When Della was thirteen and standing at the ironing board, her father walked in and said, “Change your dress. Your father is coming.”
“You’re my father,” she said.
The man told her no.
Change your dress. Your father is coming. How long had it taken him to say that? Ten seconds? Twenty? He was commanding and spoke slowly. No one dared interrupt him. So then it took twenty seconds to give her dark hair a new meaning, to make it a wedge between her and her milky brothers and sisters. Imagine the shock of such news, the sudden question of whether anything was what it appeared to be. And more than certainty was at stake. The house in Minnesota with its many gables was the size of a hotel. Growing up, she’d played its gold cage of an elevator and in the servants’ quarters on the top floor. Her family employed no servants. Servants talk. But they could have hired a full staff if they’d wanted to. Harold M. Carlson, the man she’d presumed was her father, was a millionaire, whereas the other man, the one who waited in the foyer meekly behind a black suitcase, didn’t even own that suitcase. What he did have was a square forehead exactly like hers.
Her real father said his name and ran out of ideas. He had a list of proven icebreakers in his pocket but how could he use them? They were geared toward women who might buy his pots and pans. Instead, he fled, asking her to write to him. Write to him where, she wondered. He’d hurried off without mentioning an address. The heavy suitcase gave him a lop‑sided gait. The sight was pathetic but in spite of her innate kindness, she didn’t run after him to offer her help. The farthest she ventured was a step past the front door. Carlson’s house on its vast lawn was a virtual duchy. From her standpoint on the porch, she couldn’t see to its borders.
The house was positioned on top of a hill. A person leaving it looked like he was dissolving from the bottom up. She watched while her real father became a man who ended at the knees, the waist, the shoulders, the neck. When all she saw was a hat, she went inside and never spoke of the visit. Nor did she take out her mirror to see what of her was his. She’d been ironing her younger sister’s pinafore and she returned to the task, turning the little skirt until it traveled full circle.
Her mother was upstairs. To come down and join her daughter she would have had to locate her slippers, set them upright on their high tapered heels, steer her toes into theirs and with a hand to the wall, traipse through linked sitting rooms, a gold and white music room, switching on the first light, the second light, the third light, ad nauseam. “May I please be excused?” she once said, joking and raising an arm. The day before, her thirty-first birthday celebration had been held at her bedside. Half of her presents were still in their wrappings. She too, after a great deal of effort, looked like a fabulous gift. Her room had a big balcony. A dense swag of ivy curtained it and unrestrained vines hung like a woman’s long hair. Tall bushes surrounded the house and if ever a place seemed to hold carnal secrets, to contain them yet want to shout out the news, it did. In fact there was nightly incest but not the sort that maims; this one titillated an older man and his much younger wife.
Carlson gave an annual garden party. The year Della was thirteen she addressed all the envelopes and the party was his to such an extent that he chose the ink she used and the width of her pen point. The guests arrived in the late afternoon. A few were embarrassed by their red-hot skin. They hadn’t been smart enough to stay in the shade and the result was apparent. So what some might say. Sunburns fade. Why make a big thing out of it? Why indeed, unless a man is standing under invisible banners which read Prudence, Foresight, Expediency and Industry. Della’s stepfather headed Minnesota’s largest insurer. The guests were his associates and all had little magnifiers housed in some pocket. Panoramic photographs, brittle now, their gloss missing in places, record these soirees and show a lawn full of men who, dressed as though they’re at the office, gravely face the camera. These pictures, one dated is 1953, another is from 1955, would look no more surreal if desks were placed on the grass and the men sat at them speaking into telephones. The newest agents are easy to spot. They’re younger and fresher and the cynicism they exhibit is only minutes old. They’ve just learned by observing Carlson with his wife that the mighty exempt themselves from the rules.
To put it simply, Della’s mother was a drunk and still the stepfather found her delicious. He saw her Hollywood curls and forgot his strictness and his policies concerning risk and cost. Enthralled by the way the slant of her cheek led his eye to her mouth, he refused to look deeper. She’d grown up poor and filching lipsticks until the day she’d realized that for a kiss and more, she could get much more. A wicked, dazzling girl like her, if she agrees to monogamy, is the perfect wife for the man who has everything. And if she herself is less than satisfied? If she feels an inner edginess, a surface as rough and splintered as the rooms she grew up in that nothing can fix? That’s her tough luck.
Della stood next to her mother at these parties, next to her but a step back, the mother’s shadow muting her. As befit their status, the stepfather insisted on a receiving line. “My wife. And my daughter Adele,” he announced to each guest.
