~ Delirium Tremens ~
by Vivian Darkbloom
Blah Blah Blah: We don't own them, they do, even if they perchance resemble them just a teeny bit. Sometimes they don't look like them at all. Sometimes they have switched not only their personalities but also hair colors and bra sizes as well! Confused? That's what Clairol and Victoria's Secret can do to a girl. Anyway, story is mine, blah blah blah, you get the drift.
Another Disclaimer: I don't really know crap about film, so apologies for any egregious or anachronistic errors. If you let me know of any, I will fix them in due time. The fake Twilight Zone episode mentioned here is actually very similar to one that exists; I just stole the concept.
Got Gov?: You guessed it, governal did beta duties on this, and I'm extremely grateful for her help.
Oooh, Kids, Scary!: In a Count Chocula kind of way.
Scary Stuff for Republicans: Swearing and same-sex relations.
Delirium Bardus: firstname.lastname@example.org
Listen to my song of cosmic drunkenness.
-Guillaume Apollinaire, "Vendémiaire"
\ n [NL, lit., trembling delirium]: a violent delirium with tremors that is induced by excessive and prolonged use of alcoholic liquors-called also D.T.s.
Prelude: Where the White People Are
New Haven, Connecticut, 1954
Deirdre and Teddy decided to sit down front, thus abandoning Josie to the persistent pawing of Kenneth.
The lights had not yet dimmed in the theater, but Kenneth already had a pythonesque arm wrapped around Josie's taut shoulders. She sat rigidly, arms folded across her chest, and glared at the back of her best friend's head looming over the uniform waves of empty seats. So this is how I'm rewarded for writing your paper on Petrarch? A double date with your ass of a boyfriend and his stupid roommate, who makes Jerry Lewis look like Clark Gable?
When the lights finally went down and a garish newsreel began, Kenneth's lips were suctioned against her neck with leech-like intensity.
"Oh, God." She hadn't meant to groan this aloud, for she knew it would only encourage him; how he could fail to discern between frustrated distaste and actual arousal was a mystery for the ages. Still, he nibbled on, a determined squirrel with his nut. I'm thinking of myself as a nut. That's great. I could use that in class tomorrow, though. I'm supposed to be playing Dido, right? I am Dido! I am a chestnut mauled by the whimsy of amour! That whole story needs lightening up anyway, if you ask me. To be sure, Miss Adler would not be thrilled with such improvisation, but Josie reveled in her role as the class's bad seed.
She was crushing Kenneth's hand in order to keep it away from her breast (an action that he appeared to relish with masochistic fervor) and watching mushroom clouds over Nevada when the reel hastily jumped to another story. She could barely make out the garbled sound but picked up the words, "Un-American Committee convened again last month" and could follow the story with just a few quick images: A darkly handsome man testifying before the senate committee and a jump cut a to woman walking toward an ominously large car. The woman's black hair wafted in the breeze and a pair of sunglasses did their best to obliterate every trace of emotion on her face. Occasionally the presence of the press intruded upon this stark vision-a hand clutching a microphone or an arm cradling a camera would jut into the frame with the hungry, determined swoop of a scavenger.
The thing that struck Josie about this beleaguered, pursued woman-whom she vaguely recognized as some actress who played an Indian in that movie The Lost Treasure-was how she walked so incredibly slow, with an unfettered grace and a strange dignity, as if going the last mile.
1. Get Out of Town
Why wish me harm?
Why not retire to a farm
And be contented to charm
The birds off the trees?
- "Get Out of Town," Cole Porter
Greenwich Village, Center of Sin, 1960
Technically-and there was no way of getting around it-it was called kidnapping.
Samuel Moritz privately admitted that in the eyes of the law, what he was about to do was wrong in both legal and moral senses. It troubled him; despite his lifelong involvement in show business, he perceived himself a good person. From a chorus boy with chubby legs, to a comedian playing to hushed audiences, to a lighting director who magically added 10 pounds to your profile, and finally to his present position as head of his own middling talent agency, Sammy knew how to get by in a business best described as shady while still maintaining a shred of decency.
But what he was about to do made him question his supposed goodness. He reminded himself that it was for her own good. Additionally, he reminded himself that Colton-who stood beside Sammy in front of the brownstone, calmly awaiting the passing of his agent's moral crisis-thought it the right thing to do, although Colton's judgment on anything was questionable at the best of times. Perhaps he wanted to see his ex-wife suffer a bit? Or perhaps he did feel guilty about what happened, since he was the one who precipitated her drastic downfall? Sammy looked up at the shuttered window of the first floor apartment. Someone in the building was blaring "Blue Tango" by Bill Black's Combo, but it wasn't Whitney. As a rule, she detested popular music and only enjoyed two things: bebop played in smoky dives by Negroes and heroin addicts and Cole Porter. When he first took her on as a client, Sammy had encouraged Whitney to pursue a singing career: her low voice wryly wrapping over those lyrics would have been a gold mine.
Maybe things weren't as bad as they had heard. Rumors were all they had to go on. While Sammy agonized over them, Colton ignored them. Anything having to do with Whitney was water off the latter's back-or so it seemed. Sammy wanted to believe that deep down Colton had a conscience, at least a conscience about this-a tiny pearl formed from grimy, guilty fragments-this wreckage being all that remained of his marriage to Whitney Morris.
In a moment of giddy, rose-tinted hope, Sammy had thought Colton's sullen presence would sway Whitney to come with him to Waverly-if indeed she needed swaying. And if she's really as shitfaced as everyone says, she'll be swaying all over the place.
The sudden roll of Colton's shoulders signaled impatience. Sammy nibbled his lip; he had a healthy fear of Colton Reeves. Everybody did, except for Whitney. And look where she is now. Colton was what the popular press called a man's man-at least he wore this pseudo-philosophy on his expensive, well-tailored sleeve. Here, at the tail end of August, the summer's swan song, Colton was dressed in a dark suit over an even darker, silky button-down shirt and his black hair was Brylecreemed into shiny submission. Real men wear wool in August-Sammy could hear Colton saying it, if only in his mind. He definitely saw the look of disdain on the playwright's face as he took in Sammy's mauve Brooks Brothers polo shirt and tan chinos-not colors befitting a real man, apparently. Colton still wore the menacing van dyke that he had grown at the height of his fame as a playwright. In a more charitable moment, aided and abetted by gin, Whitney once described him as a cross between Vincent Price and an evil beatnik; identifying her quasi-Hemingway husband with a fey movie actor and the budding counterculture he so deplored successfully hit multiple targets.
"Well?" The question put a pleasant lilt to Colton's Southern rasp.
Sammy looked for a sign-from Whitney's window, from the sky, from the street's narrow corridor. It was kidnapping. It was wrong. "Oh, hell," he muttered aloud.
His partner in crime raised dark eyebrows.
"Greenwich Village is outside the jurisdiction of the world, isn't it?"
Whitney Morris, blacklisted actress, former wife of playwright Colton Reeves, amateur tennis legend, occasionally charming dinner companion (when sober), intermittently pleasing lover (ditto), a Gemini with a moon in Scorpio, current voice of an Alka-Seltzer tablet, and inveterate heavy drinker, lay in the back seat of Sammy Moritz's Lincoln Continental, not having the faintest idea where she was. A sudden breeze, crisp with the promise of autumn, wafted over her, and that cool air, if only for a moment, superseded her genuine and very real longing for death.
From her position sprawled over the car's backseat, she could see the short, muscle-bound Raymundo, Sammy's driver, guarding her from outside the Lincoln. Ray was Filipino, his serene disposition and natty uniform belying a maniac on the roads. No one could get out of the city faster than Ray.
Ray saw her staring at him. He smiled and waved. She wished she was Ray. A man's life would seem simpler somehow. Particularly a man who had nothing to do but drive.
She dragged herself up the leather seat. Bloodshot eyes loomed over the seat's edge. From the rear window she saw Sammy and Colton talking. Rather unsurprisingly, the former was talking and the latter just listening, nodding here and there as he pressed his nose with a handkerchief.
She laughed, then forgot why she laughed. The ripple effect made her skull ache. She could feel thin skin and delicate tendons tearing along her temples, veins throbbing and popping, gossamer flesh shredding and sinking in pools of blood. Make it stop. She dug a heel into that soft flesh. Make it stop. There was an implosion. She pulled her hand away and it was painted afresh with blood, a vermilion starburst, a fall leaf, a red dragon spewing fire and melting skin until her hand was a dripping bone.
Make it stop. She was crying now; teardrops hissed in their failure to sooth her mind's fire.
There was noise like a car door. And a man's voice. "Whitney?" It was gentle and familiar. It was not Colton.
She looked up. Colton was standing there, on the street, his expression as inscrutable as a profile on an ancient coin. As it usually was.
"Whitney. I'm taking you away for a few days, all right? It's going to be okay, baby. You need to get away. You need some rest."
She said nothing.
The car began to vibrate beneath her. She gasped, stared at the car seat, as if truly astonished that cars did such things.
When Whitney looked up at the window again, Colton was receding in the distance, suspended and floating in the distorted frame of the rear window, a black angel loitering on the edge of her world.
She was lying on the back seat, swimming in sweat and watching, with desperate fascination, the sway of an empty Coke bottle caught in a groove of the floor mat. The combined effect of that motion, and the sharpness of country air faintly seasoned with eau de country kitty (as Grandad used to call skunks), had her poised on the brink of nausea.
Sammy was peering at her upside down. Well, he looked upside down to her. The sickening fresh air from the open window charmed tufts of hair from his balding head into a snake dance. "How ya doing, baby?"
"Where are we?"
"Ahhh?" Sammy looked around. The Hudson River stretched along the driver's side, lazily dominating the horizon. "I think Ossining. We're near Sing Sing!"
"Seems appropriate somehow." Reflected sunlight danced on the roof of the car, the golden dappling both soothing and warm. But when she closed her eyes and tried to summon the image, it burned brighter and brighter, white hot, until the roof disintegrated into a bubbling, bursting blackness that rained down and suffocated every inch of her skin.
Make it stop make it stop?Jesus God, I will do anything, I swear I will do anything.
Sammy's braying voice was almost a blessing when it severed the umbilicus leading to these poisoned images. "It might not be Ossining. What do I know? I'm just a humble boy from Washington Heights-hell, baby, Yonkers is upstate to me. What do you think, Mondo Ray?"
"It's Upstate, Mr. Moronowitz." Ray, never one to disagree with his amiable boss, intoned mysteriously.
Once upon a time Whitney found it cute that Ray and Sammy had nicknames for one another; now it seemed as unendurable as a bad vaudeville act.
"Yes, it's just Upstate," Sammy said. "That's the best way of putting it. Just: Upstate. Like it's this unexplained thing, a phenomenon-"
"For Christ's sake." Whitney's nails painfully raked her scalp. "Will you both shut up?"
They did. For 30 seconds. Then: "Whitney-" Sammy began.
"Does anyone know where we're going?" she shouted.
"It's a little town called Waverly. We're shooting-"
"Me. Please tell me you're shooting me."
"No, baby." Thinking better of it, Sammy decided not to tell her what they were shooting.
Until Ray excitedly spilled the beans. "It's The Twilight Zone!"
