yes," I say.
"Big planes don't come in, though?"
I see the dinner slipping away. "No," I say.
"Is there a roasted pig?"
"I'm sorry, sir?"
"Not at the airport. I mean, is there a recipe for roasted pig?"
"Prepared with a cumin marinade, and served with pistachio pureed potatoes."
"The Clintons have left for an evening performance, but if it wouldn't be inconvenient, I think Mrs. Clinton would like to call when they return. It might be eleven, ten-thirty, or eleven -- something like that."
"Mr. Cartwright stays up until well after midnight."
"I'll bet I'm interrupting your dinner right now. Tell me the truth."
"No. Actually, we've been watching what has turned out to be an incredible sunset and we've been waiting for your call."
"Sunset," Stephanopoulos says, with real longing in his voice. "Okay," he says. "Speak to you later."
"This is amazing," the highlighter says.
"Sting and Trudie Styler rented a house in Key West last winter," Daphne says. "Also, David Hyde Pierce, who plays Frasier's brother, took a date for dinner on Little Palm Island, and he tipped really well."
Since the moment they were introduced, Daphne and the highlighter have gotten along famously. They're sitting on the kitchen floor, rolling limes around like some variation of playing marbles, and the kitten has sprung to life and is going gonzo.
"When would the dinner be?" Lowell asks.
"They're going to call around eleven," I say. "You can ask."
"You ask," Lowell says. "I'd make a fool of myself if I had to talk to Hillary Clinton."
On the deck, Kathryn plucks a stalk of lemon grass growing from a clay pot, puts it between her two thumbs, and blows loudly. The kitten slithers under the refrigerator.
"Reminds me of certain of the doctor's patients," Daphne says, watching the kitten disappear. "You know, what really drives me crazy is that when they call, they give every last detail about their problem, as if the dentist cares whether the tooth broke because they were eating pizza or gnawing on a brick."
The kitten emerges, followed by what looks like its own kitten: a quick moving palmetto bug that disappears under the stove.
"Jesus Christ," Lowell says. "Where's the bug spray?"
Antonio, the chef from Coral Gables, calls back. He wants Lowell to know that since the president will be having lunch at his restaurant, he is not at all offended that the president wishes to dine with us. Every effort must be made, however, not to duplicate dishes. He asks, bleakly, if we have had any success in finding fresh estragon in southern Florida.
"If this were Frasier, Niles would run out and buy a speakerphone before the president called back. He'd hook it up, but then in the middle of the call it would blow up, or something," Daphne says.
We all look at her.
"I always watch because I like my namesake," Daphne says.
"That's what he said?" Lowell says, pouring chardonnay into his glass. "He came right out and said the president liked my potato-mango gratinée?"
"What do you think he'd say to lead into the subject that Clinton wanted to come to dinner? That the president had been very depressed about the Whitewater investigation?"
"No mention of Whitewater!" Lowell says.
"It's like: don't think of a pink elephant," the highlighter says.Kathryn comes in from the back deck. "The bugs are starting to bite," she says.
"Also, where are we going to seat them?" Lowell says.
I say: "At the dining room table."
"Twelve, with the leaf up, but fourteen? Where will we get the chairs?"
"You can probably leave that up to someone on his staff."
"This isn't going to happen," Kathryn says. "You really think the Clintons are going to come bumping down that dirt road like the Beverly Hillbillies?"
"Gravel," Lowell says. "But you're right. We could easily get it paved."
"Remember when Queen Elizabeth went to Washington, and they took her to the home of a typical black family, or whatever it was, and the woman went up to the queen and gave her a big hug, and all the newspapers had the photograph of the queen going into shock when she was touched?" the highlighter says.
"A good suggestion: a simple handshake with the president and first lady will suffice," Lowell says to the highlighter.
"If I had to talk to them I'd probably piss my pants," the highlighter says.
"We could mention to Hillary that treatment for adult incontinence was not often covered under current health insurance policies," I say.
"We could say that yellow water was better than white water," Daphne chimes in.
"I just realized: I didn't put the carpaccio out," I say, going to the refrigerator.
"Let's spray ourselves and knock back some more wine out on the deck before we eat," Kathryn says.
"Yes, but...we won't swallow!" the highlighter says.
Well before eleven, we've run out of jokes.
"This is the most strange and exciting day I have had since Madonna came in to get her roots retouched after closing. There she was, looking like a little wet dog, with her hair shampooed and the handkerchief-size towel behind her neck, and she wouldn't speak to me directly, she said everything to her bodyguard, who relayed it to me: all of a sudden, instead of touching up her roots, I was supposed to dry her hair, set the dryer on low and give it to him, actually, and let him dry it, and I was supposed to highlight her wig, instead. And then we had a blackout. The whole place went dark, and do you know, her bodyguard thought it was deliberate. It wasn't Con Ed fucking up again, it was a plot to kidnap Madonna! He kept lighting this butane lighter he had with him and looking incredibly fierce. She was smoking a cigarette and talking to herself. She was dabbing at her neck and saying that she wished she could be somewhere else, and then, in almost no light, the bodyguard kept telling me to hurry up with highlighting the wig."
"What did she name that baby?" Kathryn says.
"LuLu," Daphne says.
I correct her. "Lourdes."
"He reads the tabloids in the food store," Kathryn says.
At eleven-thirty, George Stephanopoulos has not called back. After Letterman's monologue, we decide to skip Burt Bachrach and call it a night. The kitten has been sleeping on its back, like a dog, for quite a long time. The highlighter casually reaches for it, as if it were her evening bag.
"You're sure it was George Stephanopoulos?" Lowell says to me, as Kathryn volunteers to lead the ladies to their rooms.
"It had the ring of truth about it," I say.
"I bet the president would have liked the dinner we had tonight, and then he could have played Last Year at Marienbad with the three of us!" Daphne giggles, as she follows Kathryn toward the stairs.
I am amazed that the twenty-something highlighter doesn't ask, "What's Last Year at Marienbad?"
Then she does, pronouncing the last two words so that they resonate amusingly. The words are "marine" and "bad."