Della’s half-brothers and sisters were inside in the playroom. They’d asked to come. The request was denied. They still acted like a litter of tussling puppies, tumbling over each other to snatch what they saw.
The march of gray suits moved slowly. There was only Carlson, his wife and his daughter to greet but the men who inched toward them were by nature and training alert to the hazards of speed.
“Charles Boyle, my wife. And my daughter Adele.”
Boyle, as he bowed, was a rusty machine.
“Alfred Hofmann, my wife. And my daughter Adele.”
The mother ignored the outstretched hands. She was Carlson’s alone. If this seemed rude neither she nor he cared.
“Herman Stanley, my wife. And my daughter Adele.”
Carlson’s attitude toward Della had cooled after he’d met her real father. She’d become a distasteful reminder of the riffraff his wife had caroused with, was nothing, he thought, but a walking, talking tagalong reminder of those inferior men.
The mother failed to catch Carlson’s dampened tone. She wasn’t listening and even if she’d heard, she’d have let it go. It takes strength to confront a husband. Hers was waning and during the party her new shoes added to her woes. They were backless and wobbly on high needle heels. Why not hurricane winds to topple her completely? And the static, the knot of sentences coming at her? She was like a radio whose tuner was breaking. It was all too unbearable. She said so aloud a few times. Unintentionally, she’d meant to just think it, but good, let everyone hear.
And how was Della while her stepfather withdrew? He’d lowered his thermostat a single notch. Yet even a five-degree difference can precipitate an ice age.
The party ended promptly at nine. The guests reached for their car keys and stumbled downhill, their thank yous merging with escalating cricket calls. Della’s mother was already upstairs. She’d struggled enough against gravity. Why continue the fight when her tub had a pink plastic pillow. An hour earlier she’d said, “Norine’s quitting this dull job. Here’s her resignation,” and stuck out her tongue. Only Carlson and Della had noticed. Della was used to such behavior and the stepfather was counting the hours until that tongue touched him.
Carlson’s bedroom was a thirty-foot square. Readymade furniture would have looked elfin inside it. As a bachelor, he’d commissioned a gargantuan bed carved out of rare African mahogany. Embellished with intricate molding, it had attached nightstands, tall attached dressers and a headboard the height of the ceiling. Something as complicated as that, he’d also insisted on tongue and groove joinery, claw and ball feet, carved medallions incorporating the state bird, required expert craftsmanship and was outrageously expensive. No matter. He’d been gratified by the result. No one who saw it could miss that this was the master’s bedroom, the master as a bedroom.
On the night of the party, limp from her bath and from everything else, the mother tottered toward the big bed. Shipwrecked victims have gratefully sighted islands which were smaller. As she climbed onto it, she felt in touch with her husband even though he was downstairs reviewing disaster reports. That she was also a disaster struck her as funny, funny as in “It’s so funny, I forgot to laugh.”
She wanted him beside her. Instead, as he did every night, Carlson sat at his desk. He had to as president of Minnesota’s largest insurer. A state’s population looked to him for security. He was God’s agent, His apologist, His bestower of consolations. A grandfather clock announced the hour and Carlson stopped what he was doing to listen. The clock was his model. He strove to be as steady and accurate. If need be, if the work demanded it, he’d stay in his chair until dawn. A second reason also kept him glued to his seat. While he worked, his longing for his wife intensified until by the time he put down his pen and flew to his bedroom, he felt like a panting high school boy.
In August, even at that late hour, the air was warm. At no point would the mother need to cover herself. She could stay as she was, with her gold hint of a nightgown spread wide around her. Her toenails were painted mother-of-pearl. Her skin shone from opalescent lotion. As the night progressed she felt sicker and sicker, yet she made sure her effect remained flawless.
The shade of powder she used, put out by Irwin McCoy, was called Easter Lily. Despite the name it wasn’t pure white, wasn’t clown make-up. It did have a tint but the tint had less weight than a fleeting aroma. By thirty-one, all the champagne she’d drunk had turned her its color but masked by her powder she looked gloriously, extraordinarily fair.
Carlson didn’t knock when he reached the door. Why would he? It was in his name as was everything else. He barged in and the sight he saw stilled him. Visitors to the Grand Canyon experience less awe.
“Darling,” he said.
This came out as a little cry, as a little peeping dove escaping his mouth. He never called her Norine. The name was too commonplace. He said, “Darling. Beloved.” As always, he sank to his knees at her bedside and she stroked his face. That summer her body temperature was a steady one hundred degrees. He liked her new heat, found her touch urgent. He found all of her urgent. He could have champed her to bits. She would have allowed it, wanting extinction and to be worshipped, prayed to at every bite.
