Cloud nine, p.10
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       Cloud Nine, p.10

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  Then at last she met Modesta, my cleaning woman, and wanted to fire her, but I balked. I said, “So maybe she’s not much of a cleaning woman, but what cleaning woman is? There could come a time when you need her bad, so she stays.”

  Then came the piano, a beautiful little Steinway, a baby grand, and when Sonya saw it she cried. But when she sat down and played, I wanted to cry. I mean, her playing had something, and I saw why Mother had liked it.

  And in between, every few nights, she gave little dinners—for Mother, for her parents, for my friends, by twos and fours and sixes, each better than the last, and all of them together kind of easing off the necessity for some kind of general reception. The drinks kept baffling her, and she would peep at her icepick, there in the table drawer, and perhaps it was how she put it in there with the napkins, but it seemed to be some kind of reminder of what she mustn’t forget, in the way of bitters, cherries, oranges, or vermouth—none of which did she understand.

  And then one afternoon at the office, when I’d just got back from lunch, my phone gave two or three rings I sensed as urgent rings, and when I answered Elsie said: “Mr. Kirby, Mrs. Kirby just called in and said get home at once, quick!”

  I got there quick, I’m telling you.

  When I saw Burl’s car outside, you may be sure I didn’t waste time on neat, fancy parking. I banged the curb as I banged it, jumped out, went up the front walk at a trot, and stabbed my key in the lock. I was almost afraid to look when I went in the door, but when I did I saw her at once, on one of the living room sofas, a sulky look on her face. On the cocktail table was a tray, with Scotch, ice, and fizz water on it, and off by itself, a half-full highball glass. Burl was at one of the windows beside the fireplace, looking out, and he turned around quick to face me. I hadn’t seen him in quite some time, but he hadn’t changed much. He was a tall, slim guy, as I’ve heard Don Juan was, but there was something rawboned about him, as though plenty of strength was there. He had dark eyes like Mother’s, and a fairly handsome face. It was nicely chiseled, with kind of a curl to the lip, but what caught your eye about it was its color. He had two red spots on his cheeks that gave him an arrogant, hungry look, and when his big brown eyes opened wide there was something almost animal about it, I mean a predator. Don’t get the idea he was just a jerk. Three parts of a somebody were there, and that kept making you wonder why he didn’t add up to more. Then for a flash something else would show that was just crafty, or crooked, or mean, or something—not in harmony with the eyes, the mouth, or the color. He greeted me, “Oh, hello,” very sour, and then snarled at her: “So that’s why you got me a drink—so you could go to the kitchen and put in a call for this crumb?”

  “You didn’t think I’d really give you a drink?” she snapped at him, “unless a glass of warm piss in the face.”

  “That’ll do,” I warned her. “I’m here.”

  “Okay, but I wouldn’t.”

  I asked him: “What are you doing here?”

  “Why,” he answered, “calling on Sonya, of course.”

  I asked her: “And why did you let him in?”

  “Because,” she answered, speaking very slow and distinct, “I knew when he’d spoken his piece, through the pigeonhole, that we’d come to a certain point, where things had to be said, so we could make a fresh start, and then life could go on. So I asked him in and put in my call to you. So now we commence with the saying. Go on,” she told Burl. “Explain to your brother, please, why you’re calling on me.”

  He glowered, took a seat, and picked up his glass.

  “Put that down,” she snapped.

  He did, and she carried it to the table against the wall, the one where she kept her icepick. Then, to him: “Get going. Tell him.”

  He glowered some more, but didn’t say anything. She went on, herself: “To begin with, he doesn’t believe, or says he doesn’t, that I had inny miscarriage. He says that’s an invention of yours, on account of your being a fag, unable to do it to me, and figuring a slick way that I could have his child while you pretend it’s yours. And so, he says the child had rights, like to his father’s seminal fluid”—she called it siminal fluid—“on his unborn head every day, so he’ll grow up strong and healthy, and normal in every respect, from the vitamins that it has. So he came here to do his duty, by the unborn child in me, out of the goodness of his heart—or something.”