The mere idea that I might have thought to take down George Stephanopoulos's phone number provokes merriment at breakfast (frittata and an orange-coconut salad; two-shot con leches all around).
Antonio, his wife informs me when I call, is spending the day fishing off a pontoon boat. She will have him return my call when he returns.
"Maybe he decided McDonald's was easier," Daphne says.
"Impossible. His wife was going to be along," Lowell reminds her.
Someone who is driving from Miami for the bris will pick up the highlighter at the discount sandal store ten minutes from our house, and give her a lift to the Casa Marina. I'll give her a ride out to the highway in another half hour.
"You'd think they'd call," the highlighter says.
We sit around, like a bunch of kids nobody's asked to dance. In a little while, when I go out to sweep the deck, the highlighter follows me.
"Are you guys gay?" she says.
"No," I say, "but you aren't the first to wonder."
"Because you're hanging out in the Keys. And you've been together so long, and all."
"Right," I say.
"What kind of tree is that?" she says, stepping around the pile of leaves.
"Kapok. It doesn't always drop its leaves, but when it does, it does."
"So listen," she says. "I didn't offend you by asking?"
"No," I say.
"Because if you're not a couple -- I didn't think you were a couple -- but I mean, since you're not, I'm going to be at that Casa Marina place for a couple of days after Izzy gets snipped, and I wonder if maybe I could take you out."
It's the first time a woman has ever invited me on a date. I haven't been on a date in years. I only vaguely remember how to go on a date.
"There's a private party in some place called Bahama Village. Gianni Versace's sister invited me. It's some house where they took out the kitchen and put in a swimming pool. He's given her a bunch of ties to give out. Not that you'd want a tie," she says.
"No particular use for them," I say.
"Doesn't seem," she says. Then: "So. Would you like to do that?"
"To swim in someone's kitchen?"
"If you'd rather we just -- "
"No. No. Party sounds fine. I should come around to the Casa Marina, then? What time?"
"I think the party starts at ten."
"Little before ten, then."
"Great," she says.
"See you then," I say. "Of course, I'll also see you in about five minutes, when we should leave for the sandal store."
"Like to sweep for a few minutes?" I ask.
That drives her away.
The next day, there is still no word. Could the potato-mango gratinée have been a moment's passing fancy? Antonio knows nothing, except that the Clintons will be arriving at his restaurant February 11, and that the restaurant will be closed after the first seating on February 10, when it will be secured by the Secret Service. The following day, they will watch Antonio and one assistant prepare all the food. He worries aloud about finding good quality estragon.
Just as I am about to step into the shower, the phone rings. It is George Stephanopoulos. He is apologetic. The president has been put on a new allergy medicine, which had unexpected side effects. Mrs. Clinton has been preoccupied with other details of the trip, and only realized that morning that further communication was needed from her. She is prepared to talk to me in just a few minutes, if I'm able to hold on.
I hold on. To my surprise, though, it is the president, himself, who comes on the line. "I'm very glad to talk to you, sir," the president says. "Hillary and I have greatly enjoyed your recipes."
"Actually, Mr. President, Mr. Cartwright is the person you want to talk to. I'm his assistant. I'm afraid he's out, right now, kayaking."
"Kayaking? Where are you all?"
"In the Florida Keys, Mr. President."
"Is that right? I thought you were in Louisiana."
"We're in the Florida Keys. A bit short of Key West."
"I see. Then where will we be having lunch before we come over to you?" the president asks.
"I believe you'll be lunching in Boca Raton, which is about three hours by car from where Lowell -- Mr. Cartwright -- lives."
"We're going to be coming to your restaurant that evening? How are we getting there, George?"
A muffled answer.
"I see. Well, that's fine. Wish I could take the time to do some fishing. But your restaurant -- it's not a fish restaurant, is it?"
"Oh, no sir. It's...the thing is, it's not a restaurant. It's" -- Is this going to screw the whole deal, somehow? -- "It's where we live. Mr. Cartwright prefers to have favored people dine with us in his home. The view of the water from the back deck is splendid."
"A house on the water?" the president says. "Has George registered that?"
More muted discussion.
"I'm sorry," the president says. "I get caught up in logistics, when it's better to leave it to the experts."
"Water," I hear George Stephanopoulos hissing in the background.
"You know, I'm a chef's nightmare," the president says. "If I had my way, I'd eat a medium hamburger with extra mustard and go fishing with you guys." He says: "Isn't that what I'd do, George?"
"Papaya," Stephanopoulos hisses. Is he hissing at the president?
"Hillary got all excited about that papaya dish," the president says. "I'm going to let you speak to the boss about this, but if there's one thing I might request, with the exception of shrimp, I'm not overly fond of seafood."
"No seafood," I say.
"Well, yeah, that kind of cuts to the chase," the president says. He clears his throat. "Just out of curiosity, how far is the airport from where you are?"
"Less than an hour, sir."
"That's fine, then. George and Hillary will firm this up, and we're looking forward to an exceptional meal."
"Mr. Cartwright will be so sorry he missed your call."
"Fishing in the kayak?" the president asks.
"Just paddling around with a friend," I reply.
This seems to cause the president several seconds of mirth. "Quite different from my plans for the afternoon," the president says.
George Stephanopoulos cuts in: "Thank you very much," George Stephanopoulos says.
"We look forward to making plans," I say.
"Good-bye," George Stephanopoulos says. "Thanks again."
I am standing there in my barracuda briefs, preparing to shower and go on my date. I fully realize that when Kathryn finds out, she will raise an eyebrow and say something sarcastic about my having a date. She will no doubt see my going into Key West as analagous to the butler's going off to find the former housemaid: a sad moment of self-protective delusion. Like him, I also won't be bringing her back. I'll be swimming with her at some party. Then, if we have sex, it can very well be in her room at the hotel. Simple white boxers are almost always preferable to the barracudas, when one is disrobing for the first time. The tangerine sports shirt that is my favorite is probably a bit too tropical-jokey; slightly faded denim seems better, with a pair of new khaki trousers.
"I'm going into Key West," I say, coming upon Lowell, pouring glasses of iced tea at the kitchen counter. "See you tonight."
"Why are you going into Key West?" he says.
"Date," I say.