They’d been together for eleven years. In the months before they met everything that had happened to him had seemed askew. He’d wondered if this was because of the war or the unusually harsh winter. And he was nearing fifty. Such things can prick a man’s mind and undo his sense of well-being.
At his doctor’s suggestion he motored south to longer, warmer days. Beforehand, his subordinates honored him with a farewell dinner. During his brief speech he offered no explanations of his forthcoming leave. It was nobody’s business that he woke ten times a night trembling because the things he meted out payment for, the floods and the fires, the robberies and freak dismemberments, suddenly seemed to be hurtling toward him.
He drove slowly to prevent an accident and each night had a mechanic service his car. He bisected nine states but no landscape cheered him and when he entered Miami he saw he’d been ill-advised. The oversized flowers and light-spangled ocean were too flamboyantly easy. And not since childhood had he spent a day lying down. He told the desk clerk to cancel his room. He wouldn’t be needing it. He was returning north. Serious matters awaited him.
At that moment his heart lost its rhythm. He was a big man, a strong man and still he had to sit down. He checked his sputtering pulse and surrendered to the fact he was in no shape to drive.
Upstairs, he opened the curtains and gazed down at the beach. Couples lay on lounge chairs. Women in full make-up, their hair professionally coiffured, had oiled themselves until their skin glistened in the shimmering sunlight. With a kittenish smile, they reached out to the men who scooted closer.
As Carlson watched, he was struck by his own isolation. He’d had momentary trysts but he’d wanted them over with so he could get back to work. His preferred form of contact had been the firm business handshake. From the age of twenty-one on, he’d restricted his passion to columns of numbers and the act of manipulating them to produce a steadily rising profit.
But now, away from his desk, he saw that for all the parts of himself he used, he might as well have been a returning veteran who’d been horribly maimed. But there was honor in a soldier’s injuries. A soldier sacrificed himself for his country and if it cost him his manhood he got on with his life as best as he could while Carlson had lived like a eunuch for no good reason.
Half a city away two-and-a-half-year-old Della used a lipstick to draw a big U of a smile that ran down one cheek and up the other. No one stopped her and washed her face. She was alone in the efficiency. Her mother was outside on the lawn sharing a deck chair with the man who owned the building. The mother’s joke, her game, as she lay face up on top of him, was that he was her cushion. He had a big beach ball of a stomach. Her back arched around it. Her neck bore the pain. While her body outlined his, there was no way in hell he could miss how lithe she was and firm. Men prize these qualities after they themselves lose them. And she? Why did she want a slovenly guy who was more than twice her age? Fathers provide. And if this particular character already had a family? When in her life had anything been perfect?
Carlson showered, dressed and went down to the bar. The maître d’hôtel guessed he was the minister of a rich northern church. The three unattached women he passed thought he was very much married, the sort whose every sentence includes the words, my wife. He wore a summer weight suit and even cut full the way it was and completely lined the way it was, the women, to put it crudely, saw he had the goods. These women sat at a little round table drinking rum through short straws. The ruse was that the drinks were all they desired. When they spotted Carlson, they sucked harder. Accustomed to being the prize, he took this as normal.
The doors to the terrace were open. Warm ocean air carried the scent of gardenias, ripe mangoes and other succulent fragrances into the room. Carlson emptied his lungs and inhaled this lush heat wanting it to teach him how to enjoy such so-called pleasures. When he’d entered Miami, he’d rolled up his windows and kept his eyes on the road, grumbling, missing his old somber landscapes but that Carlson was dead. Gray-faced and calcified, he’d driven those sixteen hundred miles dead, had been born dead. Long live the new Carlson. Miami would revive him. The tropics were primarily desire made obvious. He’d expose himself to their every sight and smell. And the sight which included him—women gazing longingly at a man who, to prod his juices, focused on the darkening sky, the distant purpling water, its rush of gold foam? Insensitive to ironies, the scene didn’t bring a sorrowful smile to his lips.
For those who couldn’t get enough of the landscape, the bar had an indoor palm grove made of plaster and fabric and to reinforce this fantasy of tropical wildness, at ten and at midnight, dancers in leopard skins leapt between these treetops to Latin rhythms.
The dancers were home napping. It was still early. The moon was low in the sky and a cottony white. A night has to build. The perfect moment for union was hours away but Carlson had wasted too much time already. Yet what steps did a man take to get a strange woman to yield? Without a list of these steps, Carlson was stymied. He was a man of action. Someone as successful as he was persists in moving forward. But in the way that a bulldozer is animated by pushing levers, in Carlson’s case, he pressed a bell. Underlings heard it and ran to his office. Or he ordered his secretary to get some chap on the phone.