This, effectively, silenced the happy men.
"Do I have to dress up in tin foil as an alien?" Whitney muttered.
"No. You don't have to do a thing. Just relax and look important. I'm producing the damn episode."
"What's his face-the Twilight Zone guy-threw you a bone, hah?"
"Woof woof, baby." Sammy grinned again. "Mr. Serling is very nice. But oy, it's a pain in the ass to produce a show. So much to coordinate."
Ray whistled a version of the song-currently quite popular-about working on a chain gang.
"You remember Lou Baldone, don't you? He's directing the thing."
"Yeah. I know Lou." Whitney paused, frantically digging through gray matter in search of that which is Lou. "Did I sleep with Lou?" Sometimes Sammy knew her sexual history better than she did.
"No, baby. He has nice memories of you."
"You'll love the house. We lucked out. We needed a big old spooky house and what do you know, the Kid-who's in the episode too-owns one."
"Aaaah." Sammy groaned. "What was I thinking, trying to tell you things while you're drinking?"
"Cut it out," she mumbled guiltily.
"The Kid is my ingénue, baby, my big find. Her name is Josie Dalton." Sammy drew a breath and launched into a beat-poet like liturgical resume of Miss Dalton: "Money, money, money, big house, big inheritance, dead parents-don't ask about her parents, she gets all verklempt- Radcliffe, Yale Drama School, a year at RADA in London-but despite all this fancy-schmancy background, she's still the sweetest, nicest kid you've ever met."
"Hence the nickname," Whitney observed dryly.
"Yeah. And she's talented, too. Christ, on stage she's good as gold, you can't take your eyes off her. Imagine that presence on film. Up close."
"Or buck naked."
"The Kid would never do art films!" Sammy cried, horrified.
"Give her a dope habit, a bad marriage, a couple abortions, and then we'll see what she does." Whitney squinted out the window. The Lincoln whipped by a gas station, some houses nestled in green off the highway, and a rickety wood stand selling produce. And thus America passed by, all the while waving a big yet essentially unconcerned hello. "I wish I had a cigarette." She blinked at the scenery, imaging each blink the clicking of a camera, shuttering off images to send, like postcards, to the demons in her minds. See, I'm here now, you can't hurt me.
You can't hurt me. "Huh?"
"Would you like to read the script?"
"The script. Might be nice if you chat it up with the people on the set, don't you think?"
"Ah. So this is a schmoozing opportunity."
"Could be, if you want it to," Sammy retorted vaguely. He paused. "Colton wrote it."
Colton. I just saw him. Did I hit him? I think I did. Good for me. "I think I'm going to throw up."
"The man needs to work too. Otherwise he can't afford those mortgage payments on your bee-you-tee-ful brownstone. Baby, please, just read it." Sammy tossed it over the seat and it flopped on Whitney's stomach as if it were a half-dead carp yanked from a polluted river and Whitney-picking it up gingerly with thumb and forefinger-treated it as such.
The episode was called "Morning Becomes a Memory." Oooh, very nice, Colton. Swiping from O'Neill. And melodramatic too, just the way you like it!
An average Joe named Jim Wells (you stole my grandmother's maiden name too, you bastard) comes into a sizable inheritance, a gift from an old, mysterious maiden aunt (can't fault you here, Colton, everybody has a crazy spinster aunt). Jim and his supposedly loving and ridiculously patient wife Nan (now you are thinking of your dear old Kentucky nursemaid) travel to the old dark house. "It looks as big and as dried up as she was," Jim says (your gynophobia is showing, Colton and I bet it won't get past the censors anyway). Nan reminds him that he is being unkind. There is more brutal marital banter. (Never, never marry a writer.) The only catch in all this, of course, is that they must stay one night in the maiden aunt's spooky old mansion. (Natch.) The young couple's only company during the night is a blind caretaker named Milton (could your literary allusion be any more painfully obvious?).
Doors creak, shadows loom, dogs howl, unimaginable things scratch at the wall. Nan is scared out of her wits most of the night and unable to sleep. Jim mocks her in his manly way in between bouts of blissful sleep-"the sleep of the stupid," as his wife crankily calls it (you always hated that I slept better than you did, didn't you? Well, at least when I was drunk). Nan stays awake and watches guard. At some point-around 5:30, as the hour creeps toward dawn-Nan realizes that the sky is not getting any brighter, as it usually does during this time. She wakes her irritable husband, who, as usual, berates her. Yet the hours pass. At 6 it is still pitch black. And at 6:30. And at 7.
The unhappy couple seek out the caretaker, who is outside, raking leaves in the dark. "Chilly morning," he says. "Must be cloudy out."
"When was the last time you felt the sun on your face?" Nan asks.
He is quiet, his unseeing eyes tilted to the sky. "I don't recall."
Nan finally understands what is happening. They are in his world of darkness-a world of moral darkness. But she is not afraid. She is curious.
"Welcome to my world, Mr. Wells," the caretaker announces to the panicking Jim, who still doesn't get it-and never will.
And this is the end, as they all gaze into a black morning, which oh-so-conveniently drifts up to the chunky white stars of?the Twilight Zone.
ROD MONOLOGUE BULLSHIT HERE was the last line of Colton's script.
In spite of herself, Whitney laughed. "Best line of the whole thing and he doesn't share it with the audience."
"See, what did I tell you?" Sammy, encouraged by her laugh, turned around again. "It's great, isn't it?"
She hesitated in paying too much tribute to the writer. "Let's just say it's the most fun I've had sober in a long time."
2. Country Life, or, Bad Taste and Good Manners
The girls today in society
Go for classical poetry
So to win their hearts one must quote with ease
Aeschylus and Euripides.
One must know Homer and, b'lieve me, Bo,
- "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," Cole Porter
The car was not moving. Whitney awoke alone in the back, curled on the seat like a half-eaten doughnut, feeling just as stale, rough, and neglected. Fumbling with the door handle, she managed to pry open the door so that she could stretch across the seat in the full glory of her height. Her head hung out the door, hair touching the ground. She had tumbled into a world of green: The lawn was the sky, as clouds carpeted below her, awaiting her tentative stagger. Giddy, chorusing birds were the soundtrack of this verdant haven.
There was a big house in front of her too. The upside-down house was as normal as an upside-down house could look. It was a Queen Anne styled affair with a vast portico, all painted a crisp white save the deep gold of the shutters. It didn't look like the kind of place where you filmed a Twilight Zone episode. What the hell were they thinking? This is not frightening at all. Not a bit. Nope, not one-
Suddenly the view was eclipsed by a reed-thin middle-aged woman. Fuck! Whitney's mind blurted as she spasmed helplessly. How can someone so skinny block that house? Oh my God, she must be closer than I think! Was the woman real? She wasn't bursting into flames or gushing blood. Yet. Going gently into the good night, my sweet DTs? Whitney felt flushed with the slow grace that one possesses while swimming. Her arms arced and her fingers dove for contact with the frayed hem of the gray woman's corduroy skirt-and made contact.
Whitney gasped. Real! No, no, real person, go away. "Hullo?" She hoped the stranger from Pastoralia could understand her trembling Noo Yawk gurgle.
"Good afternoon." The woman's low voice was as flat and colorless as her hair. "I'm Mrs. Danvers."
The name sounded familiar. But from where? Buy some time! "Come again, old girl?"
"I'm Mrs. Danvers," the woman repeated. "I'm the housekeeper. Mr. Moritz sent me out to check on you."
That's just great, Sammy leaving me in the car like a mutt.
"Perhaps you would like to come inside now?"
Would she like to come inside? Oh, no. Not yet. Not while the world was so pleasantly topsy-turvy and the riddle of this dour woman's name remained unsolved. "Mrs. Danvers?" Whitney echoed.
The woman sighed regretfully. "Yes. If you're going to make jokes about that movie, please do so now, and get them out of the way."
Another martyrish sigh. "'Last night I dreamt of Manderley?.'"
The housekeeper in-Rebecca! The soggy synapses of Whitney's brain, however dismal their failure on a variety of subjects, analyses, and emotions, and while certainly sluggish in their current capacity, quickly snapped up a movie reference. Her giggling started out gently enough, but soon escalated to guffawing, snorting, and hyperventilation.
"Oh you poor old thing!" she managed to gasp at Mrs. Danvers.
"Even though we have just met, Miss Morris," Mrs. Danvers replied, "I fully expected this reaction from you."
Erroneously pleased at having made such a good impression, Whitney passed out again.
When Whitney woke-again-she was quite unsure of where she was, let alone the day of the week. She did know that she was alone, in a comfortable bed, in a sunny room with a porcelain pitcher and wallpaper composed of horses and riding crops.
Sammy. Sammy had taken her somewhere. Where? Not another sanatorium! No, the room had too personal a touch for that. And we were driving upstate-the Hudson was outside the car. Maybe Sammy had finally bought that house in the Catskills he always wanted.
She sat up. Sobriety nearly tumbled her head off her shoulders. She took deep breaths; it was as if she had to become accustomed to her body all over again after a long absence. Sobriety was a high-wire act, exhilarating at first, almost easy, until you look down, fatally tempted by gravity. She noticed she was naked. I hope I undressed myself. But poor Sammy's done that before. Why does he do all this for me anyway? She tried not to think of where she'd be right now if it wasn't for Sammy. He always got her whatever work he could scrounge up, and he'd talked Colton into paying off the modest brownstone where they had lived together during the marriage, so that she would always have a roof over her head.
In the bathroom she filled the large tub with cool water and avoided looking in the mirror. She knew she would see a face more angular than usual and deep, ashen crescent moons loitering under bloodshot eyes. She folded herself in half to fit in the short tub. When she dunked her head in the water her long legs dangled out the side, her toes almost touching the black and white checkered floor tile.
Drowning. So peaceful.
As was the case whenever she encountered water, she thought of drowning. That's how they said Madeleine died: an explosion on the boat-probably sabotage. She went down, swirling peacefully to death, in the waters of the Yangtze.
That wasn't how Madeleine died.
Underwater, she opened her eyes. The tub was a miasma of blood-a soup of clots, frayed fleshy bits that appeared almost alive, like amoebas, swimming towards her, their cilia reaching for her.
She came up for air, lurching, gasping, and sending a sheaf of water over the porcelain edge. As the water dripped an oppressively slow tap tap tap off the rim of the tub, she clapped a hand over her eyes and cried-not because she was afraid it was true, and not out of relief that it wasn't true, but because she knew she would open her eyes and the water would be clear and that it all meant the demons were claiming yet another corner of her mind and were never, ever giving it back.
It took a while, but she pulled it together.
She consigned the demons to a dark corner for a while, finished washing up, and even managed to look at herself in the mirror. Not as bad as you'd think. Pleasantly haggard, like an actress who is just playing a drunk and isn't really one. Right?