"You have a date? With whom?"
"She just left," he says.
"I see," he says.
"Mrs. Clinton, or her secretary, will be calling. I spoke to the president briefly, and he doesn't want seafood."
"You spoke to the president? When?"
"Just before I showered."
He looks at me. "You've cleaned up beautifully," he says.
"Thank you," I say.
"Nothing else you want to tell me about anything?" he says.
"She asked if we were gay and I told her we weren't, and that seemed to provoke her to ask me out to a party."
"I meant, was there anything else you wanted to report about your conversation with the president," he says.
"If you get to speak to the president himself, tell him about kayaking," I say. "When I mentioned it, the idea seemed to please him."
"Maybe we could borrow a couple of kayaks and take them all for a predinner sail."
"Right. They can bring in the Navy SEALs."
"You're saying that would be too complicated," Lowell says.
"You should leave before Kathryn begins to cross-examine you."
"Be sure to fill the gas tank to the level you found it at."
I turn to look at him. He does a double-take, and raises his hands above his head. "Joke," he says.
The party is at a house with crayon-blue shutters. Broken pieces of colored tile are embedded in the cement steps. A piece of sculpture that looks like a cross between Edward Munch's Scream and a fancy can opener stands gap-mouthed on the side lawn, but the lawn isn't a lawn in the usual sense: it's pink gravel, with a huge cement birdbath that is spotlit with a bright pink light. Orchids bloom from square wooden boxes suspended from hooks on the porch columns. A man who makes me look like an ant to his Mighty Mouse opens the door and scrutinizes us. Nancy -- I am thinking of her as Nancy, instead of as the highlighter -- reaches in the pocket of her white jacket and removes an invitation with a golden sun shining on the front.
"That's the ticket to ride," the man says. "Party's out back."
We walk through the house. Some Dade County pine. Ceiling fans going. Nice. The backyard is another story: a big tent has been set up, and a carousel revolves in the center, though instead of carousel animals, oversized pit bulls and rottweilers circulate, bright-eyed, jaws protruding, teeth bared. One little girl in a party dress rides round and round on a rottweiler. In the far corner is the bar, where another enormous man is mixing drinks. Upon close inspection, I see that he has a diamond stud in one ear. Wraparound sunglasses have been pushed to the top of his shaved head.
"I guess...gee, what do I want?" Nancy says. "A rum and Coke."
"The real thing, or diet?"
"Diet," Nancy says, demurely.
"A shot of Stoli," I say, as the man hands Nancy her drink.
He pours me half a glass of vodka.
"Thank you," I say.
"Nancy!" a woman in a leopard print jumpsuit says, clattering toward her in black mules.
"Inez!" Nancy says, embracing the woman. She turns to me. "This is, like, absolutely the best makeup person in New York."
"Did you make friends with Madonna?" Inez asks.
"No," Nancy says. "She didn't like me. It was clear that I was really a menial person to her."
"She didn't know you," Inez says.
"Well, you can't meet somebody if you won't speak to them," Nancy says.
The woman disappears into the growing crowd, and Nancy sighs. "I didn't do a very good job of introducing you," she says.
"Can I be honest? I'll never see these people again, so it really doesn't matter to me."
She squeezes my hand. "I'd like to think that maybe there's a chance that I'll see you again, at least," she says. "Maybe sometime you'll want to come to New York and check out what's new in some restaurants there."
"Maybe so," I say. "That would be very nice."
"It would," she says. "There are hardly any straight men in New York."
Two ladies in hats are air kissing. One holds a small dog on a leash. It's so small, Nancy's kitten could devour it. On closer inspection, though, I see that it's a tiny windup toy. I overhear the woman saying that she's bringing a nonpooping pet as a gift for the hostess. People begin to play Where's-the-Hostess.
"I think it's so exciting you're going to meet the president," Nancy says. "Hillary, too."
"Are you talking about my friend Hillary?" the woman who'd been talking to the woman with the toy dog says.
"Nothing detrimental," I say quickly.
"Priscilla DeNova," the woman says. "Pleased to meet you both."
"I'm Nancy," Nancy says. "This is my friend Richard."
"Richard," the woman echoes. "And do you know George, if you know Hillary?"
"I've only spoken to him on the phone," I say.
"Oh. What were you discussing with my friend George?"
"The president's coming to dinner," I say.
"I see. Is he going to drop by to fish, first?"
"He did mention the possibility. But no. He's just stopping by to dine."
"Conch fritters?" the woman says. She seems very amused by something.
"I think we can do a little better than that."
"What he really likes is burgers," Priscilla says. "I guess anyone who reads the paper knows that." She tosses back her long hair and says, almost conspiratorially, "Tell me the truth. Have you been having me on about Clinton coming for dinner?"
"No. The whole family will be coming."
"You must either be a fascinating conversationalist or quite a cook," she says.
"Or quite delusional," I say.
"Yes, well, that possibility did cross my mind." She looks around for someone more interesting to talk to.
"Tell us how you know George Stephanopoulos," Nancy says.
"My sister cleans house for a friend of his," the woman says. "She was a brilliant teacher, but she ruined her mind with drugs, and now about all she can remember is Get the vacuum. George has always been very kind to her. He gave her a ride once when she got stuck in the snow. He has a four-wheel drive, or whatever those things are. One time he saw us out hailing a cab, and he dropped us at the Avalon and came in to see the movie." She looks down, considering. "You know, I've never gotten straight on whether George, himself, goes on some fishing expeditions -- so to speak, I mean -- or whether Clinton gets some idea in his head, and then it just disappears. What I mean is, I wouldn't get my hopes up about them coming to dinner." She looks around, again. "Though if Hillary's involved, I suppose it might happen."
She drifts off without saying good-bye.
"Would I scare you off if I said that part of the reason I came to a bris in Florida was because a psychic told me that on this trip, or the next trip, I'd find true love?" Nancy says suddenly.
"You don't mean me."
"Oh, of course not," she says, straight-faced. "The woman who just walked away."
"You did mean me," I say.
"Yes, I did. I don't mean that right this moment I'm in love with you, but you do seem like a real possibility." Her eyes meet mine. "Come on: you must have had some interest, or you wouldn't have come tonight."
