Summers always brought out the weirdness and restlessness in me. I can’t remember which one it was, probably ’71 but could have been ’72, I was starting to fray around the edges so I called Helen at her place on 83rd Street. No answer. Called again a few times – this was before answering machines, or right at the start of them, and very few people had one – still no answer, so I took a subway uptown and talked to Joe, her doorman, who told me she was down in North Carolina for the month at her summer house on the bay way down at the end of the Outer Banks. I talked her forwarding address out of him, called information and got her number and called her on the building’s phone, right there in the lobby, collect. She said she didn’t want to see me, said she wasn’t sure what I would do. She said I was too unpredictable and uneven and un-a-few-other-things, that what a woman needed more than anything else was someone she could count on, someone she could depend on. With me, her expectations were always getting dashed.
I told her if I came down to visit, I wouldn’t do anything to embarrass her or hurt her, and I said I really needed to get out of the city and that I really wanted to see her. I missed her. I was running my mouth, saying anything that popped into my head, when suddenly she said okay. That was all. She said there was a Piedmont flight to an airport nearby. I told her I’d call her from the airport when I got in. She said okay and hung up. Once she made up her mind, she didn’t like to waste time or words for fear she’d change it, and she didn’t like change. I thought that was an admirable trait in a woman, but it made me uneasy.
I called her house when I was about to get on the Piedmont flight, and she met me in a driving rain and set out for a cedar-shaked, steep-roofed two story summer place with a wrap-around screen porch on a beautiful narrow bay between the mainland and the banks. It was everything I had hoped it would be, a throwback to the weeks I used to spend with my Randolph great aunts down in Charlottesville at their place called Wild Acres. Straw rugs on polished hardwood floors, wicker furniture with fluffy pastel print cushions, upstairs bedrooms with four-posters standing right in the middle of the rooms, mahogany dressers with gently curved mirrors on top. The house reminded me so much of Wild Acres that I could close my eyes and imagine myself back there so easily it was eerie. All of a sudden I understood her resistance to uncertainty and change — she had a longing for something that had once been, that didn’t have much longer, and it made her sad. Standing there in the comfortable living room of that summer house in North Carolina with a violent storm raging outside, I thought of the little pillow on her bed and I admired her for it.
I stayed a week. We loafed in the heat, went swimming, had hot beaten-biscuits made by her housekeeper three times a day and fought constantly over what I considered her unfair treatment of the housekeeper. Which was real baloney on my part. She had practically grown up with her housekeeper, who actually worked for her mother over in Raleigh and was on loan to Helen for the month. I should have settled back and forgotten my own prejudices and fears, most prominent among them was a panic that I would be the one to act unfairly. Instead I overcompensated and made things awkward. Still, the week went by without a major fight, which was pretty amazing, but without magic either, and down there on the Outer Banks, magic was in the thick humid air like supercharged oxygen. One day we took her brother-in-law’s outboard runabout to a deserted island on the banks, took a picnic lunch, ran around and swam naked on a gorgeous beach that ran for two miles in either direction without a soul on it. We got lost trying to find our way by map through the shoals back to her little piece of bay, but finally we made it, dehydrated, sun-burned, giggling with exhaustion. But the next morning I woke up in a bad mood, we had a fight that lasted most of the day, I stalked off to find a bar in town, couldn’t find one, went back to the house and went straight to bed. I never slept with her that week; she said she didn’t want to offend the housekeeper’s sensibilities, but I thought it probably had more to do with not wanting the housekeeper to report back to her mother in Raleigh that she was running wild with some hippie from New York. All of which masked the fact that we didn’t want to sleep with one another that week, and that shocked both of us.
Shock was not something I coped with very well, and neither did she. I took a bus to Virginia to visit my brother. She stayed on at the house awaiting the arrival of her sister, whom she barely tolerated, her brother-in-law whom she tolerated even less, and her nephew, whom she loved. We didn’t talk again until the end of the summer, after I wrote a story for the Voice about that week we spent together down on the Outer Banks. It wasn’t a flattering portrait of either of us, like a balloon inflated way too full, ready to pop. The story made you nervous reading it, because as a balloon I had already popped and reeked of all that was sour down in my heart. She called me after the story was published and was very kind, said she thought that the story was the best writing I had ever done, but that it didn’t ring true. By this time she was living in Charlottesville taking writing classes at UVA, and she had become close to one of my Randolph great aunts, Aggie. Aunt Aggie read my story after Helen did and told her that was a little boy talking in that story. When she told me this on the phone, I hung up on her. She was right. Aunt Aggie was right. I was a little boy trying to be a man and not doing a very good job of it.