Sammy had brought along some clothes for her, which Whitney found in the bedroom and had initially mistaken for garbage because they were in a large, wrinkled paper bag. Given his squeamishness over feminine accessories such as bras and panties, she was relieved to see he did include both items, although the rest of the clothes were male: a pair of jeans, engineer boots, a purple and gold madras shirt, and a faded denim shirt. For God's sake-well, what did you expect him to pack? Your Chanel dress? Your Milan pumps? Whitney instantly recognized the items as belonging to Kirk, a dancer and long-departed roommate she took in a couple years ago when money had gotten particularly tight. Kirk was enormous fun to drink with; when he fell madly in love with a choreographer who was conveniently wealthy and well-connected, he skipped out on her before paying two months' worth of back rent He did, however, leave behind much of his poor-boy rough trade attire, ensembles that had made him enormously popular with the suit-and-tie fairies he encountered on lunch hour downtown. He figured he wouldn't need that anymore, at least not for swank summers on Fire Island.
That's probably where he is right now, playing on Fire Island. Laughing, running in the sand. And where am I? Good question.
She pulled on the madras shirt and went to the window. It was late afternoon, breezy, practically cool. Summer had rushed by her, rude and unconcerned, like a commuter on the subway. She didn't recall a single scrap of it.
Below, she could see a truck and a handful of brawny, chatty men loading film equipment: Tripods, cameras, tarps, big lamps, heavy black cords. The shoot was over. She felt something like a pang of nostalgia, except it had been so long since she really felt any sort of longing for the past that it was difficult to classify that knot of pain pitted in her stomach.
"Ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille." She finger-combed her hair one last time and left the room before Sammy could come looking for her.
On the way down, Whitney got lost. She took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up on the back stairs leading into the kitchen, where the skinny old woman was. Mrs. Danvers! The gray-haired matron (Could she really be someone's mother or wife? Did someone really mate with her?) was working at a long kitchen counter filled with pie shells. Her narrow back faced Whitney.
And just what is going into those pie shells, old girl? Huh? Whitney took a cautious step off the last stair, but a fatal combination of the heavy engineer boots and a squeaky floorboard announced her presence.
"Good afternoon, Miss Morris," the old woman announced in her unusually deep and oddly menacing voice.
Whitney, too stunned to say anything either coherent or polite, croaked, "Gah!"
"Mr. Moritz awaits you in the front room."
Her cover blown, Whitney lumbered out of the kitchen. The boots, about a size too big, weighed her down and infected her walk with an exaggerated masculinity. Play the part, then. So she swaggered through the tasteful yet expensive dining room to the vast, open main room of the first floor.
This was the hub of activity. The crew was still packing; all that remained was a large mounted camera pointed toward the landing, where the main staircase led. The working men were content to ignore her, even when she started playing with the monstrous black camera.
"So already you're making trouble." It was Sammy, standing beside her. He stood on tip-toe to kiss her cheek. "Baby, don't touch the camera."
"I don't see these monkey men sayin' anything," Whitney muttered.
"I think they're afraid of you."
"At last, a positive ramification of my reputation." She looked through the camera lens and finally noticed that there were three people standing on the landing, framed in a shot that would never be taken. Given that they were loitering around and doing nothing, they were obviously actors: An old man, a young man, and a young woman-the entire cast for the episode. She recognized the old man who had played the caretaker; he'd had a supporting role in the stage production of The Ox-Bow Incident and his fustian voice had taken him further than his scant talent had merited. The young guy she didn't recognize; he was blandly good-looking, tall, a little brawny, with short, curly blonde hair, wearing a short-sleeved white oxford and chinos.
And the woman?that had to be Sammy's Kid. "So that's her, huh? Your big ingénue up there?"
"Yep," Sammy affirmed proudly.
She was short, blonde, tanned, wearing a sleeveless lemon-colored blouse, dark cropped pants, and espadrilles. She stood attentively, with a seriously lopsided head tilt, as she listened to the old man hold court with some numbingly pointless anecdote about working in the theater (pronounced "thea-tah"). Whitney smirked at the Kid's actressy pose. By that age Whitney too had perfected the art of looking interested, of pretence at listening. She knows she's being watched, she knows she's giving a performance. Let's see how long you stay in character, Kid. How long can you ignore the fact that you're bored out of your mind by some old coot and that we're watching, and we're waiting for you, only you?
Finally, Josie Dalton's head jerked in their direction, shattering her performance. Whitney grinned. Caught you, Kid. Hey, you got quite a rack on you for someone so runty and short-
Whitney hissed with pain as the apparently clairvoyant Sammy pinched her arm. "Ixnay on the Kid."
She rubbed her arm with much show, her best performance in several years. "Sammy, we're not outside the principals' office. Besides, I don't know what the hell you're talking about."
"You know goddamn well what I'm talking about. Don't seduce the Kid. I mean it. She's practically a baby in the world-she's been in graduate school that long!"
"You give me too much credit, Sammy. Look at me."
He snorted. "Look at you. You could always nail anyone you laid eyes on-and you did. Male, female, animal, vegetable, mineral. You remember Vicki's Pomeranian, he was neutered, and most of the time the fat sonofabitch was just a rug that ate leftover brisket. Still, he always wanted to hump the hell out of your leg every time you came over for dinner."
"Why else did you think I came over? It wasn't for Vicki's brisket."
Sammy tossed back his head and roared with laughter. This pleased Whitney; she loved making Sammy laugh. It seemed as if it were the only way she could ever repay him for his kindness and his loyalty, assets that had become increasingly valuable since the HUAC debacle had bestowed upon her the lack of a viable career. And making Sammy laugh had become nigh on impossible since Vicki's death two years prior. Hearing that booming laugh was-for Whitney-a minor triumph. "My poor Vicki. God rest her soul, she was an awful cook."
The trinity of actors, annoyed that they were no longer the focal point of attention, looked down upon them. And then the Kid, who had deigned to smile at them, was walking off the balcony as assuredly as royalty.
"Still?" Sammy came around again to the subject at hand and lowered his voice. "The Kid is impressionable. I would appreciate it if you could keep your hands off her."
Whitney swore she could hear Sammy's heart pound as the young woman walked down the stairs. "Oh, sure," she drawled. "But you know what?"
He could not pry his eyes away from the Kid. "What?"
"I bet she's nowhere near as impressionable as you."
The Kid may be impressionable, Whitney thought, but it was apparent that the young woman was just as capable of piquing the world's interest. And she knows it too. The acutely confident swagger down the stairs represented the collision of an innate lack of pretension with the dangerous knowledge that an audience-in this instance, merely her besotted agent and a glorious wreck of a minor actress-would always watch her, no matter what, no matter where. She was going for tomboy glamour, as if she were a blonde Natalie Wood, a sexy Julie Harris, a young, American Deborah Kerr-okay, enough, you're turning into Sammy. Maybe I should run "the American Deborah Kerr" by him, he might like that, he loves English actresses-they're so "classy," as he puts it. First, let's see if the Kid really cuts the mustard. And I'll be the judge of that, not Sammy.
Josie smiled as she endured a sloppy kiss from Sammy.
"Kid, this is-an old friend of mine, Whitney Morris."
The Kid's hand shot out like a switchblade and Whitney jumped, fearing that good manners would be the death of her. As she surrendered a hand to social convention, she noticed that Josie's nose was slightly sun burnt, a bright island in the middle of her tanned face. It would probably start peeling any second now. Like the wallpaper in the kitchen, the rotten banana in the pantry, flesh falling off a corpse. One dead layer reveals even more decay. When does it stop? When does the onion stop peeling?
Make it stop. Whitney shuddered as Josie simultaneously squeezed her hand and frowned with concern. The warmth of living flesh pulled Whitney from these thoughts. She smiled apologetically, just as she did in The Lost Treasure after insulting the Great White Hero.
Still, that nose?. "Thank God they used black and white."
Sammy glared at her.
"I said that aloud, didn't I?"
To her credit, Josie Dalton did not flare into a starlet tantrum or indulge an overused pout. Instead, she laughed, and this rumpled the fragile pink skin of her nose as she touched it with a gentle self-consciousness. "Uh, yeah. I guess it is fortunate. I shouldn't have been so careless."
"No need to worry," Sammy replied lightly, his entire being now fretting and focused on the pink nose.
"I'm really pleased to meet you, Miss Morris."
Go ahead, Kid, ooze that Sunday School charm all over me without asking. "You can call me Whitney."
"Tell me, what do you do? Are you in the business too?"
An awkward pause ensued, as Whitney's career became the pink elephant in the room.
"Baby," Sammy began with the condescendingly patient tone that declared you're kind of an idiot, but baby, I love you anyway! "Whitney's an actress too. She's done a ton of stage work, and made films a couple years back. Right now she's focusing on TV and radio. But a comeback to film may be in the works."
"Swell!" the Kid said. She tapped her chin with a forefinger. "In fact, now that you mention it, I know I've seen you somewhere before."
Swell. She says "swell." I bet she drinks milk too. Every morning. "I'm currently an Alka Seltzer tablet on the radio," Whitney revealed, then kicked herself mentally.
Sammy nudged her. "Go on, do it."
"Sammy-" She gritted her teeth.
"Oh please!" he cried. "I love it."
Whitney sighed. What could she do? She loved Sammy, and she owed him big time. A little humiliation in front of a beautiful actress was nothing. So she sang her bit of the theme song: "'If you've eaten past your fill/Take that little pill/It'll help you do you biz/With a little fizzzzzzzzz.'"
The fizz part was truly astonishing, and in spite of it all, Whitney was quite proud of her ability to replicate an authentic fizz. She attributed it to her intimate acquaintance with her favorite mixer, club soda.
Sammy clapped his hands in delight and the Kid-unless she was acting again-seemed genuinely impressed and said "Gosh!" with annoyingly bright enthusiasm.
At that moment the old Ox-Bow was lumbering down the steps, bellowing a greeting to Sammy in his richly obsequious tones. Whitney seized the opportunity to escape. While walking away, she made the mistake of looking back. Josie Dalton was watching her with a look of curious determination, something that frightened Whitney because she hadn't the faintest idea why she would be even remotely interesting to someone so young, so fresh, and so beautiful.
"Whitney." She felt a hand on her arm.
It was Lou Baldone-a man not afraid of his own shortness; he projected a calm confidence that always worked successfully in reigning in the chaos that was a film set. It didn't hurt that he was as bulkily muscular as a miniature Jack LaLanne.
She noticed-with no small amount of relief-that his handshake was considerably limper and more relaxing than the earnest arm-pump of the Kid.
"How've you been?"
"Don't ask, Lou."
"Last time I saw you, Robert Mitchum was eyeing you like a junkyard dog looks at steak and Shirley MacLaine was ready to clock you."
"Oh. Yeah." She winced. A party at 21: Mitchum's sleepy eyes had almost hypnotized her into submission, but luckily her own big mouth had sunk the proposition. You have a wife and a mistress, buddy, what the hell do you need me for? Mitch had laughed, but his angry lover had yanked off a menacing high-heeled shoe and was preparing to use it on her skull. Whitney tried to assuage the fiery redhead with the suggestion of a ménage a trois (You want in on it, Shirl?); in retrospect, she realized that the idea had been less than brilliant and was in fact the actual reason that MacLaine had brained her with the shoe.
"Glad you survived that." Lou could barely contain his mirth. "So what have you been doing lately?"
She shrugged. "Commercials." She prayed that he would not ask what; she wasn't up for fizzing twice in one day. "It's easy enough. But-"
"You don't like a free ride?" He raised an eyebrow, and she didn't like it. He was ready to pounce on something, she just didn't know what.