"And you have such a nice smile," she says.
"Excuse me for interrupting, but have you seen Gianni?" a small man asks. He has on a Gianni Versace shirt and black pants. He might be five feet tall, he might not.
"I'm afraid I don't know him," I say.
"But he's about to meet the president," Nancy says.
"The president of what?" the short man says.
"The United States," Nancy says.
"I'm Cuban," the man says. He walks away.
"So maybe it would be more fun at the Casa Marina," Nancy says. "Did you bring your bathing suit? There's a hot tub there."
"It's in my car," I say. "But didn't you say there was a pool here, in the kitchen?"
"Oh, right. I almost forgot," she says. "Let's find it."
We make our way back into the house. Two women are making out on a sofa in the hallway. The bouncer looms in the doorway, checking invitations. We take a left and find ourselves in a Victorian parlor. We turn around and go in the opposite direction. That room contains a stainless steel sink, where two women are washing and drying glasses. Nothing else that resembles a kitchen is there: no refrigerator; no cupboards. An indoor hot tub bubbles away, with several men and women inside, talking and laughing. There is a mat below the three steps leading to the hot tub. It depicts a moose, and says, in large black letters: WELCOME TO THE CAMP. The people in the hot tub are all speaking Italian. At the sink, the women are speaking Spanish. From a radio above the sink, Rod Stewart sings.
"Bathroom?" one of the women at the sink asks us.
"No, no. Just looking," Nancy says.
"Mr. Loring," the woman says, puckering her lips excessively to say "Loring." She looks at Nancy. She says: "He went to the bathroom."
Nancy considers this. "Thank you," she says.
"De nada," the woman says.
"I think it would be more fun at the Casa Marina," Nancy says.
"Welllllll," Kathryn says. "Somebody got home very late."
"Refill the tank?" Lowell asks.
"Just imagine me blushing deeply," I say.
"But at least somebody thought to bring the New York Times. Good, good, good," Kathryn says.
"If you like all these things so much, why do you leave New York?"
"To check the level of depredation," she says.
"Any update on the president?" I ask.
"You'd better not be responsible for my favorite hair highlighter of all time leaving New York City to live in the boonies," Kathryn says.
"Don't worry. I didn't ask her to marry me."
"You don't have to. Sex with a straight guy is enough to drive them over the edge."
"Quiet," Lowell says. "I don't want to hear the two of you sniping at each other before I've even had a cup of coffee."
On the counter, the coffee is slowly dripping into the pot.
"We went to a party," I say. "Gianni Versace was there, but he was peeing the whole time. We left and got into the hot tub at the Casa Marina. We watched Grand Hotel on the tube and had room service deliver a steak."
"It's love," Kathryn sighs.
"Well, don't sound so despondent about it, Cruella," Lowell says.
The phone rings. Lowell ignores it, resting his head on his hands. Kathryn is fanning herself with the travel section.
I answer the phone.
"George here," the voice says. "I just found out there was a screwup, and that no one from Mrs. Clinton's staff got back to you. My apologies for that. I didn't awaken you, did I?"
"No, not at all. You'll want to be speaking to Mr. Cartwright," I say.
"Well, actually, if you could just relay the message that things are pretty much on hold at this end, I'd appreciate it."
"Of course," I say.
"I hope we can do it another time," George Stephanopoulos says.
I don't know what makes me do it, but I say, "You know, last night I was at a party -- Gianni Versace and some other folks, down in Key West -- and I met a woman who knows you. Apparently her sister cleans house for a friend of yours. Does this ring a bell?"
"What?" George Stephanopoulos says.
"Nice-looking woman. From Washington. With a sister, who -- "
"Oh, sure. You're talking about Francine Worth's sister Priscilla."
"Yes," I say.
There is a pause. "What about her?" George Stephanopoulos says.
Lowell and Kathryn are staring at me. The dripping coffee is making deep, guttural, sexual sounds.
"The party wasn't that much fun. You weren't missing anything," I say.
"Is that right? Well, a lot of the time I feel like I am missing something, so maybe I'll feel better now that I know I'm not."
"It wasn't so bad, I guess. I haven't been to a party for years. Not on a date, either, to tell the truth. So last night was quite out of the ordinary for me."
"I guess so, then," George Stephanopoulos says, after a slight pause.
I can't think what to say. I realize that I'm being watched from one end, and listened to carefully at the other.
"Well, we'll see if this can be worked out sometime when things are less hectic," George Stephanopoulous says. "Just think of me stuck at the desk the next time you step out."
"Oh, there isn't going to be a next time. She's going back to New York tomorrow." I add: "Priscilla had only good things to say about you. Your kindness in giving people rides, I mean. Very generous."
"Yeah, I caught a movie with them one time. Seems like that was in another lifetime."
"I often have that same feeling of disorientation. I've lived so many places. Thailand. All over France, at various times. Le Moulin de Mougins, when the cooking was still brilliant. In the U.S., there's a place called Lava Hot Springs. Lowell and I went there when he took part in a steak barbecuing competition, I guess you'd call it. A very nice place. And the country is full of places like that."
"I know it," George Stephanopoulos says. "Man, you're making me chomp at the bit."
"You should come here and fish and have dinner, yourself, if you ever take a couple of days off. We're right on the water. Plenty of room."
"That's very nice of you. Very nice indeed. Certainly be easier than trying to get everybody together to caravan down there in early February, Mrs. Clinton converging from one place, the president with no idea what time his meeting is going to conclude. And you toss into that three or four teenage girls, some of them who'll back out at the last minute because some boy might call, or something."
"Feel free to call us," I say. "Some of Lowell's uncollected recipes are his very best. The Thai-California fusion dishes he's been working on have really come together."
"My mouth is watering," George Stephanopoulos says. "Think of me, when you're having some of that terrific food."
"Will do," I say.
"And thanks again," George Stephanopoulos says. It doesn't seem like he really wants to hang up.
"See you, then, maybe," I say.
"I'll keep that in mind," he says. "Good-bye."