That fall at a party, someone dosed me with some really, really bad acid, and I had a very disturbing run-in with another side of myself. It was the bad-trip of all bad-trips…I remember passing through a waterfall of blood, but I can’t remember what was on the other side other than it wasn’t good. Afterwards, however, things slowly began to come into focus for me. It took months to recover from the acid trip, which at that point in my life seemed like a long time, but at least I wasn’t a basket-case. Just before Christmas she called me from Charlottesville with some fantastic story Aunt Aggie had told her. I asked her how she was, and in reply she said there had been a change in my voice. She was always noticing these little changes…in fact she had taught me to notice them…and now she said she trusted what she heard in my voice and invited me down for Christmas without my even asking, which had been on my mind since I had answered the phone.
I met her at my great aunt Aggie’s apartment. There I was with these two elegant Southern ladies sitting around this gracious living room having cocktails and I felt shabby and strange and out of place, even though it was me who shared aunt Aggie’s Randolph and Jefferson blood, not Helen, but it felt like it was the other way around.
Aunt Aggie smoked Fatima cigarettes with a shiny black cigarette holder, and she regaled us with stories – little stories – brief tiny glimpses of her life, all of which seemed to leave her with the short straw, ignorant in the presence of brilliance, a fool among the majestic. But all the time Helen and I sat there listening, knowing it was Aunt Aggie who was a majestic old woman who was dying of pancreatic cancer, yet she could turn her grim circumstance into the funniest of one act plays, one after another. She had the marvelous ability to poke fun at herself while Rome burned and make you want to fiddle along with her.
Late that night we left Aunt Aggie’s and drove to a cottage she rented on a Thoroughbred horse farm not far outside Charlottesville. It was a stone cottage with only three rooms – a living room, bedroom/bath, and kitchen. At one time it had been the out-building kitchen for a manor house owned by an early Virginia legislator. But now it straightforwardly evinced the clutter that was both of our lives. We spent our first few hours there cleaning up, stacking books and letters and old New Yorkers and newspapers, the accumulated effluvia of a woman far gone on the graduate writing courses she was taking at UVA, hard at work looking for anything to do other than study. When we climbed into bed, I made a joking remark about her little pillow, but by that time she was already asleep with that beautiful little smile on her face.
We awoke around noon, as usual, and she bustled. A woman not bustling once her feet hit the floor was a woman to be scorned seemed to be Helen’s creed. I was still in bed, practicing an opposite creed. What do you want for breakfast, she called. I have orange juice, oranges, grapefruit, English muffins, some biscuits from home, but they’re frozen, eggs, bacon, coffee, tea, toast, jam. What do you want for breakfast, Lucian? Come on, answer me!
You know what I want. Black coffee. Toast. Butter. No jam.
You’re sure you don’t want anything else, she insisted. You’ve got to eat something. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Maybe some grapefruit? Juice?
Okay. Grapefruit and juice, I said, giving in. Want me to cut the grapefruit?
Just come in and sit down.
I never wanted to come in and sit down for breakfast, confront all that preparation for starting the day. For me, days didn’t start, they just were. I had been known to have a diner hamburger and three cokes for breakfast. Rather than coffee, I drank cokes. Several. She knew my tastes at breakfast, but never kept cokes in her fridge. I figured she had stopped in quite a few country road gas stations back in North Carolina when she was young and had seen men standing around drinking cokes just as the sun came up, and those men were farmers, and she didn’t want to see someone pulling on a green six and a half ounce coke bottle at her breakfast table. I couldn’t blame her. Something inside me winced at the idea of drinking a coke for breakfast, but my taste buds didn’t wince, so it became a habit, one more in a long list of immediate gratifications I pursued throughout my day back then.
We spent the day doodling around Charlottesville and that night we took my great aunt Aggie out for dinner and drinks. Nothing can describe what someone like Aunt Aggie can do to you over dinner. It’s something like an education, but when the evening is over, you don’t feel smarter, you feel better. Too soon, I started to feel restless. I would walk down to the drug store at the crossroads and get the Washington Post and New York Times then I’d walk back and just sitting there reading the papers while she worked on her UVA studies made me restless. I would walk out in the wood line across the field and gather firewood for the huge kitchen fireplace, that still had cast iron pot hangers. I’d sweep out the fireplace, straighten up the living room, borrow Aunt Aggie’s Buick and drive around the country roads, and it wasn’t long before I started thinking of getting out of there. It always happened that way. I looked wildly about for diversions. I tried to read a book but couldn’t get through three pages. Tried to write a postcard home to my folks but gave up after the greeting. She noticed. She always did.