"The past six years have been a free ride, and I-I like to work. It's just been-hard." She had no idea why she was telling him this.
He pounced. "Then help me."
"I need someone to help with the rough cut. My editor is skippin' out on me, leaving today, and Rod wants one by the end of the week. I have both an upright and a flatbed, everything you need. Miss Dalton let us set up in the rec room downstairs."
"You dragged all that stuff up here from the studio?"
He grinned. "I can do whatever the hell I want now, Whitney."
"You Twilight Zone people are awful cocky."
"So they tell us. What do you say? Give me a hand."
Shit. "Are you totally nuts? You know I haven't done anything like this in years." These days her hands shook so badly that she could barely hold a cigarette. She looked down at them. Spitefully, they did not shake, but instead flexed elegantly on cue, like a row of swimmers in an Esther Williams movie.
Lou caught this moment of self-audition. He smiled again. "You'll be fine, Whitney."
Is he crazy, leaving me alone with all this stuff?
When Sammy had encouraged her to make the big leap to Hollywood, Whitney had insisted upon picking up some practical skills in her newly founded trade, just as she had done when breaking into the theater, where she did everything from building and painting sets to light direction. She learned as much about film as she could, including the basics of editing it.
Sammy knew this, he probably knew that Lou wanted an editor. Very clever, you old bastard, she thought as she surveyed the equipment in the basement.
She tried to work on it that evening; Lou told her to at least start looking at the rushes and review the list of edits he wanted. She sat down in front of the flatbed editor, a huge machine with a small screen in front of it that allowed the editor to view the film as it was projected, powered along by foot pedals. Pumping the machine felt exhausting. If my old tennis coach could see me now, he'd kill me.
With a tired sigh, Whitney stopped. She looked down at the film splicer mounted near the bottom of the machine. A strip of film was already threaded into it and awaiting the cinematic guillotine. She pulled it out gently, if only to see if she could successfully put it in again.
She was threading the film back over its chrome wheels when the splicer's lid fell down and cut off her finger.
There is a beautiful, lucid moment of suspension, of separation, when a limb or an appendage is severed from the body. It almost seems like magic, as if nothing truly irreversible occurred, no blood issues forth, there is no pain, and it is entirely believable that both items could be happily rejoined at any moment, with nary a thought otherwise. There is only the limb, disembodied like a dream, accompanied by quiet wonder.
Whitney's hallucination came with this moment, but was quickly followed-as in the real thing-by wildly gushing blood. She squeezed her eyes shut with such force that her head ached. Stop stop stop-
I'm begging you to stop.
"Uhhh, Miss Morris?"
Whitney opened her eyes. The Kid was standing in the doorway. She was dressed down now, in a red gingham-check blouse, blue jeans, and dirty old Ked sneakers. "Are you okay?" she asked shyly.
It was strange. It seemed as if Josie Dalton was now a different person, no longer the smart, self-assured professional but a sweet, awkward farm girl. Did her personality change with wardrobe? Was she acting this part? If so, then damn, she is good.
"I told you, you don't have to call me that." Whitney bit the inside of her cheek; it had come out harsher than intended.
"No," Whitney sighed. "I'm sorry. I'm being an idiot. Is there something you need?"
"No. It's-we thought you might be hungry. Everyone's gathering for dinner."
"Oh. Uh, I don't think I'm very hungry."
"I could bring you something, if you prefer."
Whitney hesitated. The truth of the matter was that she just didn't want to see people; she was, in fact, hungry.
"A sandwich, maybe?"
Whitney bit her lip. She nodded.
Josie hazarded a guess. "Peanut butter?"
She nodded again, and smiled.
"Can't go wrong with peanut butter." With that, the Kid giggled; it was a peculiar laugh, sort of pleasantly maniacal, with a wild kind of velocity in its musical notes, like the sonic equivalent of a roller coaster. But instead of going off for the sandwich, she lingered in the doorway, rocking back and forth on her heels. "You know I said I'd seen you somewhere before? Well, I remember where."
"The Lost Treasure," Whitney supplied, naming the B western that was her biggest hit. "And no, I didn't sleep with Jeff Chandler."
"No, it wasn't that." Josie dropped her voice. "It was in a newsreel."
"Oh." Her grilling in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee had occurred after the initial frenzy and deluge of publicity surrounding the infamous Hollywood Ten. The attention her case had received was nothing in comparison to that; however, it was hardly surprising that it had made a newsreel. Sure, remember all those cameras waiting for you? What was truly surprising is that she rode back to the hotel with Colton after he had testified against her. But in doing so, they created a final act to everything, a mutual acknowledgment that the marriage was truly finished. There was a certain symmetry to it: As their marriage had begun-she remembered the giddy car ride to City Hall-so it had ended. And just in case either one of them woke up the next morning and refused to believe it, that very evening Whitney polished off a pitcher of martinis and burned Colton's entire wardrobe. BLACKLISTED ACTRESS GOES BONKERS! She thought it would have made a good headline, but no ever one used it.
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have mentioned it," Josie said.
"And I'm sorry?you had to go through that. I mean, that's just not the right way to go about things."
"They run the country." Whitney shrugged. "It doesn't matter anymore. But thanks anyway, Kid."
Whitney hadn't intended on calling her that, really; she definitely did not expect the young woman's reaction: eyes narrowed, shoulders squared, and hands suddenly jammed in their respective back pockets, as if she had six shooters nestled back there. In this moment the aptly named Kid perfectly evoked a trigger-happy outlaw. "You called me that," she proclaimed with flat menace.
"Kid. You called me that."
"Oh." Panicky, Whitney gripped the splicer, hoping she could successfully pry it off the flatbed and utilize it as a weapon if need be. "Well, aren't you?" she asked, stupidly.
"Aren't I what?"
"No. I hate that."
"But it suits you, Kid. And, uh, you let Sammy call you that-"
"Sammy's different. Sammy could call me a big stinky cow pattie and I'd answer to that, 'cause he's Sammy, ya know?" The Kid went on about how she was 27-27!-years old and voted and paid taxes and owned a house and had a master's degree and worked steadily in her profession and Whitney nodded and wished that a fountain of gin would gush out of the projector. The Kid was upsetting her newly found equilibrium, something based upon the meager, thin promises of honest work and a peanut butter sandwich.
Josephine Dalton stopped ranting and drew a deep breath. "So don't call me that, okay?"
She turned around and was about to walk out of the door when Whitney nodded vigorously and replied-too quickly-"Okay, Kid."
Later, much later, Whitney made her own peanut butter sandwich.
In the week that followed, Whitney lived an almost ascetic existence into which the face of Josie Dalton recurred like a leitmotif from a book, a bright thread of a tapestry, a refrain from a song. Or-and this was her favorite metaphor-like a round of drinks that never stopped and never made you sloppy drunk, but maintained a perfect perch at the edge of deep, drifting intoxication.
Every morning she woke to bracing coffee and the dour face of Mrs. Danvers (there's something I never want to see rushes on, she thought). Then she set off to the basement (although, in its repaneled glory it was too nice to be called something so drab) and worked with Lou until lunch. While everyone gathered on the front porch for lunch, she would normally grab a sandwich and skulk off to the back porch, much to the happiness of the predatory outdoor cats, who welcomed the crusts of homemade bread that she proffered. Then back to the basement with Lou. They usually finished for the day around 3, before Lou would head off to the local golf course for a couple late rounds. Sammy usually accompanied him.
That left the rest of the afternoon to do nothing. She took up smoking again to help pass the time. Sometimes she sat in the brightly gloomy study, with the sun bouncing off dusty books long unread, empty tobacco-colored leather chairs, and the faded intricacies of an Ottoman rug. She would lie down in front of the long sofa near the fireplace, watch the sun bank off the portrait of one Josiah Dalton III-a Union Army major whose bulging walrus mustache obfuscated any physical resemblance he shared with the last surviving member of his clan-and spiral smoke from a cigarette up to the gold leaf ceiling.
Sometimes she could hear Sammy or Lou or maybe even someone else calling for her, but she didn't answer. She felt safe in the sunny, dusty study, and had no wish to shatter this peace, however illusory it may have been.
She thought a lot about Josie. If she were more honest with herself, Whitney may have admitted she was a tad smitten with the young woman. But she attributed her interest and preoccupation with Josie to professional motivations, to the fact that she couldn't help but be focused on a face she saw every day, and under such unusual, strangely intimate circumstances-through the slow dance of audience and object, the repetitive graces of film.
Every day she saw that face perform its emotional striptease in loops of unedited rushes, opening up to her, unobserved, as a water lily in a spring shower. She would slow the action with the foot pump and watch that face, feeling oddly ashamed, as if she were a peeping tom, or a pornographer. Even at its spookily slowest, each frame revealed the metamorphosis of emotion on Josie's face-from irritation to love, guilt to anger, confusion to anguish, all rippling by with such ferocity that the frames could hardly catch up.
Whitney closed her eyes. This was pure intoxication. This was real acting, the brass ring she never caught. And everything I cannot say / Everything that I shall never know / All of it changed into this pure wine. Holy crap, I still remember my Apollinaire. Maddie would be proud. She always thought it odd that Madeleine, the very serious scholar-scientist and dedicated political activist, would have a weakness for French symbolist poetry. She had loved that weird dichotomy about Maddie: She had been both realist and mystic.
Suddenly she opened her eyes. Josie was standing over her, giggling. How someone so attuned to her craft and so aware of her gifts could alternately act like a goofy, mentally deficient five-year-old was immensely intriguing to Whitney. Sammy is right. She bleeds talent. She's great. Yet she's child-like?
?And annoying as hell. Despite this bright adoration of the Kid's talent, the Kid's charming laugh, and the Kid's gently bobbing cleavage, Whitney was nonetheless irritated at this breach of her ill-gotten privacy. "So you found my hiding spot. How'd you manage it?"
"Purely by accident." Josie pointed at her cigarette. "I thought the sofa was on fire."
Whitney stared at the cigarette, now a mere eighth of an inch away from burning her fingers. "Oh." She flicked ash into the almost empty coffee cup, then reconsidered and dropped the flaring butt into the dark liquid as well.
The Kid was indulging one of her nervous habits, rocking back and forth on the heels of her Keds, hands stuffed into her pockets. "Lou's packing up his equipment."
It was the end of the week, and there was enough of a rough cut to impress Mr. Serling-or so Lou thought. Whitney took what she assumed was a hint and sat up. "I guess I should help him."
"You're not-going back with him, are you? To Manhattan?"
"Uh, well-I don't know. Depends on what Sammy says. I rode out with Sammy, but if he wants to send me back with Lou-"
"I don't think he does. I mean, he doesn't have to. He's staying until Labor Day next week, before Ray comes back to get him, and well, we have plenty of room, it's no problem for you to stay too." Josie's mouth fluttered into an uncertain smile. "It'll be nice."
"Yeah." It would be nice.
Josie's grin broadened. "So you'll stay?"
I can't do this. "Yeah."
One thing Josie had failed to mention was that there were additional hangers-on staying in the house as well-not just Sammy, but two leftovers from the crew, and one of the actors. The next day, Whitney saw the Kid lying on the lawn with the guy who had played Jim in the Twilight Zone episode. Whitney kept forgetting his real name; she kept calling him Jim and he didn't seem to mind-he was method actory, eager to be the next James Dean, and apparently he believed it was all part of her immersing him into the role, even though the role was now complete.