The women sat twenty feet away. Dogs know instinctively how to enlarge their social circle. Naked from the start, they run to sniff each other but Carlson had no idea what he’d do once he reached their table. In Minnesota, everyone rose to greet him. He’d spent nights with women and not said a word. And now? Luck was with him, which isn’t to say Luck brought him infinite bliss. It simply did what it could with what it had to work with.
A door opened. Musicians entered. They sat and without the usual adjustments to their stands, the passing of scores, the private banter, they started to play. By the time Carlson reached the women a dance had begun, and in this land of rumbas and congas, amid indoor palm trees, the dance was a waltz. Luck couldn’t have been craftier. Carlson knew how to waltz and hearing one, it becomes a duty for a fellow to approach an unescorted woman and offer her his arm.
As the women watched him walk toward them, they expected him to ask a question that concerned his wife. Men commonly ask strange women’s help in picking presents for example. In their minds this wife was upstairs spraying herself with Eau du Luck while behind her the sheets were damp and undone.
The waltz was as sumptuous as the hotel’s plantings, as frothy as their famous peach-colored drinks. For the women to have to sit the dance out, to have its rhythms enter them and not be able to react? Men do the chasing. Women must wait like rooted flowers. At present there wasn’t an eligible prospect around. They scrutinized Carlson out of habit and nothing more. Any minute his wife would come claim him.
The other tables were empty. There was still some light in the sky and the rest of the hotel’s guests buoyed by the ocean, did the crawl in slow motion or if they didn’t swim, they played cards near the pool. Inside, the musicians appraised their small audience and heightened the waltz. Their job was to get the customers up and dancing and not dancing stiffly counting one, two, three, one, two, three. With a waltz, the idea is to step into the music and let it carry you like you would a heavenly stream. The musicians played shamelessly in their effort to melt Carlson. Passersby who heard them would have either swooned or guffawed. Carlson did neither. He was nearing the women and he knew he had to decide. At work faced with a choice, he called in his actuaries and ordered them to project a future as certain as the past. Here without them, he had nothing to go on. His heart beat a retreat and still he marched closer.
The three women had blond shoulder-length hair, round cheeks and thin penciled-in eyebrows. The lipstick they wore was called July 4th Red. The point is, they were nearly identical and the small differences, the shape of their nostrils, for instance, didn’t register with him. A less prosaic man would have found the situation eerie or else no test at all and would have simply gone, eenie, meenie, miney, moe. But Carlson couldn’t. He spent his days paying out for people’s careless choices.
The musicians left their chairs and became a strolling group. In Europe they’d been first violinists. Here, they were cabaret clowns. Carlson had his back to them. He saw three women and a table. He had no more feelings for the women than he did for the table.
The women kept their eyes lowered and focused on their straws. The straws were jewel red, their pursed lips were flag red. The first kiss is executed with pursed lips and then the mouth opens. And Carlson’s chance of dancing with one of these women? It didn’t take an analyst to know the deed was as good as done. He’d come too close to skirt the table without seeming odd.
A hotel purveyor had paired short straws with tall glasses and the stubbiest woman, the least hopeful of the three, chucked her straw to down her rum like a sailor. It was one of many things, she boasted, that she did like a gob. “Girls, a second round?” she asked. But the waiter wasn’t looking. She’d have to get his attention and watch herself do this through Carlson’s eyes.
The waltz slowed and then expanded. It was an absolute moment of hope.
“This place appears to be our little secret,” Carlson said, tableside. “Good, yet that creates a problem. Three women, one man and a waltz? How should we do this?”
“You don’t know?” the salty woman said. “Have the waiter bring us a magician. We’ll leave it to him whether he uses a wand or a saw.”
This was the cue for Carlson to relax. He couldn’t. “Lovely evening, isn’t it?” he said with the solemnity of a funeral director.
“And the music,” another of the women answered. “Aren’t we blessed?” She had large pale eyes and a wistful expression.
Carlson tugged at her chair, in a fit of nerves yanked it. “May I have this dance?”
“Yes,” she said and jumped up with more eagerness than she meant to show.
“The wife,” she thought once she was in his arms. Where was the wife? What did this dance have to do with the wife? He held her, not the wife, spoke to her not the wife. As the dance wore on it became easier to believe there was no wife. Geography had given her a shot of hope. At present she resided in a city where the ocean, after a small show of leaving, rushed back to the shore. In Miami love triumphed. Cruelty was a winter sport.
The music turned merry. Carlson accordingly increased his speed.