The last two days I was there, I tried to help her with a paper she was writing on Ford Maddox Ford. It was a really good paper, I could tell by reading through the first draft. But it pissed me off. She had good insights into Ford, but she said them in that stilted term-paper style that I had hated since the first papers I had ever been assigned to write in junior high school. This was a graduate school paper, and style-wise it was a little looser, but reading it made me feel like I was wading into quicksand. I kept saying to her, look, you’ve really got something good here, but why do have to say it like this? Can’t you just write it and not worry about the academic crap? And she would reply, no, no, you don’t get it. All I want to do is get this thing finished so I can complete the course. It was due before Christmas, and I put in a late-letter, so I got a reprieve, but now I just want it out of the way. I wanted her to take chances with what she was saying about Ford Maddox Ford, to risk something, to push the whole thing out there and force the professor to keep up with her. She could do it. She understood Ford in a way I had never seen before, she could write it straight ahead and crowd the academic edges, but she was too scared. We ended up the last day haggling over single words, commas, inane sentence structure.
That night while she busied herself in the bathroom, I lay in bed with a tightness in my chest I couldn’t let go of. Nothing was turning out right. I picked up the phone and called Greyhound, asking for the next day’s schedule north to Washington connecting to New York. She came out of the bathroom and found me on the phone and accused me of setting up my next liaison before I’d even left the last one. Christ, all I’m doing is calling Greyhound, I explained. She grabbed the phone from me, expecting to hear a woman’s voice, I guess, but I was on hold, waiting for a Greyhound customer service rep. She took the silence for some girl holding her breath, not saying a word. I tried to take the phone back, but she hung up. We went to sleep without making love, and this time, not even the little pillow could paint a smile on her lips.
I split the next morning, and she left Charlottesville not long afterwards, her semester of writing classes having come to a close. We kept seeing each other, awkwardly, standoffishly. I would call her from the Lion’s Head, usually after having had a few martinis, or she would call my office and leave a message inviting me over for dinner, always a welcome invitation to a single guy living on a barge floating across the Hudson River on an old warehouse dock in New Jersey. Meant I didn’t have to find my way home that night, taking a bus from Port Authority and hitching a ride down to River Road. Wow. What luxury! But it was all bitchy, on both sides. I’d call, and she’d say, what is it this time? Horny? It’s not as easy as it seems, sweetheart. Try me again some other time when you’ve got something else in mind. Click. But the lines could be easily reversed, depending on who need whom and for what reason. I decided to drop back and go for sure things, like I’d get invited to some fete up at Plimpton’s on East 72nd, the equivalent of a White House State dinner for her, and I’d call and ask if she wanted to go, and she couldn’t say no. It was a sadistic little trick I was playing on her, dangling Plimpton’s like it was Tiffany’s, and she knew it, and I knew it. Our private club was turning into a game neither of us really wanted to play.
Back on East 83rd Street, her words drenched me like sunlight, to bright at that hour of the day, which was, as usual, noon: My god, you look like death warmed over!” I probably did. I walked into the kitchen and slumped onto a chair, fiddled with my grapefruit, took half-hearted sips of coffee, no cokes being available as usual. I knew what was coming: let’s go for a walk in the park. No, I’ve got to get down to the Voice, got a story I’m working on. No you don’t. That’s the excuse you always give. Why do you always make me feel like the first thing you want to do is get me out of your sight? I had no answer for that. She continued, why don’t you just try staying here for a few days with me? You won’t have to go back over to that…that barge where you live on the river. Isn’t your friend still there living on the other end of the barge? Can’t he take care of the cats and feed them? All you have to do is call him and tell him you’re going to be gone for a few days. He’ll see to your cats.
I fiddled with my grapefruit. What she said make perfect sense, but all I could see in my mind’s eye was the downtown side of the 77th Street subway station, the headlight of the train coming in the distance, doors opening, closing, train accelerating away from uptown, let me off at 14th Street where there’s a diner I can get myself a coke and a grilled cheese sandwich and walk over to the office on University Place. I don’t…don’t know, I stammered.
What do you take me for, a damn fool? Do you think I’m just some uptown chickie of yours, you can call up every time you feel lonely or horny or lonely and horny both. What you’d really like to do is be gone before I get up in the morning, you’d sneak out of here and leave a cute little note on the coffee table telling me not to take this wrong, it’s just that I’ve got to be in Washington on a story by noon. What a bunch of crap! Do you treat all of your women like fools? I hope not! Do you? I shrugged. Do you remember that night you came whimpering in here about the same time you showed up last night, you were cold and lonely and drunk. Someone had just ripped off your apartment on Avenue B, remember?