A red streak hovered above them, accompanied by a steady thumping: The Kid was playing paddle ball and Jim-Boy was counting each hit, following the action as if he were at Wimbledon. Together, the Kid and Jim were like something out of Normal Rockwell: The Courting of Miss Josie Dalton, except that Jim's vacant eyes maintained a rapt focus on the ball's movement and not the woman wielding the paddle with enviable stamina and skill. Nonetheless, they were frighteningly normal.
Josie then noticed her, and in doing so almost missed the ball's kamikaze flight back toward her head. "Hey, Evangeline!" the Kid shouted at her.
Sonofabitch! Whitney froze at the name; she hadn't heard it uttered in all its multisyllabic glory for years. She stalked over to the dreamy pseudo-couple, her long shadow eclipsing them. Jim's mouth formed a little terrified o. "How did you find out my first name?" she growled at Josie.
Josie did not stop paddling. "We have a library in town, ya know. You're listed in an old edition of Who's Who. 'Evangeline Whitney Morris, born January 9, 1927, Whateley, Massachusetts...' It also said that you were a member of Amherst College's Glee Club. Now that was a surprise!"
"31?32?33?" Jim continued.
"True. Glee Club sounds more your speed, Kid."
"See, if you keep calling me that, I'm going to keep calling you Evangeline."
In a moment of complete honesty, Whitney admitted to herself that the Kid could call her "Dogshit" and she would happily respond. "Go ahead. Even after all these years, Sammy still calls me 'Evie' when I get him mad." And Colton did too.
Josie frowned; clearly, she was spoiling for a fight, and happy compliance was not what she had expected. She channeled her energy into making the little red ball go faster and faster.
"Well, good. It serves you right, Evie. You aggravate him too much." Josie bit her lip in concentration as she handled a particularly wicked torque that the little red ball threw her way.
"What the hell do you know about it?"
"He's getting old. I think he wants to retire but he worries about you."
Whitney frowned. She hated the thought of being a burden to Sammy.
Not entirely insensitive, the Kid switched gears. "Anyway, speaking of names, I was wondering what I should call myself professionally. 'Josie' sounds too immature, 'Josephine' is a little too long, and I think 'Jo' is just too short."
"Change your name."
"I can't, I-made a promise not to change it."
"Oh. It's not a bad name, Kid."
"You didn't have to change your name."
"I did. Sort of."
"That was obvious. How many girls are really named Whitney?"
"It was my mother's maiden name."
"It's nice. All the nicer since it's real."
"?64?65?66?" Jim-Boy yawned, revealing an impressive array of canines.
"Don't yawn, Virgil! Keep countin'!"
Virgil. That's his name.
"So what do you think, Evie?"
"Oh. I don't know. You're right, Josephine is a little too long, a bit clunky."
"And 'Josie' just doesn't sound serious enough."
"And 'Jo?' "
"?that just sounds too, I dunno?"
Josie looked at her. Their eyes met, and Whitney said it.
The red ball smacked the Kid right in the eye.
"82!" Virgil hollered triumphantly.
Late into the afternoon Josie was still rubbing the eye and pouting.
They walked along a dirt trail leading from the house into the nearby woods. Whitney had hoped that quietly, spontaneously joining Josie on her walk would serve as some form of apology.
They trudged on silently, creating a serendipitous pact of mock solemnity through Josie's willingness to torture Whitney about the accident, and Whitney's eagerness for punishment. Yet at the same time both were aware of the incident's absurdity, blown into epic proportion by everyone's unanimous protectiveness of the Kid. After the incident (punctuated by Josie's howl and Virgil's "Holy shit, she's blinded!"), the eminently practical Mrs. Danvers called a neighbor, a registered nurse, who examined Josie, administered some eye drops, and declared that the bloodshot eye should clear up in a few hours and-an additional bonus-would remain intact. What did you say to upset her? Sammy had asked with alarm as saline drops shimmied from a dropper into Josie's twitching, inflamed eye. Virgil couldn't remember and Whitney had only shrugged foolishly, unwilling to tell him the truth.
I think I got an answer to my question, that's all. She could tell by the Kid's goofy swagger-hands tucked in the pockets of her jeans, the lolling crown of blond hair, maybe she got it all wrong, maybe it was Josie and not Virgil trying to be James Dean-and the shy avoidance of eye contact that all was forgiven. All is forgiven. Is it that simple? Could forgiving Colton be that simple? How do you just let go of all that? I don't know. Maybe you can teach me that.
The trees had sifted the sun and the wind into a fine, pure gold dust that permeated everything. She sucked in the sweet air, and once it filled her she realized she hadn't felt so calm, so peaceful in ages.
Whitney peeked guiltily in her companion's direction. "Can't still hurt." The eye was no longer red, which was good, because Whitney was certain that whereas her sorry ass was concerned, Mrs. Danvers was on the brink of poison or perhaps a more blatant form of murder.
"You could've taken my eye out," Josie declared, for what was certainly the hundredth time that day.
Whitney finally felt confident-and relieved enough-to gently scoff at this. "Nonsense."
"Pirates," Josie muttered. "You would have condemned me to lifetime of playing pirates. And how many roles like that do you see for women, let alone men nowadays?"
"Garrrr, matey," Whitney growled, curling a hand into an approximation of a hook. She grinned as Josie resisted giggling. "I have an acquaintance who wrote a one-act play featuring a one-eyed prostitute. So there you go. It may make off-off-Broadway by 1970."
"What's it called? 'One Act for One-Eye?'"
Whitney broke the unspoken pact and burst into laughter. "That beats the hell out of the title Herb had. Something like 'Tears of the Mourning Dove.'"
"Tears of the unsuccessful playwright. Boo-hoo."
Whitney chuckled, somewhat surprised at this cold-blooded critic within the Kid. "You're mean."
"You're right." Josie sighed, repentant. "I just don't-I mean, I wouldn't want to waste my time working on a project I don't believe in. I want to do the good stuff."
"That's what we all say starting out. But you can't always live off the good stuff, Kid."
"You did." Josie was examining her. And then looking away abruptly, as if her intentions may be misread.
They had not touched the topic that had brought about the paddle ball injury. Whitney felt contrite enough to let it lay. What was the purpose of figuring out if the Kid was queer anyway? Let her keep her secret. Although it would be nice to go to bed with you, I bet. She exhaled, surprised at this sudden reminder of a libido. Josie looked at her again. You can't possibly be interested in me. Go to the Village, find yourself a sweet young thing, or someone with money, someone to take care of you. "Not for long. And when I didn't have the good stuff, I had my husband's money. And when I didn't have that, I became an Alka-Seltzer tablet."
"It's brilliant. You put such energy into the fizzing sound." Josie, perhaps sensing that an antacid tablet should not be dwelled upon as a high point of one's acting career, moved on to what she hoped was a safer aspect of the same subject. "I did see you in that movie you mentioned. Lost Treasure. It's, um, not a great film, but you were good in it."
Whitney chortled. Nothing quite like a backhanded compliment. "I was the Girl. It's hard to screw that up."
"You were an Indian Princess!" Josie retorted with mock haughtiness.
"Ah, ah, I was no mere princess, but a blue-eyed, half-breed Princess. Have you ever noticed that in the movies, all the Indian women are Indian Princesses? It's all the same, it was just that time I was the Girl in buckskin with a good tan. You stand on your mark, look pretty, read your lines right, and that's it."
"Do you really tan like that?" The Kid was awed. "I thought it was makeup."
"No, I really tan like that. Before they started shooting they had me sunbathing everyday for two weeks. They took photos. It was great publicity. I was in Photoplay with my tits falling out of a swimsuit and my mother on the phone telling me I was a tart. 1954. Great year. Where were you?"
"Probably memorizing lines for As You Like It."
"You're the real thing, then." Whitney said it with the slightest trace of envy.
"And you're not?" Josie was incredulous. "Sammy told me you did The Cherry Orchard on stage. That's no walk in the park."
"Or the woods." Whitney rolled her eyes at their lush surroundings. She caught Josie looking at her again, with a skeptical affection. You must be pretty desperate to hero-worship me. Not that it doesn't feel good. She blew out a breath. "Look. I didn't get into this business to be an artiste. I was playing tennis and wanted to be pro, but I banged up my knee on tour. Ruined any chances I had." She shrugged. "I thought this would be easy work, easy money. It was, for a while."
"Until?" Josie trailed off, unwilling to go further.
Whitney nodded, accepting her tact and her kindness. "Yeah."
She stopped walking. The path had curved off abruptly to the left, climbing up a bank and through a thicket of trees. The Kid, of course, marched through the green as she had probably been doing ever since she could walk; Whitney followed, and was confronted with a sudden, breathtaking view of a large lake. It was picture perfect and marvelously still.
"Wow. A lake." Well said, dumb ass.
Josie looked at her, arching an eyebrow. "It's a pond."
"What's the difference?"
The Kid folded her arms in an attempt to counter her faltering confidence. "I don't know. I just know-my parents always called it a pond."
Don't ask anything about her parents. Whitney remembered Sammy's invective; nonetheless, she wondered if this mention of the Daltons was perhaps an invitation to discussion.
She chose not to accept it. "Well, whatever it is, it's beautiful."
Whitney wasn't prepared for that endearing, sudden look-the turn of the head that tossed the bangs out of her eyes, the shy smile, the flare of her eyes. If the Kid did one more adorable thing, just one more thing, all might be lost. She really didn't need someone new prying open her pickled heart.
"I used to come here a lot in high school. Just to sit and think mostly."
"Did you ever swim here?"
There was a barely perceptible shift in that faraway profile, something that Whitney could not read. "Sometimes."
"But mostly you were thinking. About what?"
"Going off to college, seeing the world, becoming famous. Stuff like that. I hated high school-it was Catholic school." She wrinkled her nose, Whitney laughed, and her heart threw up a white flag. That's it. You're smitten. Get to a bar as soon as possible. "When I graduated I came here and threw my skirt into the lake."
"Boy oh boy, someone did not like school." Whitney leaned against a tree and watched the wind make halting progress in creating weak eddies along the dark green surface of the water.
"Yeah. I was a teenager-there was a lot I didn't like."
Josie only half-smiled, shrugged, and changed the topic.
Going to bed too early in the night had the effect of producing insomnia in Whitney. But that evening, the demons were surprisingly kind, and roused her from sleep with a relatively innocuous dream about being chased by clowns wearing Nazi uniforms.
She thought about the lake. The simple thought then metamorphosed into one of those late-night, harebrained ideas that, in the light of day, always lose whatever merits and illusion of sanity they possessed at the point of origin. Well, why not? A walk, then a swim. I need the exercise.
Whitney dressed quickly-sans the boots, which she put on once she left the house.
During the day the lake (or pond, as Josie called it) was deadly placid. As a locale for swimming, it did not appeal. But for daydreaming, meditation, truancy-it seemed ideal; Whitney could easily envision young Josephine Dalton, with long hair (she figured the Kid had to have had long hair at that age), wearing a plaid skirt, gazing contemplatively into the opaque water that resisted her charm as surely as it did the sunlight. However, the night-or at least this night-was different; points of moonlight were clustered along the raised ripples of the water like pearls along a seam of silk. It looked inviting. The water, dormant as a corpse, was alive at night, and it beckoned her.