Kathryn is the first to speak. She collects her cup, and her brother's, and pours coffee, giving me a wide berth to indicate her skepticism. She's jealous; that's what it's always been with Kathryn. She's very possessive, very set in her ways. In spite of passing judgment on anything new, she's still trying to come to terms with things that are old. How many years have I been around, now -- years in which I've been pretty decent to her -- and she still wishes that she had her brother all to herself? Kathryn says: "The new effusiveness."
I say nothing.
"Well, for God's sake, would you mind letting me know the outcome of your little chat? Am I correct in assuming that the president is not coming, but that George Stephanopoulos might?" Lowell says.
"What is this? Twenty Questions? The president is not coming...why?"
"Some meeting is probably going to run late, and Mrs. Clinton would be rendezvousing with him from wherever she was, and Chelsea and her friends apparently drive him mad, because they're so unpredictable."
"He didn't know this when he called?" Kathryn says.
"How would I know?"
"Don't you two start in on each other. Think about me, for once. What about my feelings, when I was prepared to be cooking for the president and suddenly he decides to blow the whole thing off because some meeting might run a little late?"
Kathryn and I take this in. I get a mug and pour coffee. We all sit at the table in silence.
"I'm not sure it quite computed with me," I say. "The president visiting, I mean."
"I wonder if the bastard's still having lunch at Antonio's," Lowell says.
"Read the Times," I say. "Would you like me to make you some toast?"
"No thank you," Lowell says. "But it's nice of you to offer."
"I'll be on the deck," Kathryn says. She picks up her mug and half the paper and walks outside.
"Still," Lowell says. "Not everyone gets a call from the president." He looks at me. "Remember a few months after we met, when we had that barbecue over at your uncle's?"
"Of course I remember. He was a great guy. Never charged me a nickel for room and board. A totally generous man. 'Never get too big for your britches that you turn your back on your family,' my uncle used to say."
"You never did," Lowell says. "You sent him food every time we went somewhere exotic."
"Pistachios from Saudi Arabia," I say.
"And I've taken his advice, too. Which means that Kathryn will tyrannize us forever," Lowell says.
Back in Key West that evening, on impulse, I'm almost giddy. I go to the Green Parrot and have a cold draft before going over to the Casa Marina to meet Nancy and her friends in the bar there. Some bikers are at the Parrot with their girlfriends. Somebody who looks like a tweedy professor, except that he's got on pink short shorts as well as the tweed jacket with elbow patches, so he might be just another unemployed oddball. He's playing a game of Nintendo while sipping some tropical drink through double-barrel straws.
I am thinking about what I might have said to the president if he came to dinner.
But then I think: he no doubt already knows the marines are a bunch of dangerous psychos. He always had better sense than to truck with any of that stuff.
What would Nancy say if I suggested moving to New York with her?
Probably yes. She dropped enough hints about the lack of straight guys in Manhattan.
What do you get when you fall in love?
You get enough germs to catch pneumonia.
What happened to all the great singers of yesteryear?
Replaced by Smashing Pumpkins.
"You hear the one about this guy's girlfriend, who's leaving him?" a skinny guy in cutoffs and a "Mommy and Daddy Visited Key West and All I Got Was This Crummy Shirt" tee-shirt says, sitting next to me on a barstool.
"Don't think so," I say.
"The girlfriend says, 'I'm leaving you. I'm out of here.' And the guy says, 'Whoa there, can a guy even know why?' and she goes, 'Yeah, I've heard something very, very disturbing about you.' He says, 'Oh yeah? What's that?' She says, 'I heard that you were a pedophile.' He says, 'Hey, that's a pretty big word for an eleven-year-old.'"
Today I have spoken to this unfunny jerk, and to the president's assistant, George Stephanopoulos. Also to my employer, who is depressed, because the president was going to come to dinner and then suddenly he didn't want to, and to Kathryn -- the sarcastic Kathryn, who always brings both of us down -- though soon I will be talking to the lovely, though fleeting-as-the-breeze Nancy. Somewhere in the middle of these thoughts, I manage a strained "ha-ha." I ask for the check and pay the bill before the guy gets wound up again.
I drive on Duval, to check out the action. A bunch of middle-aged tourists, who wonder what they're doing in Key West, a lot of tee-shirt shops, quite a few kids beneath the age of consent, not yet at the age of reason, who have never even heard of the Age of Aquarius. Duval looks like Forty-second Street, although maybe by now Forty-second Street looks like Disneyland.
I meet Nancy and her friends -- both women -- where she said they'd be: at the beach bar. The women give me the once-over, and the You-Might-Hurt-Her-Permanently squint. Nancy flashes bedroom eyes, but only gives me a discreet peck on the cheek. "There's another party, in a condo over by the beach. But first Jerri has to go back to the photo place where she works, because she needs to double-check that the alarm is activated," she says.
"Nobody has a car. Would you mind driving?" Jerri says.
"Not at all," I say.
"Some customer left a bottle of champagne for the owner, but he's in AA, so he just gives me those things. If you want, we could take that out of the fridge and drink it."
"Mmmm," Bea, the other woman, says. Bea looks like she might eventually forgive me for being a man.
"This new alarm system has been screwing up in a major way," Jerri says. "It will take me ten secs to make sure it hasn't deprogrammed itself. And to round up the bubbly."
"So," Bea says. "I hear you're the assistant to a famous chef."
"Yes, I am."
"Do you cook, too?"
"Just help out," I say. "I'm not innovative, myself."
"So how does somebody get a job like that?" Bea says.
"Lowell and I became friends when I picked him up for a car service I used to drive for. It was back in the days when you'd meet somebody and check them out, and basically, if you liked the person, you never minded running some strange proposition past him."
"What was the strange proposition?" Nancy says.
"It wasn't so strange in and of itself. But there I was driving for a car service, and basically, he wanted to know if I had any interest in coming to work for him. Letting the other job go."
"Did he talk about money? I had two job interviews last year and it turned out they didn't want to give me any money at all. They wanted me to take a full-time job as a volunteer!"
"He didn't mention money, now that you mention it. But people went more on intuition then, I think. I figured he'd pay me a decent wage."
"So where did he get a name like Lowell?"
"I'm not sure."