“This is grand,” the woman said. “Heavenly. I do believe we’re in heaven.” She looked past him and saw her friends silently observe her from a lower rung. She did not want to go back there. In order not to, she gripped Carlson tighter. “You’re a masterful dancer,” she said.
The dance floor wasn’t the usual open area. Everywhere there were those vivid plaster palms. Carlson had to work to steer around them. “I imagine it’s roomier. And less garish.”
“Heaven.” Was it too late to bring up the subject of names, to mention that he didn’t know her name? “And I hope more private.”
“We don’t have to stay,” she said. “Come, I know a quiet spot of shore.” Her body stiffened.
Carlson noticed how tense they both were. How could they not be, with everyone watching?
“Was that too forward of me?” she asked. “Please don’t think I take charge.”
He ran his hand along her back. Her flesh was a thin covering, her ribs were a narrow dome. “I don’t think anything. I have no thoughts. All right, one thought, that I don’t want to leave yet. No, two thoughts, that we drink champagne while we waltz.”
They let go of each other and held the glasses near their chests. Unable to actually dance, they swayed. Such a game can seem romantic.
The drink didn’t do enough for Carlson. He’d wanted it to transform him into the slickest of lovers. It failed at that although it did do something. The woman heard a relaxing of some syllables when he ordered a full bottle.
“Hang it from a tree,” he told the waiter. “I want it close at hand.” The waiter looked perplexed. “Go find a rope.” Carlson reached into his pocket and passed the man a crisp twenty.
“You’re quite the card,” the woman said.
Eager to share this—the waiter did find a rope and if they weren’t yet in heaven, wasn’t this the perfect pretend tropic isle—the woman turned to shrug at her friends and mouth, “Isn’t he something?” The table was empty. Orphaned, she panicked and then she spied them. They were at the bar, calling to the bartender to come keep them company.
The woman had guessed correctly. Carlson was trying to change the bar into the kind of island where the nearly naked inhabitants are hedonists. As for hanging an opened bottle from a tree, he knew from his company’s statistics the effect alcohol has on a man’s inhibitions. He guzzled the champagne and thought it was working. He felt a numbness, a loss of balance. He pulled the woman behind a tree. She, too, was tottering. He gave her an opened-mouthed kiss. Bone hit bone, lip flattened lip but the collision brought no pleasure. In the way that the plaster palms weren’t actual palms, the kiss had been a poor facsimile, as was he as a lover. This failure made him want to level the room.
He fled upstairs and paced his suite to work off his anguish. Isolation had been more tolerable then the charade he’d just experienced. He was devoid of romantic passion and all that could be done about it was to suffer in private.
He should have gone to the window and looked inland at a rundown garden apartment. A light was on. He’d have seen Norine Delano.
Her child was asleep on the couch. She herself was too hot to sleep, too perturbed to. She lit the last of her cigarettes. At least the Joe had gone downstairs. An hour before he’d barged in on her claiming he had the right to enter. He was the landlord wasn’t he, with the obligation to check on his property.
She finished her cigarette and picked through the ashtray for a usable stub. She had to do something to change the taste in her mouth. She’d tried to spit out the taste of him. It had become the everyday flavor.
She also should have gone to the window. The antidote to what was killing her stood in just the suite she coveted. The slippery part was that he was preparing to leave.
He checked out of the hotel in a worse state than when he’d arrived. Desperate to regain the clarity found in remote glacier lakes, he headed to a haberdashery store and bought a small if exceedingly expensive leather traveling bar. He placed it on the dashboard, opened it, took a medicinal sip, took a second sip because the first had done nothing. He drove another block, neared a bus stop and spied her.
She was not at her best. She was angry and forcing down fear, trying to stomp it out as she would a fire. He misread her actions and saw a long-legged show girl perfecting her strut. The sight nearly closed down his autonomic nervous system. Had he been a comedian he’d have honked madly and sent big bursts of smoke out through his exhaust pipe. As Harold M. Carlson, he slowly pulled up to the curb and presented himself as a sober executive.
“I’d like to help.” His manner implied he could flick away problems as easily as others flick bits of tobacco from their lapel. “The sun’s too strong for a young child. Let me take you where you’re going.”
Della’s nose and shoulders were a flaming pink yet her mother would have joined him even if he’d mumbled nonsense. His sedan was the equal of a Brink’s truck.
The landlord had come upstairs a half hour earlier. He’d brought presents, cheap Scotch and a pair of gold mules, snatched from a bargain basement table. The mules were attached to each other by a three-inch cord. “Wear them like that,” he’d said. “Parade by me. I want to see what I bought.”