Without a second thought, she stripped and waded in.
The water possessed a swamp-like viscosity and was just cold enough to motivate movement. She glided through the lake and it surrounded her-a million soft, velvet-tipped acupuncture needles penetrating every pore, shifting, embracing, and rebalancing everything within her.
She remembered Madeleine talking about her family's practice of acupuncture. She remembered Madeleine drowning. She remembered it as vividly as if she had really been there, as if it had really happened.
Suddenly, the water seemed to have an undertow that gripped her and pulled her further away from land. She kicked. It held fast. She kicked harder. It held her tighter. She was anchored by a wraith, and the more she struggled the deeper it pulled her into its depths. Her flailing limbs created a sea storm in miniature and the bitter, heavy water sloshed into her gaping mouth. The weight pulled at her and she could no longer keep her head above water.
Josie? I'm sorry. I don't know why and I don't know for what, but I'm sorry.
She emerged, sputtering and screaming, and suddenly free. Frantic, she swam toward the solid black line of land; her arms hacked through the water, the huge, awkward strokes they created threw off shimmering drops that fell around her like a luminous, mysterious hail. When she reached the grassy bank, she could barely drag herself upon land; it was as if she were some sort of primordial sludge, barely a building block of the simplest life form.
Curled in a fetal position upon the grass, panting like a dying dog, she realized that she had forgotten to bring a towel.
As she walked back to the house, her dry clothes clung to her damp body; the tiny stones on the path bit into her bare feet, for she had been unable to find the boots in the dark. Impelled by pain, she padded quickly through the house like a nervous cat and darted into the large communal bathroom at the end of the second floor. Groping for a light switch, she knocked over something metallic, which clanged loudly before it plopped into the toilet bowl. Shit.
Finally she found the switch; the sound of the light turning on made her jump. The object in the toilet was a tin cup. She was about to fish it out when she caught sight of herself in the mirror: wet, disheveled, muddy. Taking a bath was one solution; she hesitated nonetheless. Apparently, the demons were truly in their element where water was concerned. Washing up in the sink might be safer, perhaps. She shed her clothes again and began scrubbing, humming "Love for Sale" in order to distract the demons. The genteel nihilism of Cole Porter always kept them at bay.
However, Whitney's activities drew the nocturnal attentions of the Kid, in pale green pajamas, who was now standing in the doorway and accompanying Whitney's low hum with her chaotic giggle.
Whitney pulled her face away from the faucet. Hey jackass, you're stark naked, snarked one of the demons, the one who sounded like Edward G. Robinson. This one was infinitely preferable to the one who sounded like Jerry Lewis, or the one who sounded like Maurice Chevalier and infantilized her with French-accented taunts of leetle girl.
"So." The Kid folded her arms across her chest. "Do you always conduct your evening toilette with the bathroom door hanging open?"
Is she looking at me the way I think she is? Well, there's a big naked woman in her bathroom, what the hell else is she going to look at? And let's face it, you are looking at her in that way, and she's not even naked. "Uh-sorry." She cast about desperately for something to say, something that would help the situation attain normalcy. "Nice pajamas." It was all she could come up with.
Josie was willing to play along, if only for moment. "Thanks."
"Yes. They're very comfortable." To her credit, Josie did finally blush, look away, and indulged her usual rocking-on-heels nervous habit. "Are you okay?"
"Fine." Oh Laaaaaddddee, you are a Liaaaaaaaar! squealed the Jerry Lewis demon.
"Do you need anything?"
"A towel. Please."
"Okay. I'll bring you a towel."
Shivering, Whitney sat on the edge of the tub and dripped onto the tiled floor. She folded her arms over her breasts.
The Kid reappeared with a towel-two, in fact, one presumably for Whitney's hair. Gratefully, Whitney took the larger of the two and wrapped it around herself.
She thought the Kid was looking down out of modesty until Josie said, "Your foot's bleeding."
Whitney couldn't tell; she saw no blood and felt no pain. "Oh."
"Let me get you a bandage." She opened the medicine cabinet, rattled things here and there, and pulled out a tin of Band-Aids. Stupidly, Whitney remained perched on the tub's edge, allowing Josie to tend to this unknown wound. It felt good to have someone take care of her.
"Do I have to dry your hair too?"
"Huh?" Whitney blinked.
The Kid laughed and dropped the towel on her head.
Josie had massaged her scalp and patted her face dry when, as if to test for any excess dampness, she ran a thumb along Whitney's cheek. When the thumb took another probing sweep of her skin, Whitney recognized the touch for what it was and was not terribly surprised when Josie kissed her, lightly, on the lips, then again, lingering that second time as her mouth pulled persistently at Whitney's lips.
Their mouths parted, but their breath collided nervously. Whitney knew that the Kid was waiting for a sign-stop or go.
She didn't know how to say yes and she didn't know how to say no. Both sides had pros and cons, all too numerous to seriously contemplate in the moment at hand. But like the lake, Josie exerted her own undertow, a satisfying draw into the unknown, and Whitney answered this call by silently tangling her fist into Josie's pajamas, pulling her closer. She welcomed the warm, sweet plunge of the girl's tongue into her mouth and the hands that curled in gentle embrace of her shoulders. Like traveling in a new country, the actions were similar yet the sensations were different-you walked, but your feet rested upon new ground, you breathed, but the air was a jumble of fresh motes in a new and startling configuration-in short, the landscape was a revelation.
It took morning light to confirm this, to affirm what Whitney's hands and mouth had told her the night before: Josie was beautiful. She did not know how the Kid's previous lovers had tallied her physical flaws-her feet were too calloused, her waist was too high, her ass too big, her breasts not big enough-but had Whitney known, she would have refuted them vehemently, perhaps even violently (she so enjoyed throwing things), and would have offered the slumbering creature beside her as proof positive that somehow those piddling individual flaws had created something wholly perfect and unique.
Whitney even found the drool spot on the pillow endearing.
It had been a bit of a surprise, however, to find out that the Kid wasn't exactly a virgin. She knew what she was doing; that much became obvious last night when she had gone down on Whitney with vigorous skill and no guesswork.
She was smiling at this pleasant memory when the Kid was blinking herself awake, and sleepily returning the grin.
"You've done this before." Whitney said it-almost accusingly-in lieu of "good morning." She had no stomach for the banalities of common greetings.
Josie unleashed her maniacal giggle; however, it seemed a little too early in the morning for that. I have demons enough for both of us, Kid.
"Surprised you, didn't I?" Josie sounded very proud of this fact.
"I thought you were a virgin."
She stretched, and Whitney accepted it as an invitation to touch; she ran her hand along the smooth belly, the proud jut of the hip, the strong, generous thigh. "Geez, Whitney, I'm 27. It's a long time to wait around. Most women I know-that I went to school with-are married and have about three kids now."
"You figured out-"
"-that you were queer? I did, but I didn't think you had done anything yet."
"Oh, so that was part of the appeal. You wanted to deflower me. Well, that's very clichéd of you."
"I didn't want to deflower you, honest. That would have been too much pressure. It's almost a relief to find out otherwise."
"Still-you look disappointed."
"Don't read too much into it, Kid."
"Do you still think of me as the Kid?" Josie propped herself on an elbow. Upon viewing that magnificent torso-soft yet muscled, supple flesh-she silently answered the question with a decisive no. "I thought," the young woman continued as she rolled atop Whitney, "that going to bed with you would stop the nickname."
"So now your motives are finally clear." Whitney bit her lower lip in an effort to keep from laughing at the Kid's comical, Three Stooges-type scowl. Instead, a throaty laugh escaped as Josie's leg pried open her thighs and pressed into her. The contact intensified with rhythm and Whitney dug her heels into the soft mattress. Josie slipped a hand between their bodies and cupped her companion's warmth and wetness and, with the skill of an artist in her true medium, traced and painted every crevice and every dip, impressing upon the canvas of flesh what she hoped was a picture of indelible desire. Then she entered Whitney, gently at first, yet once inside, her touch extended everywhere with fierce persistence.
Her mouth crowded against Whitney's ear and a tongue-as adept an instrument as her hand-dawdled in maddening circles along the ear's sensitive whorls. "Say my name, Whitney. Please."
Whitney managed to do so-several times-before she came.
"What time is it?"
"I don't know."
"Aren't you hungry?"
"You really like to sleep, don't you?"
"Among other things." Whitney rolled over and raked her fingers through the blonde hair so close to her face. "You're hereby released from any and all post-coital duties, including lolling in bed with a lazy lover."
Josie was kissing her neck. "I didn't say I wanted to leave."
"I know!" The Kid pulled away abruptly and her face lit up with a broad, alarmingly innocent, Judy Garland, let's-put-on-a-show-in-the-barn look. "Let's talk."
"We've been talking," Whitney countered, somewhat defensively.
"Gee, I didn't know that moaning 'do it harder' qualifies as sophisticated conversation."
"I'm not Oscar Wilde. I'm just an actress with no lines."
"So tell me about yourself."
"This is an ass-backwards date. Sex first, then small talk. I guess dinner is next."
Josie was still plowing forward with her agenda. "Tell me about Colton."
Shit. "You really know how to kill a mood." Whitney rolled over on her stomach and attempted to prop her chin in the soft down of the pillow but instead sank into its whiteness.
Drowning. So soft, so peaceful.
When Josie touched her she tried not to jump, not to scream, not to cry.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you."
"It's okay." She sighed. "There's really nothing to tell other than what was in the newspaper. We were bad for each other-we were too much alike. We betrayed one another. We divorced. He took a very interesting and very public form of revenge. Next question."
"Well, um, why did you marry him?"
"One day he showed up at my apartment in a tuxedo, with roses and champagne, and a horse and carriage waiting for us. We rode around Central Park and he asked me to marry him. It seemed like the thing to do-so much so, that I probably would have agreed to it anyway even if I hadn't drunk the whole damn bottle of champagne myself."
"You're not holding up your end of this 'sophisticated' adult conversation, Kid."
"I'm saving my commentary for later." Josie remained quiet for a long time; it seemed that she was content merely to stroke Whitney's back, slowly, sensually. "Sammy says you drink."
"I'm not drinking now."
"Okay, that's good." Josie sounded like the eternally hopeful mother still wistfully believing that little Jane will crochet a tapestry of Renaissance proportions when the brat was more content to stick the crochet hooks up her nose in search of boogers. "How long has it been?"
If you lie, she will find out. Besides, you don't really want to lie to her anyway. "A week." Whitney was grateful for the hair crowding her face so that she couldn't see the forest for the trees.
"That's good." This was repeated in the same archly ludicrous tones.
The pillow could not smother Whitney's laughter. "God, Kid. You make Debbie Reynolds look like Satan's Daughter sometimes."
"I could play Satan's Daughter. With the right script, of course." She yawned. "I can't wait for breakfast."
Naturally, the yawning made Whitney sleepy too. "We'll get up in a few minutes."