"Everybody who meets me wants to know absolutely everything about me," Jerri says. "Full disclosure, even if I'm, like, trying on a pair of shoes. I wouldn't get out of the store without saying how much I pay in rent. Though I suppose people in Key West are obsessed with that."
"They are? Why?" I ask, grateful that something has come up that I can ask about.
"Because it costs so much to live here," she says.
"Oh. Right," I say. I open the car door, and everyone gets in.
"Guess what I pay in rent?" Jerri says.
"I wouldn't have any idea."
"It's a one-bedroom, and the bedroom isn't mine. It's on the top floor of a house on Francis that has a separate entrance. I share it with the landlady's granddaughter, who's not all there, if you know what I mean. She's forty years old, and all she does all day is read gardening books and drown all the houseplants so they die."
"When she moved in, they gave her a mattress that used to be the dog's bed," Bea says.
"God," Nancy says. "Things were never that bad back in New York, were they?"
"Oh, I didn't sleep on it," Jerri says. "But it was really depressing, because all these little fleas were using it as a trampoline. You could see them jumping up and down."
"I suppose you're going to tell me that the rent costs a fortune," I say.
"One fifty-five a month," Jerri says. "Take a turn here. The next street's one way."
"Isn't that reasonable for Key West?" I ask.
"Yeah, it's reasonable, but I had to buy my own mattress and box spring, and the granddaughter insists on keeping lights on in every room, all night."
"You couldn't find another place to live?" I ask.
"For one fifty-five?"
Jerri indicates that I should take an empty parking space. I park, and we lock the car and start down the street. From a clip hanging off her belt, Jerri removes a keyring. She opens two locks with two different keys and flips on a light inside the back of the shop. We walk in behind her. She looks at a panel, flashing a number, on the same wall as the light switch. "Whew," she says. "Okay, this is cool." She pushes a couple of buttons and walks to the small refrigerator in the corner, from which she removes the bottle of champagne. She reaches up on a shelf and takes down a tower of upside-down plastic glasses. She counts out four and puts the rest back on the shelf.
But my attention is drifting. In the back of the shop there are life-size cardboard cutouts with cutout faces. One is Marilyn Monroe, with her skirt blowing up. Another is Tina Turner, all long legs and stiletto heels and micro-mini skirt with fringe. There is the American Gothic couple, and there are a couple of Pilgrims, complete with a turkey that retains its own face. There's Donald Duck, and Donald Trump with Marla Maples, who also has her face; Sylvester Stallone as Rocky; James Dean on his motorcycle. There is also Bill Clinton, arm extended to clasp the shoulder of whoever stands beside him. Jerri has walked over to the figures; first she becomes Marilyn, then Tina Turner. Her young, narrow face makes her unconvincing as either. Nancy is the next to wander over. Champagne glass in hand, she tries her luck as Rocky. She motions for me to join her. I do, and together we peer out from behind the Pilgrim couple. Behind the cutouts she passes me her glass, and I duck back to take a sip of champagne.
"I look at this stuff all day long. It doesn't seem so funny anymore," Jerri says. "And what's really not funny is when some guy who thinks he's a real stud comes in to be Stallone, or when some guy who smells like a brewery wants his girlfriend to be Marilyn. Really wants her to be Marilyn."
"I notice they don't have one of Ike with his gun," Jerri says, sticking her face through Tina Turner's highly teased hair.
"Too bad there's not one of your good friend, George Stephanopoulos, just his flunky," Jerri says. "Nancy was telling us about that before you came over."
Nancy smiles, mugging from behind the female Pilgrim again.
"Well, we all know Nancy. Nancy's only interested in the rich and famous. Or in people who hang with the rich and famous," Jerri says.
"That cowboy she lived with was hardly rich or famous," Bea says.
"You were always so jealous you couldn't see straight, because somebody followed me all the way from Montana to New York," Nancy says. "It really made you crazy, didn't it, Bea?"
"Oh, look who's talking! Like you didn't call my old boyfriend the day he moved out!" Bea says.
"I called him to get my canvas bag back."
"Listen to her! She called about eight hours after he moved into his new place because she needed a bag back!" Bea shrieks.
"You are so sadly misled," Jerri says. "I mean, fun is fun, but this is one time I've got to defend my friend Nancy. She always thought your boyfriend was a jerk!"
It's as if I'm not there, suddenly. While they continue to go at it, I wander over to the plastic glass of champagne that's been poured for me and take a long, bubbly sip. So she lived with some guy who followed her all the way to New York from Montana. When? How long were they together?
"And you look so much like him!" Bea suddenly says to me. "If you were, like, fifty pounds lighter, and if you wore cowboy boots some armadillo gave its life for instead of those goony shoes, you'd be a dead ringer for Les."
"Jesus! I can't believe you're so jealous I've got a date that you're insulting him about his weight!" Nancy says.
"Oh, sit on it," Jerri says. "Both of you."
"Bea has really got it in for me!" Nancy says to Jerri.
"I've got it in for you? Nancy, you need to ask yourself why, every time somebody says something that's true, but maybe you don't want to hear it...you should ask yourself why you find it necessary to say that that person is crazy. I mean, fuck you!" Bea says. She pushes past Marilyn and storms out the back door, crushing her empty plastic glass.
"Je-sus," Nancy say. "What is wrong with her?"
"Well, don't get on your high horse," Jerri says. "You didn't have to tell her how mean and spiteful she was."
"I didn't say that. I only said she was jealous of me and Les."
"Who's Les?" I ask.
"I don't see why we should be talking about this now," Nancy says.
"You mean, you thought we were having a conventional date?" I ask.
"No, I didn't...I mean, we're going to a party, aren't we? We stopped by here because Jerri had to check the damned alarm."
"She wanted an excuse to say mean things and run off," Jerri says. "It pisses her off that Nancy and I can discuss things and be really honest with each other, because she introduced the two of us, and she's got some weird thing about how each of us has to have her as our best friend, so we're not supposed to care that much about each other."
"I can't follow all this. Maybe we should go to the party," I say.
"I feel bad," Jerri says. "I should have tried to cool her out."
"Why should you feel responsible for Bea's state of mind?" Nancy says.