Do you remember what you said to me that night? Well, do you? You told me you want to live with me. Remember that? You were sick, you had the flu, you were running an insane temperature, your nose was running all down that buckskin jacket of yours, you were crying. I held you that night, and you sobbed against my breast, soaked my nightgown! The next morning I fixed you orange juice and I wanted you to stay in bed all day and get better, but you were up and out of here within an hour. Do you think you can just continue getting away with stuff like that? Don’t you realize that other people have feelings, too? Damn you! You’re just sitting there staring out my window. Why don’t you say something. Here, have some of my bacon. Eat some breakfast, it will be good for you.
That was the problem, of course. Not only were her breakfasts good for me, she was good for me. I suppose somewhere inside of me I did want to live with her, even if it was just for awhile. But I knew it wouldn’t work, and she knew it, to. I guess what I wanted was to tell her that I needed to live with her, but it came out wrong. Most of what I said to her, usually late at night, came out wrong, and her face would get all screwed up, and she’d get so mad that she would get up and go into the kitchen to fix herself a cup of Oval tine and a sliced apple. That’s what she always had when she’d get wound up so tight her composure began to crack, and you could sense that emotions she didn’t want you to see were just beneath the surface. She called Oval tine and a sliced apple her mother’s tranquilizer, and somehow I knew her mother had had more than her share of occasions to get Oval tined and applied. She said once that she had told her doctor about her mother’s tranquilizer, but the doctor scoffed, and then she ranted and raved against doctors, who were third on her hate-list, behind lawyers and bankers, who were either first or second depending on what week it was. Oval tine and sliced apple. She was always trying to give it to me, but I drank her Scotch instead. She told me once that I was worse than her maid, who stole sips of Scotch when she came to clean a couple of afternoons a week. She complained to me about her maid all the time. I’d get tired of listening to her complain and told her she should sit the maid down and tell her if she touched another drop of booze she’d be fired. That would solve the Scotch sipping problem. But you just can’t do that with a maid, she said, as if this were something anyone should understand. Who said you can’t, I asked. Mother said you can’t, she explained.
Sure enough, within a couple of weeks her mother had sent her an antique liquor storage cabinet, a mahogany box that sat on four carved legs with a locking top that held 12 quart bottles of liquor. In went the bottles, down went the top locked up tight, and then she would hide the key! She wasn’t satisfied that she had succeeded in keeping the booze away from the maid, she had to start a new game with the hidden key. Used to be she would hide her best bottles of liquor, now she hid the key. Damn right I didn’t understand, so one night I asked her about it. It has to be that way, she said, holding her head straight up so I would be certain she was making a statement.
Why don’t you just stick the key in your purse and walk out of the apartment and forget it? You got the booze locked up. Isn’t that what you wanted?
The drinking has nothing to do with it, she said, even more sure of herself now.
Drinking is not the point.
The point I’m trying to make, damn you. Didn’t your Aunt Aggie teach you anything? Mother always said you have to establish yourself with the help. You’ve got to let them know who is boss.
So why don’t you just sit down and tell her, look, I’m the boss and if you want to keep working here, then hands off the liquor or you’re gone.
Oh, Lucian, maybe you could carry that off with your eyes open wide the way you do when you’re really angry. You could probably fool her into being frightened of you. But with mother, it was different. Daddy died not long after I was born, and mother had to run the house by herself. She said he had always run things the way you’re talking about, but mother couldn’t do that, she couldn’t just adopt his personality, especially after he was gone. It wouldn’t have been right, and the help would have known it wasn’t right. So she developed her own style, and mostly it was non-verbal. She found little ways of establishing herself, ways that didn’t require confrontation. She might stand there in the doorway watching with her arms folded, so they would just know. They learned who was the boss, because every time they went up against her on some little thing, she won. She would have established a rule, and they would follow it.
So your locked liquor cabinet and hidden key, you’re establishing the rule that she doesn’t drink on the job, is that it?
That’s the basic idea.
And what if she finds the key you have so carefully hidden? What if she beats you at your own game?
Well, that’s the risk you take. Then I’ll have to find some other way of establishing myself. Mother always said with the help if it’s not one thing, it’s another.
She stood, her face all screwed up again, looking like she was going for the Oval tine and apple. Oh, damn you, Lucian! Can’t you see I need you around here? Can’t you see? You’re probably right, that woman will probably beat me at my own game. Oh, damnit, damnit, you horrible creature! I hate you!
Wait a minute, I said, confused. I’m not the one you should be mad at. It’s your maid who’s sipping your Scotch when you’re not looking, not me. I grinned. After all, I’m…entitled.
She moved closer to me and took my hand and looked into my eyes. I’m not mad at you, Lucian. Her voice was delicate, cracking, hoarse. Can’t you see I’m angry with myself?