“Don’t be stupid,” she’d told him. Outside the sky clouded over. She’d felt the air’s increasing weight. “I want Venetians,” she’d said, hating the place. “And rose-colored walls with ivory trim.”
“Walk in the mules.”
She was curious to see how they looked on her feet. She took her scissors from the drawer. He yanked them out of her hand.
“I told you, wear them like that. I want mincing steps, a Shanghai sweetie. Put them on and shuffle toward me.”
“I don’t play stupid games.”
He’d grabbed her wrist. “You want Venetians and rosy posy walls with real ivory trim?” He knew the kind of rat holes she came from. Whereas this place—dragging her, he’d begun to walk like a model and point at the carpet. He could get three times the money from someone prettier and more agreeable. Angry at himself, he’d run to the closet and pulled her clothes off their hangers. A wall of rain hit the window. “You want a roof over your head? You want your kid to stay dry? You should have done what I said. I’m quadrupling the rent. Don’t have it? Out you go. Unless?” He’d looked her over. “You can stay if you do me four times a day.”
The mother had grabbed her child and raced out of the efficiency. The storm ended. Harsh sunlight burned away its remains. In her uncertainty she made several U-turns before she decided to leave Miami. What had it brought her besides scum like her landlord? Better to jump on a bus and freshen her luck even if she only had enough money to go a few miles. The bus was late. Carlson pulled over.
She and he downed all of his liquor. It was dangerous to drink that much and drive but he was helpless to stop himself. His passion was growing at the speed of an advanced cancer and he’d have put his mouth to anything even if it savaged his skin.
“Where shall I take you?” he asked.
He was out of surprises. Sighting her had been the surprise of his life. That she’d entered his car had been the second great wonder. At a loss where to go, he drove to the ocean.
The three walked toward the sand. “So,” he said, the way he did during interviews.
The beach was wider than it had looked from his terrace and more giving in the sense that it yielded its shape. It didn’t occur to him to take off his shoes and socks or to loosen his tie and slip off his jacket. He had a momentary impulse to hoist Della onto his shoulders as he’d seen fathers do and march with her toward the water. But how to go about it? It was more than he could muster. Simply walking beside the mother was a hard enough test.
She was barefoot and swinging her shoes by their ankle straps. As she crossed the shifting sand, her strut became rubbery and she fell against him laughing. She had a new hankie from Woolworth’s. She opened it and spread it on the ground. “Our blanket,” she said. “Is it cozy enough for you?” She pulled her dress over her head and sat in her bra and panties calling them her bathing suit. “Let them look,” she said, meaning the neighboring sunbathers, most of whom lay dozing with wide open mouths.
He hadn’t taken her to his hotel. He’d been too love struck to remember the route and now he was glad. It was best to stay away from that land of managers, waiters, towel boys and guests. Here, he wouldn’t be watched and whispered about because she acted scandalously and he was Harold M. Carlson.
She gazed at the ocean. “It does nothing for me, but you do,” she said.
He? In what way was he pleasing? “You’ll say anything, won’t you?”
“There’s saying and doing.” She lay back and closed her eyes.
He felt deserted, superfluous and at the same time, already half of a pair. “Darling?”
Her only visible movements were the result of breathing. Her chest expanded. Her nostrils drew together. Every creature on earth breathes and still he watched mesmerized.
“Darling,” he said a second time.
If he was drunk from all of the liquor he’d downed, he didn’t feel it. He’d remained his stern self in a situation which called for someone to jauntily shake her awake. But he was not that man and he poked her shoulder.
She didn’t react.
Children test their parents. Dogs test their masters. Over a thousand people were in his employ. “I prefer a woman who’s alive,” he snapped.
“What?” Her eyes opened.
“Don’t exclude me. Surely we’re not yet bored with each other.”
She studied him as intensely as he’d studied her. “Let’s start over. I want to. I want you to be as happy as a clam.” She smiled. Dimples bracketed her mouth. “Well hello sir, how are you this lovely afternoon? Feeling good, I hope, as good as I? Today’s my lucky day. As lucky as all get-out, so very lucky I just might circle it in red.” She opened her mouth and pressed it against his hand. “Give it that sort of circle. Why are you sitting so far away? Lie next to me. I’m lonely for you.”
He bedded down in the sand, stiffly. He wore a hand-stitched suit, silk socks and custom-made shoes.
“Let me help,” she said. She undid his tie and his shirt buttons. His chest was square and pale and had a spattering of straight white hairs. “I like a man who’s broad. People kowtow to a broad-chested man.” Her fingers circled his heart.