"Let me get a picture of you two," Jerri says. "Souvenir of our wonderful evening, so far."
She goes to a safe and turns the combination lock. When the door swings open, she takes out a Polaroid and fiddles with the camera. I'm still wondering: Who's Les? How long has he been gone? And: What constitutes goony shoes?
Nancy seems quite shaken by Bea's exit. She is fighting back tears, I see, as Jerri gestures for us to make a choice: for a couples shot, it's either American Gothic or the Pilgrim couple. Nancy, sniffing, moves behind the Pilgrims. I stand beside her, crouching so my face peers out where it's supposed to.
The camera spews out the photograph. We both converge on Jerri, to watch it develop.
"Let me get you with the president. Go on," Jerri says, gesturing for me to stand next to Clinton.
"You know, she can really be a terrible bitch," Nancy says. "But now I feel like everything's all messed up."
The flash goes off. Jerri takes the first photograph out of her pocket and nods approvingly. The second photograph -- the one she just took -- begins to quickly develop. There I am, probably closer to the president than I'd ever have gotten if he'd come to the house, and obviously on much chummier terms. Probably just as good as meeting him, the photo op being interchangeable with real experiences in recent years.
"You're mad at me for dragging you into this," Nancy says. Tears are rolling down her cheeks.
"No, it's just one of those things that happened," I say.
"One of those things that happened?" she repeats. She seems confused. "You mean, you think this was okay? It's okay if somebody insults you and if the person you slept with the night before turns out to be in love with some other guy?"
It takes me a minute to respond. "I didn't know until now that you were in love with him," I say.
"I am! And I think that if the mere mention of his name, by that bitch, can make me this upset, maybe I should swallow my pride and go out to Montana and get him. He didn't hate me, he just hated New York."
I raise both hands, palms up.
"That's fine with you?" she says.
"What can I do about it?" I say.
"You know, I think that once again, I've found an apathetic jerk," Nancy says. "I guess it's all for the best that this happened, because this way you and I won't waste any more time with each other."
"I cannot believe this," Jerri says. She puts both pictures in her shirt pocket. She walks over to the safe, shaking her head. She replaces the camera in the safe and shuts the door. "Lights out, kids," she says, tiredly.
"Yeah," Nancy says. "I think I'll be the first off to dreamy dreamland. I think I'll just spend the night alone with my fabulous new scenario."
We watch her go.
"I suppose I should have gone after her, but I couldn't see the point in it. I think she meant everything she said. So why would I go after her?" I say.
"Is that really a question?" Jerri says.
"Yes," I say.
"In my opinion, you did the right thing not to," she says.
"Thank you," I say.
"You don't have to thank me. I wasn't trying to flatter you. I was just saying that I think you made the right decision."
"What do you say, if you don't say thank you?"
"You don't have to say anything.
"I consider this. "I think I'll drive home, but if you'd like a lift anywhere..."
"You know, you really didn't deserve that. You really seem like a very nice man."
"With dorky shoes," I say, extending my foot.
"Top-Siders are dorky? Millions of people wear Top-Siders."
"But I can see that they aren't exactly cool."
"We're not teenagers anymore," she says. "I don't think any of us will perish if we don't have the exact newest thing."
"No," I say.
"Thanks for the offer, but I think I'll just walk over to a friend's house."
"Fine," I say. "I'm sorry about all this, too. It's a lame thing to say, but I sort of appreciate the fact that at least one person is still talking to me."
She shrugs. "You take care," she says.
I'm out the door when she says, "Oh, wait. Take your pictures."
I turn around, and she puts the photographs in my hand. For the first time, I see that they're joke Pilgrims: the woman excessively big-breasted, the man with his fly unzipped. Stallone, of course, you wouldn't dare joke about. And Marilyn is almost a sacred cultural icon. People who don't like James Dean would nevertheless realize that he was the embodiment of cool. But the Pilgrims, I suppose, have become so anachronistic that there's no harm in joking about them. I hand that photograph back to her. "Two turkeys and one big-breasted babe," I say. "I think I might as well pass on that one."
Then I'm out on Duval, going around the corner to the street where I parked the car.
A guy in dreadlocks walks past, bouncing on the balls of his bare feet. On the steps by a guest house, a man lies sprawled on top of a coat, a small pile of clutter next to him. He's wearing a beret, shirtless, and almost trouserless. His pants are down around his hips. He's lying on his side, mouth lolled open. I walk past a store selling silk-screened bags with tropical birds on them. I stop to admire a traveler's palm in someone's front yard, spotlit. As they pass by, a middle-aged woman says to the man she is walking with, "So what part of town did they film Key Largo in?" In a shop window, I see a verdigris crane, flanked by gargoyles in graduated sizes. Just as I get near the car, someone's light sensor is activated by my presence and floods the street with light, and I feel embarrassed, as if I've been caught doing something bad. Or as if I've unnecessarily caused some commotion. But the light blinks out after I pass, and the whole block -- surprising, this close to Duval -- is eerily quiet. It gives me more time than I want to hear the voice in my head telling me that I've done everything wrong, that years ago, I took the easy way out, that if I think I'm indispensable to Lowell, that's only a delusion -- like the delusion that I'm a nice-looking man, or at least ordinary, wearing inconspicuous clothes and conventional shoes. What must it be like to be the president? Pictures in the paper of you jogging, sweating, your heavy legs caught at a bad angle, so they look like tree trunks? Cry at a funeral, and they zoom the lens in on you. "It's love," I hear Kathryn saying sarcastically. Well, no: it certainly isn't, and apparently wasn't going to be. But what version is Nancy going to give Kathryn, back in the great city of New York? On the other hand, what do I care? What do I have to be embarrassed about?
I get in the car, not much looking forward to joining the weekend traffic exiting Key West. It seems that half the world is intent upon getting to the southernmost point, and half the world is intent upon fleeing it. Half an hour up the Keys, there's a police roadblock. A cop standing in the street is motioning cars over to the side, but thank heaven: I was feeling so sorry for myself, and so preoccupied, that I was creeping along, barely going the minimum. Once past, I turn on the radio. The tape deck has been broken for weeks. I fiddle with the dial and find Rod Stewart, singing "Do you feel what I feel/Can we make it so that's part of the deal," which reminds me of the party the night before, which reminds me of afterwards, at the Casa Marina. Bad luck, I think. Bad timing, bad lady, bad luck.