The Kid's eyes were already closed and her mouth was settled in near the location of her nightly drool stain. "We won't have to," she murmured.
Before Whitney thought to ask why, she too was drifting off to sleep.
Later, they both awakened at the same time, it seemed, and instinctively drifted together. Whitney could hear Josie's butterfly stroke through the sheets; gradually curiosity and daylight wheedled their way in and she opened her eyes. Josie was sleepily hanging over her, golden head dipping low, the pose recalling something out of antiquity.
Her mouth was sour but still welcomed in this culmination of a perfectly drowsy, aimless, early morning kiss. Whitney opened her mouth slightly wider, feeling the creak of her jaw as she claimed the tongue that brushed, hesitantly, against her own.
The door shook with an imperious knock.
Habits of self-preservation are exceedingly hard to break, even in someone with a particularly wicked self-destruction streak, and so Whitney dove under the sheets, tucking the edge of the salmon-colored bedspread over her head, encasing herself in a pupa spun from fresh sheets and the subliminal whiff of sex. Josie's body glowed in the light suffused from the pink of the bedspread.
Josie was giggling. "Come in," she trilled.
What the hell is she doing?
"Good morning." It was the unmistakable harridan tones of Mrs. Danvers.
Josie was as chipper as a Mouseketeer. "Good morning, Mrs. Danvers."
Whitney heard the delicate clatter of a breakfast tray upon a table. She could smell coffee. She wanted, badly, to touch Josie.
"Are those cranberry-orange muffins?"
Oh, for Christ's sake.
"Who's that in bed with you?" Mrs. Danvers demanded flatly.
My God, I am dead. Acting, Kid, think of a credible lie.
"It's Whitney, Mrs. Danvers," chirped Josie. "We're sort of having a slumber party."
"A naked slumber party, one might hazard a guess."
"Yes ma'am, one might hazard that guess, and one might be correct in the process."
"It all smells so good, Mrs. Danvers, thank you."
There was a pause.
"I suppose she will want a muffin."
"I think I can spare one."
"You're a very generous girl, Josephine. Enjoy your breakfast."
The door slammed shut.
Josie yanked the sheets off her violently, like a five-year-old attacking a Christmas present.
"God, Kid, you are too much. That scared the crap out of me."
"Don't worry. She's known about me for years, and she doesn't really care."
"Are you sure?" Too busy wailing and wading through her own anxiety, Whitney permitted the Kid to pin her arms above her head.
"Sure I'm sure. She said it's better than being a beatnik or a dope fiend."
Or a drunk? "That sounds very reassuring."
Josie kissed her. She had a prodigious talent for kissing: sweet, demanding, and relentless. "I like you," she murmured in between the third and fourth kiss.
"Don't. Don't like me." I don't want to fall for you.
"Whitney," she whispered. "Don't spoil breakfast. We have fresh muffins and the best coffee ever."
Whitney peered at the breakfast tray. There were about half a dozen muffins-you can spare one, huh, Kid?-on the silver platter, along with butter, a knife, a single cup, a pitcher of milk, and a coffee carafe. "There's not a cup for me."
"Oh. We can share, can't we?"
"She knew I was here and she didn't offer to get me a cup for the coffee. She hates me."
"Oh, that's silly." Josie said it with a perfunctory quickness that verified its truth. "She just forgot, that's all."
"She never forgets anything. She's obsessive. I know the type."
"You mean she's like you?" The Kid opened her mouth with mock horror.
She reversed their positions, flipping the Kid with ease; Josie now grinned her smart-ass grin from below her. I guess it helps if you want to be flipped.
"Now what?" Josie asked, with equal parts breathlessness and hopefulness.
"Who knows?" With one kiss in the hollow of Josie's throat, she began another happy journey down the length of that wondrous body. "Much depends on breakfast."
3. Pot Kettle Black
So don't let them begin the beguine
Let the love that was once a fire remain an ember;
Let it sleep like the dead desire I only remember
When they begin the beguine.
-Cole Porter, "Begin the Beguine"
It was tempting to write it all off as a gorgeous dream.
When she awoke later that day, Josie was gone, but there were remnants of the breakfast bacchanalia: crumbs bobbing among the bunched-up sheets and a dun-colored coffee stain on a pillow, and, even better, Josie's smell on her fingertips. The gentle, blurred shadows of the trees along the bedroom wall indicated that the day was further along than she liked, but Whitney did not move. She embraced the spare pillow and smelled Josie all over again. Been a long time since you've been remotely interested in anyone this way, the way where you're just content to smell them. How long?
That's when she heard it: That rubber band accent stretching out words in the most ludicrous fashion, turning syllables into putty. Colton!
She sat up. He was here.
Sammy nervously drummed his fingers along the worn grooves of the old picnic bench. They were sitting far from the house, in a remote corner of the backyard; he had intentionally picked the spot to entertain Colton, half-afraid that his mere presence would somehow poison the lazy, Indian summer calm that pervaded among the house and its inhabitants.
He now completely regretted the off-hand invitation he'd made to Colton before he left the city with Whitney. "If you've nothing to do, come up on Labor Day, maybe it will help if you talk to her." What a fucking idiot I am, thinking it would help her. She'll probably start drinking again the moment she sees him. And then there's the Kid. Jesus, I should have known she'd bang the Kid. But I hope that's the reason I didn't see either of them for two days, it must be, the Kid has that rosy glow of the well-schtupped and God I am going to have to talk to my shrink about this. I haven't seen Whitney though, hope that crazy old broad didn't bake her into a pie like in that hachi-machi crazy Shakespeare play Tony Antonius or whatever the fuck it is?oh shit, is Colton talking to me?
"So the shoot is over, then." Colton leaned forward, his chest expanding in its usual, unconsciously intimidating way.
Sammy nodded. "Went off like a charm." The agent watched as his budding star, who carried coffee cups on a tray, sauntered out toward them. He'd been a little nervous when Colton showed up unexpectedly, but Josie seemed to take it in stride, and he realized it was actually a good thing that Whitney was nowhere in sight.
"Is my company that tiresome?" Colton's dark eyes were feasting upon him.
"What? No, Colton, baby, I'm sorry. I'm just a little distracted."
"You're wondering where the lush is, aren't you?"
Both men jumped as the coffee cups clattered noisily on the table. Fortunately both were empty.
"Whitney is sleeping," Josie announced with icy calm.
"Beauty rest." Colton attempted humor.
"We could all use some, don't you think?"
"Ack" was Sammy's contribution to the conversation. A lifetime spent in the company of actors paid off as the agent induced a moist, worrisome coughing fit worthy of Garbo in Camille. Colton rolled his eyes at the diversionary tactic.
Josie, however, widened her eyes in genuine alarm and patted her agent's back. "Sammy, are you okay?"
"I'm fine, baby doll," he wheezed melodramatically. "It's those cigars catching up with me in my old age."
"Didn't I tell you, you should stop smoking?" the Kid chastised. "There's new research that says-"
"You are so right, baby. God, I can't wait for that coffee. That'll help."
The Kid smiled. "Should be ready by now."
She walked away and Colton glared at retreating sway of her ass as he slowly put it all together. "Oh my Lord. My dear sweet Baby Jesus. Jumpin' Judas Priest."
"Are you trying to get into the Blasphemy Hall of Fame, Colton?"
"How could you let that girl get involved with the Whore of Babylon?"
"Pot kettle black, baby. Don't even start. You both played fast and loose in the marriage."
"I'm not a goddamned deviant seducing little girls."
"Colton, she's 27!"
The playwright's eyes glinted with suspicion. "Looks like she's 16."
"Part of her charm. Look, I wasn't wild about her getting mixed up with Whitney either, but she's a big girl, and-"
"She may be a big girl, but Whitney is a spoiled, impetuous child."
"Pot kettle black."
"Will you stop saying that? It's not even a complete sentence."
"Josie can take care of herself. I think she might be good for Whitney."
Colton toasted him mockingly with an empty cup. "The love of a good woman."
Sammy, weary of the particular kind of verbal sparring that Colton so loved, finally went for the jugular. "You should know, Colton. You had that. You had it with Whitney. And you know what? I think you both could've fixed everything if you hadn't done what you did."
Colton said nothing and stared into space. After a minute, Sammy realized the playwright's black eyes were tracking movement. He turned around and saw Whitney ambling along the path to the lake. She stopped walking for a moment and looked in their direction. She continued to walk away.
It was too late. He was already out of his chair and following her before Sammy actually said anything.
Was it possible to drown in shallow water?
Whitney had been pondering this intriguing, tempting question when Colton rushed up to her at the lake's edge.
Back at the house, she had realized that it was a mistake not to acknowledge his presence, because she knew he would come after her. And here he was, towering over her, putting her at a distinct disadvantage as she sat cross-legged upon the ground at the water's edge.
Was the water really thicker than any she had ever encountered before? It ran through her hands, scattering through her grasp, leaving nothing more than clear beads and rivulets toying with the spectrum of light.
He was talking rapidly, words tumbling over one another-he rarely did that, except when extremely upset. One complaint followed another like a bitch train-linked together from engine to caboose, going on and on. Why didn't she say anything to him? Why did she walk away? Was it too much to ask that they put aside everything that happened and act civilly? Everything wasn't his fault. She drank too much. She was unfaithful-with both sexes. It was degrading. It was cruel. Couldn't she see that? After all this time, all these years, hadn't she ever thought about what this had done to him? He couldn't be blamed for the timing of the thing either. They were getting divorced, the Committee approached him, and he's not a Communist, he never succumbed to that fashionable downtown political posturing, it was all nonsense anyway, these artists and writers and fairies pretending they knew a damn thing about the state of the world.
Do you really know anything about the world, Whitney?
You were just like them, well, maybe you were just an idealist, a little naïve-you joined the Party when you were in college, you were infatuated with that strange Chinese woman, that's why-
Madeleine. Her name was Madeleine.
-they put pressure on me, they wanted a name. Just one.
She believed in the Party. She believed in that way of life. She made me believe. It all sounded so perfect-almost utopian. I believed up until she returned to Shanghai. And then they killed her. Because they couldn't trust her anymore.
I couldn't help it.
You dragged her through the mud too. She was the Dragon Lady, the spy who corrupted your wife. Because of your crowing they dug up her autopsy photos at the hearing. I didn't know she really died like that, so mutilated that I could barely recognize her. I blindly gorged on every bottle of booze I could lay my hands on to erase those images. But couldn't. Tried to slash my wrists. But failed. When finally they arrived to save me, I welcomed my D.T.s with open, bleeding arms.
It's not like it helped me, you know. I suffer through my own interminable blacklist by those goddamn Yankee bleeding hearts. New York. I hate the goddamn place.
I can't let it go until you admit what you've done.
Are you even listening to me? You are such a spoiled, narcissistic, emotionally stunted-
I can't let go. I can't.
You insufferable bitch, say something!
Colton grabbed her savagely, the pain radiated up her arm. With her free hand she backhanded him across the face. He staggered, let go, and returned the blow in kind.
He was, in fact, more than generous in the use of force: He punched her squarely in the face.
When she hit the water a sonic boom roared in her ears and a rock grazed her temple. She wasn't deep in the water at all, but it pulled at her with its fierce, strange undertow; it possessed the depth and power of an ocean and it would not let her go. Nor did she want it to. It caressed her as smoothly as it did the first night it anointed her. But this time she wanted the water to claim her.