He turned toward her. He wanted to see her, not the touted Florida ocean, he wanted to enter her, not it. As he turned he noticed Della who sat at his heel, digging with a shell.
“The child,” he said, chastened. He closed his shirt.
“If you say so,” the mother said. She nestled closer. Her skin was another marvel. No cream could make a woman that soft.
She rested her head on his shoulder. Her curls were the color of burnished gold. It took courage to touch them and pull a lock against his cheek. Her scent was also pleasurable as were the sun’s rays, the moist air and the sound of the waves. “This is marvelous,” he said.
She kissed his ear. It was a small kiss which a passerby might see it as a whisper. And then she did whisper. “Be my Rock of Gibraltar.”
She began to hum. Her voice was deep and her tune was nearly palpable. She seemed to be dragging it across him. “Happy?” she asked. “We want our Mr. Harold M. Carlson to be the happiest man on earth.”
For an instant he was and then he felt a sharp pain in his chest accompanied by nausea. How unfair to feel pain at such an exalted moment? It was cruel and embarrassing. He begged the pain to go away. Instead it grew stronger. Maybe if he sat in his car, if he rested there and put his head between his knees? He struggled to his feet and brushed himself clean as best as he could. There was sand in his socks and in his pants and in his shoes. He told her to sit tight. He’d just be a minute.
He walked quickly but in that place without streets, where one group of sunbathers looked like the next, he lost his bearings. He was a man of methods. He was never without a small pad and a gold telescoping pencil and he used them now to calculate how far they’d hiked after leaving the car but the equation was unworkable. From the moment he’d parked, he’d been oblivious of everything except for her and her child.
The pain spread down his arms. In a choked voice, he asked a lifeguard for directions to the parking lot. The lanky Swede leaned back in his tower of a chair and pointed at a far-off speck, calling it a staircase.
And if he couldn’t make it, Carlson thought, if partway there his body gave out and he caused a stir?
A shack said, MEN. He made a run for it and using every ounce of his will, he managed to enter a stall. By then he was out of breath and unable to refill his lungs. He slumped against the partition, pressed his fingers to his wrist and counted the beats. His pulse was irregular and no one knew better than he what that combined with breathlessness meant.
But he was wrong in his case. He wasn’t having a heart attack. The heaving pressure he felt was a carnal version of an earthquake. Carlson was that stony. He’d buried his passion that deeply and it was bursting free.
He’d told her to stay and enjoy the breeze. He’d be back in a minute. But he wasn’t back. She threw on her dress and repeating his lie, she told Della to wait there.
“No,” Della said and threw a shell.
“I have to go, do you hear?” She felt stung by his absence. For once in her life she’d met a man who’d seemed poised to envelop her in good fortune then he’d disappeared.
Della squeezed her hands into fists and let out a sob.
“Stop it,” her mother said. She had to catch up with him. But rather than making a mad dash, she sauntered knowing that was how a smart woman chased her last hope. She was barely twenty, a golden package yet she knew there’d be no one acceptable after Carlson.
Where was he? Not in sight. Those who were in sight were locals who chatted or dozed as though nothing had happened. But a man had vanished. She should have used her mouth like a plunger and clung to him as tightly.
A lifeguard called to her. He was a guy she’d once killed a night with.
“Hey, that old man you were with? He made a dash for the crapper.”
“Let me in,” she said and banged the door of the stall.
“I’m not well. Please, dear, wait outside.” He thought he sounded like her grandfather and why not, he was almost fifty.
She’d been a tomboy who’d lived to scramble up trees or to crawl under cabins. “I’ll take the high or the low road. You can’t keep me out.”
He undid the latch and with shaking hands pulled her to him. He and she flanked the toilet and still they stayed, neither of them joking about the location or thinking it might be an omen. They pressed against each other and Carlson engaged in his first real kiss, one that loosened every cell in his body.
He was woozy with joy. She steadied him.
“I’m your tropical fever,” she said. “Your disease and your cure.”
His stance was stable now, his hold on her firm. “Let’s go somewhere. I want you.”
Together they found his car. “We’ll stop at the first place we see,” he said as he started the engine. He was that sort of man now and he would continue to be him once they were inside the room. He’d parked close to the beach. The lot was large and almost empty. To hurry things, he pressed down on the gas. “Right or left?” he asked, when they reached the street. “Right, I think. We’ll go south and see what we find.”
They were almost at the corner before they realized they’d left Della behind. Such negligence was a first for her, she said. Forget her own child? She’d gone dotty in his presence. “I was wrong,” she cooed while he turned around. “You are the fever.”