"A Whiter Shade of Pale" comes on, which really takes me back. I'm probably among the few Americans who first heard that song in a bar in Tangier. I think about returning to my room, my VCR, my travel tapes. It seems a pleasant notion. And if I'm lucky, there will be leftovers to eat while I take the nightly imaginative voyage.
Then I see it: the police cars in the driveway. Police on the front steps. Police standing by the rose garden, writing whatever they're writing. The grating noise of their radios seems to stab the quiet of the night. I catch Kathryn, like a stunned deer, in my headlights. Then, suddenly, she is on her way back to the house, accompanied by a policeman. Lowell. Something terrible has happened to Lowell.
"What?" I say to the first cop I see. I only say that word; I can't manage a full sentence.
"Who are you?" he says.
"Lowell's assistant," I say.
"His assistant? You live here?"
I nod yes.
"There was an accident," he says. "The gentleman fell out of a tree."
"Fell," the cop says, his shoulders going a little limp and his knees slightly buckling as he slumps toward the ground. "From a tree," he says again.
"What happened to him?" I ask.
"He was airlifted to Miami," the cop says. "I wouldn't want to speculate about the extent of his injuries."
"He's alive," I say.
"He might have broken his neck," the cop says. He swivels his head and puts his ear as close to his shoulder as it can get without actually touching the shoulder.
I go in the house, where every light is on.
"They wouldn't let me on the plane," Kathryn says, turning toward me in the glare. Then she collapses in tears. "That stupid whore you've taken such a liking to, with her mangy kitten. She just turned it out and then..." Tears interrupt Kathryn's story. Then she pulls herself together, or tries to imitate someone who's pulled herself together. She looks into my eyes. "You knew she left the God damned thing here, didn't you? It got away, and she just left it. She told me to find it, like I was her servant, or something." She stops. "I didn't mean that the way it sounded," she said. "I didn't mean anything personal. Oh, God, if he lives, I'll never be awful again. I really won't. All I'm saying is, why am I supposed to find some scrappy cat and get it back to her in New York? That's something perfectly normal to expect, like she left an earring here, or something? She didn't even tell you any of this, when the other morning it was such a crisis I thought she was going to jump out of her skin if the ratty thing didn't come back?"
I shake my head no. This can't be happening. Just a few hours ago, everything was fine.
"It's impossible," Kathryn says to a cop who passes by. "This morning we were talking about the president coming here for dinner."
I reach in my pocket and take out the photograph of myself with Clinton. I stare at it, as if it's evidence of something.
"Hey! You and President Clinton!" the cop says. He's young. Blond with blue eyes. He looks like he's barely more than a teenager. But can he really be so unobservant that he doesn't know it's a joke photograph? My head begins to pound.
"It's my fault for ever bringing her here," Kathryn says. "She let her cat go, like it was a dog that would come back from a walk." She turns to me. "He was fixing dinner, and I saw it. It ran up a tree, like a squirrel. Lowell was inside. He turned off the stove and went out on the deck, and eventually we got the ladder and put it up. Lowell was trying to coax it down from the kapok tree. Then he started to climb, and the next thing I knew, he was in the water, but he wasn't moving. I thought he didn't move right away because the fall had stunned him. I waded out and got him. Otherwise, he would have drowned. You don't live where there's anyone who can help you in any emergency. I could have screamed my head off, and nobody would have come. He went after that stupid cat, and now they think something horrible happened to his spine."
The young cop has listened attentively to this avalanche of information. Finally he turns to me. "Was he also a friend of the president's? Should someone let the president know?" he says.
Is he possibly making some bizarre joke? I look at the photograph again, as if I might be the one who's missing something. Clinton, in a gray suit, stands smiling, his arm, with its inexactly cutout hand, too stiffly extended to really appear to be clasping anyone's shoulder.
Words tumble through my mind, as I imagine the letter I might send: "Dear George, I enclose a photo that's as close as I'll ever come now to the real thing. This evening Lowell was airlifted to Miami, with serious injuries: quite probably, a broken neck. Which leaves me wondering -- if things go as badly as they seem to be going at the moment -- what a person who has always been a maverick in this country is supposed to do when the comfortable life he more or less stumbled into unexpectedly disappears out from under him. The first woman I dated in years turns out to be in love with another man...."
I open the kitchen drawer. There is the wine pull, foolish contraption that it is. An item guaranteed to be puzzled over if found years hence in a time capsule.
"How you doing, big guy?" a cop I haven't spoken to before says to me.
"This is a joke," I say, removing the Polaroid from my pocket and holding it out. "You see that, don't you?"
"Sure," he says slowly, as if I'm playing some sort of parlor game. He studies my face. "I had a picture taken of myself one time in one of those fake stockades. Used it as a Christmas card. One of those 'From Our House to Yours' things. Turned out pretty funny."
"Thank you," I say, so quietly I can barely hear my own voice. I put the picture back in my pocket, clamping my right hand over it as if it might fly out and disappear. As if I were a boy again, in one of the many schools I attended, dutifully reciting the pledge of allegiance. Those days when life consisted of ritual, wherever we lived; ritual was the one constant, as predictable as my father's patriotism, as inevitable as my mother's church-going. I would get away from all that, I vowed. And I did -- researching hotels and restaurants around the world, booking flights, arranging for any necessary letters of introduction, Lowell and I greeted by interesting and important people wherever we journeyed -- people with whom we drank wine and dined. And now, it seems, that travel has concluded in the Florida Keys.
The note -- the note in response to the letter I do eventually write to George Stephanopoulos -- is very brief. It is addressed to Lowell, naturally enough, not to me. It concludes, in a heartfelt, yet predictable way, yet in a totally sincere way, if you know George: "You are in the president and first lady's prayers."
Excerpted from TOTAL RECALL (c) 2001 by Ann Beattie. Reprinted with permission from Scribner, an imprint of Simon and Schuster. All rights reserved.