  “If you don’t mind I’ve heard enough.”

  He got it off in an elegant way, slapped his hands on his knees, and got up. But she moved too, and took position to block him. “You don’t leave this room,” she snarled, “until I say what has to be said.”

  “For Christ sake, what else has to be said?”

  His elegance was wearing off, so he yelled it, but sat down when I motioned him. She sat down, but not on the sofa, this time. She perched on the cocktail table, to look down on him. “Burl,” she went on very softly, “did you think it funny, when we were going together, and I got so shook at how you were grieving for Dale, that I wouldn’t go with you to that hideaway you had, your father’s old suite of offices, in the Harrison Stuart Building? You want to know why that was? It was because you stink. Because to me you smell like feet, feet that haven’t been washed.”

  On that he flinched as though hit with a whip, and screamed, “What do you mean I stink? You bitch! You—”

  He had jumped up, so his face was close to hers, but I pushed him back in his seat. She went on: “That hurts, doesn’t it? First to be God’s gift to women, and then find out you make her puke.”

  For some moments, there was just the sound of his panting, while she looked down at him, cold as a lizard. Then she went on: “Now about Gramie, about him being a fag. ...”

  “Which he is all right. I ran into a guy in Japan who went to Yale with him, and the tales he told, oh brother!”

  “The lies he told, I think.”

  “If that’s what you think.”

  “Burl, your brother’s not inny fag, and never has been one. So how do I know he’s not? He does it to me in the morning, just before we get up; then again in the afternoon, and then again all night. And why he does, he’s encouraged. He’s encouraged by me, all the time. On account that he smells so nice. Burl, he smells like a man. So don’t you come inny more. Could be I’d let you in, and then throw up on you.”

  I asked her: “You done?”

  “I guess so. Throw him out.”

  I took him by the arm, gave a yank, and marched him to the front door. In the hall, he picked up a jacket I hadn’t seen, a gabardine thing that he’d dropped on the phone table. He started to put it on, but I told him: “You can do that outside.” He went out, and on the walk began stabbing his hand into the armhole of the jacket. “Maybe this will help,” I told him, and popped a cross to his jaw. He went down and I told him, “Get up!” and aimed a kick at his slats. He got up and I let him have it again. I was set for another kick when a hand touched my arm. She was there. “No, Gramie, no,” she whispered, very gently.

  And then, to him: “Git!”

  He scrambled to his feet, and she picked up the jacket and tossed it to him, making a face and saying, “Pee-yoo,” as though its smell made her sick. Then she lifted my hand to her mouth and kissed my knuckles. “You shouldn’t have,” she whispered.

  “I was telling him not to come back...

  “But I already had.”

  “...In a way he’d understand.”

  “Not that I didn’t love it. Did you hit him for me?”

  “Who do you think?”

  “Then, act like it.”

  “Encourage me, encourage me.”

  “Let’s run upstairs real quick!”

  By then he’d put on his coat and got in his car, on the left side, and wound the right-hand window down. “So brother-o’-mine,” he called in kind of a singsong, “you’re a big bad two-balled studhorse from down by the Rio Grande—but that’s not how Gwenny tells it.”

  “And who the hell
is Gwenny?”

  “Gwenn Cary. Remember?”

  Gwendolyn Cary was the one who showed houses on Sunday, but I had known her as Lynn. “...Yeah? And what about her?” I asked.

  “Nothing, except she came every night, every night to this house, hoping for a screw, and not once did she get it. But she finally got your number—the boxing stuff at Yale, all that tough talk with the clients, the act you put on with her, nothing, she says, but your way of pretending you’re a he, when you’re just a cocksucking fag!”

  I drove at him with my fist.

  He ducked and I landed on air. I grabbed and got the coat, then tried to pull him to the window, so I could swing with my other hand. But he was crouched on the seat, next to the window wind-up, and turned it without my seeing him. Suddenly the glass jammed on my arm and I was caught. He saw his chance, lurched back to the wheel, snapped his ignition on, gunned his motor and let in his clutch, all in one motion. But he had to back up, to swing clear of a car ahead, so I was jerked along the curb, and my feet went out from under me. He cut his wheel and shot ahead, but then stopped so his tires screamed. She was in front of his car, one hand on her hip, a thick look on her face. “Wind down that window!” she snapped.