Let go. Let go.
The only hitch was that Colton would not let go. His hand was wrapped around her ankle and he was dragging her out of the water.
Whitney lay on the grass and stared up at the trees. She was wet down to her waist. Colton was sitting near her but she could not see him; instead, she could hear his haggard breath. Was he crying? She wasn't sure that she cared. Out of sheer curiosity, she looked at him. His face was buried in his hands. In all the years that she had known him, this was the first time that she ever felt sorry for him.
She turned her gaze back to the treetops. She felt strangely serene.
Finally, Colton's breathing slowed. "I'm sorry." His voice was a strangled rasp. "About everything."
Let go. "That's all I ever wanted to hear from you."
They were quiet for a long time. She heard rustling and when she looked at Colton he was on his knees. "I'm going back," he murmured. He was staring at the lake, gazing at the trees, looking at anything but her. Even when he held out a hand to help her up, his eyes remained averted.
"It's okay. I want to stay here for a while."
He hesitated, nodded, and, with a quick pivot, walked away.
Eventually Whitney sat up and faced the lake. She was thinking of nothing and letting the wind wash over her when she heard someone coming through the thicket of trees behind her. She wanted it to be Josie. She wanted to kiss Josie, eat breakfast with her again, walk with her, lie in the grass with her, recite Apollinaire for her (or attempt to, anyway)-the list went on, and if she couldn't be with Josie, she just wanted to sit by the lake and compose that list all day.
But it was the Kid on the path. Whitney smiled at her, then frowned at Josie's look of horror.
Whitney arched an eyebrow. She had never heard the Kid swear before. It was like having a midget say naughty things to you: entirely unexpected and strangely appealing. "What's wrong?"
"What did he do to you?"
"Oh." She realized that she probably looked more a mess than usual. "He just hit me, I fell in the lake. It's over, he apologized."
The Kid swore again-this time, with her blazing eyes narrowed and her carotid artery throbbing in relief against her smooth neck. "That bastard!"
Whitney knew it was terribly wrong to feel this aroused at such a display of anger; with Colton-or probably any other man-she would have been annoyed at such an outburst. Instead, she found Josie's rage touching, almost-dare she think it?-cute.
"I'm going to fucking kill him." Josie was off, marching down the path.
Whitney laughed. With a few quick steps she caught up and snared Josie's arm. "Hey, hey, no-wait. It's okay. It's over. He feels bad enough as it is, so just let it go, Kid."
With surprising violence, she yanked her arm away from Whitney. "Don't call me that. I'm not a kid. I told you: I'm old enough to have my own life. My own career. And I'm old enough-I'm old enough to get you into my bed."
She was starting to walk away but Whitney grabbed her wrist, holding on for dear life.
She kept pulling.
A tendon in Whitney's arm leapt with the effort to hold on. "Josie," she said softly, and felt the girl's resistance slacken in her grasp. And then-in a pleasant if perhaps temporary, yet long-awaited reversal of fate-she was the one pulling, reeling Josie into her arms.
She was about to go for the kissing scene, the big Hollywood ending, but Josie was trying to staunch the blood flow from her nose.
"You're bleeding again," the Kid confirmed, quite unnecessarily-she held out fingers stippled with bright red.
"Real blood." It was watery, not thick and congealing like the stuff the demons made. It was real.
"What were you expecting?"
Whitney hesitated. "You'll think I'm crazy."
"No, I'll just pretend you have a vivid imagination." Josie wiped her fingers on the hem of her shirt. "Tell me," she prodded gently.
What the hell, I might as well give you an out before it gets serious. "You know what DTs are, right?"
"I've had them before when I've stopped. Sometimes they go on for a day or two after I stop drinking. They've been bad this time. But-I'd been sober for almost a week when I went into that lake, and-I swear to Christ, I felt something pull at me. Not hard, but consistent, like it wouldn't let go of me. So I'm thinking-I've really gone crazy now. Like the delirium is now part of being sober and I'll never get rid of it."
There was life before the DTs and after the DTs, she thought. After you experience it the first time there is no going back. Nothing so thoroughly marks you as a drunk than this, this excursion to a nebulous battlefield existing in your head and nowhere else.
Josie's jaw was shifting as if she were formulating what to say right there in her mouth. She stared at the lake. "It's-I don't think it's permanent. But it will take time, I think." She looked at Whitney. "Don't you?"
"I don't know what to think." Except that I have to stop. And I have, but-she's right. It will take time. But do you have time, Josie? "I'm not any good for you. You know that, right?"
"Sure. I know that. And I don't care." Josie bit her lip in concentration as she blotted a last trickle of blood from the nose with the hem of her shirt.
"Mrs. Danvers is not going to like this."
"It's okay. She's good at getting out blood stains."
"I'm not sure I want to know why."
Josie let loose her enthralling giggle.
She ducked down with half a mind to kiss Josie, but-given the blood-thought better of it and settled for parking her chin against the Kid's forehead.
"I'm going to be in Manhattan next month," the girl whispered.
Whitney said nothing. Josie had coffee breath, sweetly intoxicating, as powerful as java itself. Soft blonde eyebrows rubbed against Whitney's jaw, hips undulated under Whitney's hands. "Oh yeah?"
"I'm going to be in a modern-dress version of King Lear. Well, the dress isn't exactly modern, it's the Old West-cowboys and stuff."
"I'm sure you'll be a rootin'-tootin', six-shootin' Cordelia."
"Actually"-the Kid poked her in the ribs-"this is supposed to be the part where you say, 'Oh darling, that's wonderful, I can't wait.'"
"Oh darling, that's wonderful, I can't wait!" She hadn't used the breathless-heroine-in-love voice in a long time, and it was a pleasant surprise to know that she was still capable of it.
"You know, you're not bad when someone feeds you your lines."
"It's a good reason to keep you around," Whitney replied.
They arrived back at the house in time for the triumphant return of Ray and the black Lincoln Continental. "I got here in an hour!" the driver was bragging to Sammy.
"Bravo, Mondo Ray!" Whitney called to him.
Ray sighed. "At least someone appreciates me."
"I appreciate you, Ray," Josie added.
Ray leaned against the car, smiled, and began whistling "Josephine" by Bill Black's Combo; the allusion, of course, was lost on Whitney, who only grimaced at the thought of the car ride back with the radio blaring and Ray's constant whistling.
Sammy melodramatically threw up his arms in relief when he saw them. "Whitney. There you are, baby, thank God. We're ready to go, if you are. I brought your luggage down." The brown paper bag was sitting in the back seat.
"Thanks, Sammy. I know it was heavy."
Sammy was gazing at them nervously. "Please don't kiss. I think my head will explode."
Josie snapped off a salute. "Is that impersonal enough for you?"
"Kid, I love you," he declared, laying a wet smooch on her forehead. "I will call you about the play, the commercial, the TV show-"
Whitney felt a stab of jealousy, but let it pass. Perhaps next year they'll do a version of Midsummer Night's Dream where Titiana is an Alka-Seltzer tablet. I'll be in like Flynn.
Josie had her arms folded across her chest, blocking any invasion of her heart; it was purely a symbolic gesture. "Go. I'll see you soon."
Sammy and Ray piled into the car.
"You're not very romantic," Whitney teased, although a teeny part of her wanted something to grab on to. She opened the car door.
"You couldn't handle it." Josie shifted nervously, crossed her legs. "Oh, gosh, I don't think I can handle it either. But-I'm kind of crazy about you," she said quietly.
"Crazy being the operative word here." Whitney leaned in the door's open space and closed her eyes. "The feeling is mutual." She said it into Josie's ear and, fearing escalation of the sentimentality factor, quickly kissed the girl on the cheek before hopping into the waiting car.
The Hudson River had switched sides; it now ran to the right of the highway. Sammy, this time sitting in back with Whitney, frowned at her face. "How many rounds did you go, Rocky?"
"It was a KO."
"If I were any kind of man, and I mean any kind of man, I would cut his balls off for this!"
"Knowing Colton, they'd probably grow back."
Sammy was touching her face, masking tenderness under the pretence of examining her nose. "I hope it's not broken," he said softly.
She grinned and patted his leg. "It's not."
He sighed. "So: You and the Kid."
"I don't know which one of you I'm more worried about-getting hurt, that is."
"I can only hope she doesn't hit as hard."
"Nah." Sammy smiled and looked back through the window, as if he could still see Josie there, standing in front of the house. "The Kid would never do something like that."
"Really, Sammy, you should stop calling her that. She's 27, she owns a house, she pays taxes-"
From the kitchen window the old woman watched the black car lumber over the uneven dirt road, until nothing was left but Josie, standing in a halo of dust. She stood there, motionless, for a long time.
For as long as Mrs. Danvers could remember, Josie was the kind of girl who liked to fix things. She was the one who brought home stray dogs and playground outcasts, who allowed her home to be used for "Haunted House" fundraisers by the Rotary Club, who would fix Susie's bicycle or who would lend someone money to buy a dress for a wedding reception. It was easy to add Whitney as just another item on the list: A woman who needed love and confidence.
She sighed and poured coffee into a cup. It was, of course, more complex than that. Josie was also the kind of girl who was untouchable by the banality of life, as are those who are intricately cradled and bound by catastrophe.
It wasn't her fault, Mrs. Danvers thought-as if she really needed a reminder of what she had believed so deeply and so long. But sometimes you do need to remind yourself. To remember. Could she-or anyone else-blame a child for saving herself from a father bent on rape, possibly murder? Yes. They could. The law would have asked too many questions, would have weaved that single thread of fact into bright fabrication. She couldn't let the girl go through that.
She alone had dumped the body in the lake. She spared Josie that much, and regretted nothing save that she had not killed him herself. No doubt he lay there still, along with his demented wife, who drowned herself in the same spot not long after, out of the misery of mistaken love-the belief that her husband had truly loved her, and that her daughter had not.
Any other child would have avoided the lake, but Josie did not. When she was home she walked there every day, regardless of weather. Sometimes during the summer she even swam in the lake. She had taken it as a sign-of what, Mrs. Danvers was unsure-that Whitney had so fearlessly entered the lake. The old woman tried to tell her that she loved a woman who courted death. Josie didn't listen, and Mrs. Danvers expected as much. Perhaps it would be a good thing for her. Her grief had made her special; but falling in love made her more human.
The old woman trudged out to where Josie stood. She waited for Josie to take the coffee cup. Instead the girl just smiled at her, sheepish at her display of pining for a lover gone a mere five minutes.
"Did you tell her?"
Josie shook her head. "No."
"I didn't think she'd believe me. Besides, there's too much on her mind."
"What's another nightmare to a woman like that?" Mrs. Danvers realized it was cruel to say; however, she and Josie had gone through too much, had known each other too long for pointless pleasantries. Always, they required truth from one another.
Josie looked at her. "One too many."
"So you're going to save her from herself."
"I want to."
"It doesn't work like that, Josephine."
Already the afternoon sun was on the decline and dissolving into the tangle of treetops; it felt as if autumn were in the air. In the shadow of this perfect day, Josie smiled. "But I think I will anyway."
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