  “You think I will? You think I will? Out of the way, bitch, or I’m killing you! I’m driving this car right over you, I’m—”

  I think he would have, but just then my hand jerked loose and I went staggering to pull her out of the way. She stepped aside and waved him on. He roared past her, like some maniac in a drag race. On one of the lawns, a colored woman was staring—on another, a gardener stood with his hose pointed at us; and in the Lieberman house across the street, I could see a face at the window. But she paid no attention. “Honey,” she asked, “are you hurt?”

  “Not much. Shook up, is all.”

  “He’s no one to monkey with.”

  “He’s a rat, first, last, and all the time.”

  “He is, but rats aren’t dumb.”

  She led me inside and up to our bathroom, where she snapped on the light and looked at my hand, which was scratched from the jerk I’d given it to get clear. It bled, too. She got out the Listerine bottle, uncorked it, and bathed my hand with it. “It’ll hurt,” she said. “It’ll sting a little—”

  “I can stand it—”

  “But then you won’t have any infection.”

  She sprayed bandage on and the bleeding stopped. Then she knelt to my leg, and for the first time I saw my knee, all bloody inside the torn slack. She stripped me down, swabbed more Listerine on, and sprayed me with bandage again. Then she led me into the bedroom, got out my pajamas and started taking my clothes off. “Hey, what are you doing?” I asked.

  “You’re going to bed, Gramie.”

  “What for? You think I’m sick or something?”

  “You’re staying here, I’m bringing your dinner up.”

  “I have a better idea.”

  “Yes? What is it?”

  “How about you peeling off? And coming to bed?”

  “...Who was Gwenn Cary?”

  “Well how would I know?”

  “Who was she?”

  “...Girl. Woman. Widow. Showed houses for me.”

  “And came here to get screwed?”

  “Ask me no questions I’ll tell you no lies.”

  “Well? Did she?”

  “How do I know what she came for?”

  “Did she?”

  “All right, then. She did.”

  “And you screwed her?”

  “Yes, but this was before I met you. It was before my speech at Northwestern, before I ever saw you.”

  “On that bed, on our cloud?”

  “But it wasn’t a cloud then.”

  “But on our bed?”

  “On one of these beds, I suppose.”

  I picked up the phone, dialed the store where her mother worked, and asked for “Mrs. Lang, in house furnishings.” After some time she came on, and I said: “Mrs. Lang, do you remember those twin beds you sold me, for my master bedroom?” She said she did, and was startled when I asked her to send out duplicates. She kept asking if something was wrong, but I told her: “No, nothing at all, but our woman spilled furniture polish on them, and Sonya can’t get out the smell, so...”

  So she took over at once, saying new mattresses would take care of that, and I had to argue endlessly that I wanted new beds, the works. At last she agreed,, and had me wait while she wrote up the slip. Then: “I’ll put an expedite on it,” and I was free to hang up. I called Goodwill Industries, and asked them to send for a couple of beds, both in good condition. They said they’d do it next day.

  I got out of bed and moved to the room across the hall, turned the bed down and got in. I sang out: “If that takes care of the matter, I’m here waiting for you.” She came in, unzipping her dress. Then: “Why would she say that?”

  “Why would who say what?”

  “This Gwinny, whatever her name was?”

  “Husband perhaps. He may have heard stuff. She got married—or at least, so she told me over the phone, I haven’t seen her since.”

  “You mean, if she was seen coming here, she could tell him that, and more or less get away with it, that she didn’t get screwed by you?”

  “Do you have to keep using that word?”

  “It’s the one he used. Is that what you mean?”

  “Something like that, could be.”

  “Is that where he got the idea?”

  “Burl? That occurred to me too. He had it before he came here, before he said it today. It’s what he told my mother, right after we got married.”

  “You think he believes it?”

  “I think he can’t bear the idea that you could want somebody else, and at the same time not want him. I think he’s diseased on the subject.”

  “Either way, Gramie, it pees on our cloud. If it was true, it does, and if it wasn’t, it does too. But that’s Burl all over—he’s got a strictly heads-I-win-tails-you-lose mind.”

  “Do you mind if we talk about something else?”

  “I’m talking, he peed on our cloud.”

  “Not unless you let him. I didn’t. My cloud is as clean as it was the day we first saw it, down at Ocean City, while we were swimming around. Remember?”

  “...We don’t have but one cloud.”

  “Then let’s not let him befoul it. Be-pee it.”

  At that she seemed to buckle, and yet she closed her zipper. “I have to be going down, if I’m to get you your dinner.”

  She went, and I lay there some time, in a puddle of pee of my own, that I hadn’t mentioned to her. Because from what she had said before, what she had said while he was here, and what she had said just now, it suddenly dawned on me that she knew this guy quite well, much better than I ever knew him, brother or not. That wasn’t saying too much, but it also had dawned on me that he knew her pretty well—why it griped me, I don’t know, but it did, that he knew and I didn’t, that she liked malts with egg, which was something he had shouted about. It meant nothing, and yet it sat sour on my stomach, or left the bed feeling damp, or bugged me, somehow. Then while I was thinking about it, the phone rang and then suddenly stopped, which meant she had taken it, probably in the kitchen. Then her voice floated up: “It’s for you.”

  I trotted to the master bedroom, where the upstairs extension was, and answered. “Gramie!” came a well-remembered voice. “Your kept woman is back!”

  “Well Jane!” I stammered. “Welcome! Welcome!”

  “When am I going to see you?”

  “Ah—soon, I hope.”

  “Tonight? You taking me to dinner?”

  “Well—I’m hooked for tonight, but—”

  I talked and talked, trying to say something, while at the same time saying nothing, and pretty soon she cut in: “Who was that girl who answered?”

  “Why—my wife. Jane, I got married.”

  She didn’t say anything, even when I spoke her name a few
times and asked if she was there. Then I was getting a dial tone, and realized she’d hung up. I hung up, then heard the bell go clink, which it did when another extension hung up—meaning it had been open, with Sonya listening in, while the call went on. I went back to the other bedroom, lay down, and tried to think. In a few minutes came the sound of our dinner bell, a tiny thing that tinkled, one of Sonya’s little gags. Then there she was at the door, bringing in my tray. She set it on a bench beside the bed, asked: “Would you like me to make the martini?”


  She made it, raised her glass, said: “Mud in your eye,” and took the one sip she would take, to keep me company with it. I said what fine martinis she made. Then: “That was Jane Sibert. You listened in?”

  “Well? I had to know if you took the call.”

  “Then, you know what was said.”

  “Or wasn’t said.”

  “That’s right—she kind of cut it short.”

  For some time nothing was said. Then I blurted: “Well?”

  “Well? Pop.”

  “...Pop? Is that what you said?”

  “Like the weasel. How does a weasel go pop?”

  “In olden times, a tobacco pouch was a weasel.”

  “Oh! That explains it. I’ve wondered about it.”

  “Well now you know. Where does Jane come in?”

  “She did it. Made our cloud go pop.”

  “Stop trying to be funny.”

  “I’m not. Our cloud has just gone pop, and we’re going to go bump, as soon as we hit the ground, which could be inny time, now.”

  “Personally, I don’t borrow trouble.”

  “Personally, I don’t have to.”

  Chapter 17

  BUT NOTHING HAPPENED THAT day that sounded like bump, or like anything.

  I ate my dinner and she took the tray. I lay there awhile, and apparently she ate in the kitchen. Then I heard the TV and went down in my robe. We both looked at the news, then at some show, and then went to bed, still in the guest bedroom. I took the bed I’d been in, she the other. I tried to entice her to my bed, but she didn’t seem to hear.

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