He ran along the beach imagining a death by drowning but Della hadn’t toddled into the water. She’d stayed put, stopped crying and was even managing in a sorrowful, worn-out way to amuse herself. A line of little shells stood upright in the sand. He swooped her into his arms as the mother caught up.
“She’s hungry,” the mother said. “I know that look.”
A child must eat. “Where to?” he asked.
“Anywhere. What difference? A sidewalk stand.”
Once the three of them were safely inside his car, he cruised down the road. To his right he noticed a motor court and restaurant called Little Miss Muffet’s. They’d go there for supper. At the least they could do that for the girl.
Della remembered this meal for the rest of her life. A waitress marched over to her wearing polka dot stockings, a striped dress and a plaid bustle. She held a special child’s chair and next she brought Della a platter where the mashed potatoes had been molded into a hill and the peas and carrots formed a path to a house on top of this hill, a house made from grilled cheese sandwiches. Any child would have been pleased but she was ecstatic. For once, she was ensconced in the seat of honor. It entered her mind that she was Little Miss Muffet, long lost and now joyously found. Why else make such a fuss over her? The storybook woman had stayed at the table and was cooing while Della ate one pea at a time.
Carlson did not eat food that someone took from a can or slid onto a bun. But all right, he was there for a reason. And didn’t small children go to bed early and sleep through night?
The mother pressed her foot down on his to keep his from straying. He deemed this thrilling but unnecessary. What he wanted was to leap closer.
“Use your spoon,” she told Della.
Was that how children ate? He’d thought they gobbled things and smeared them across their cheeks?
They had the booth by the window. The hostess had nervously hurried him and his little party to her best seats. The window faced the cabins and if anything was Mother Goose-like, they were. Surely Winken and Blinken and Nod’s dwellings (the names were painted over the doors) were too small for adults. But so be it. It would take too long to climb back in the car and find a hotel. He and the mother would squeeze into one of these silly huts and call it cozy that the bed touched all four walls.
Della plucked a heart-shaped carrot from the mashed potato hill and traced its edge.
He couldn’t wait. He wanted the mother now. He had to sit on his hands to keep them away from her. That painful inner shift he’d suffered at the beach? He’d withstood it and it had done the job.
“She wants a toy,” she said.
“Anything,” he answered.
There were toys for sale near the cash register and while most women would not send a two-year-old off alone, she didn’t believe in the maternal habit of hovering and alerting the child to danger. Where wasn’t there danger? It was best to treat it like someone you’d fought with, lost to and now ignored.
Della wasn’t a child who clung. She slid off her seat and ran toward a stuffed clown that was taller than she was. Even the candy was miraculously large. The waitress trailed her.
“She’s having a ball,” the waitress reported.
“Excellent,” Carlson said. He and his darling had the booth to themselves. “You’re very beautiful,” he whispered.
She lit her cigarette as though she sat by herself and was lonely in a way which said no to company.
“Not one thing.” She aimed a smoke ring at the ceiling and watched while it waffled and disappeared. “What could be wrong in a romantic place like this? You find it romantic don’t you? It’s what you pictured when you said, let’s go somewhere.” She ground out her cigarette. “I see how it suits you. How comfortable you look.”
“I’m fine. My eyes are on you.”
“You hate it here. I see it on your face. You don’t like eating with children.” She took her foot off his. “My apologies for the way it turned out. I was wrong to try to keep you near. So what if I’ll miss you?”
He reached for her hand and held it as tightly as he could without being brutal. “You can’t imagine how much I want you right now. We’ll use one of those cabins.” He motioned for the check.
“Oh.” She watched the ashtray, not him. “So we’ll have tonight. You’re giving me that. And tomorrow night? Will you be gone?”
“Waitress.” He stood and snapped his fingers. “Miss.”
“I hear you,” the woman said. “When I can. All right?”
She walked Della to them at the child’s slow pace. “Here’s your big girl,” she said, arriving at last. She took out her pad. “Now you three had eggs. The eggs and the bacon, the biscuit.”
“We did not,” Carlson snapped. “What we had is right in front of you.”
She found their page.
“Hurry, will you? This is taking too long.”
“Certainly, sir.” She added, erased and brushed away the bits of rubber.
“Let me,” Carlson said.
“No can do,” she answered. “Restaurant rules.”
“I can’t. Not for anyone, sir.”
Della, who was back in her special child’s seat, panicked when she heard she couldn’t finish her meal. “I have to,” she screamed. “I have to. I have to.” They tried to lift her up out of the chair. She stiffened and shrieked.
“Let the child eat,” Carlson said.
At last her plate was clean. They carried her to the register and bought her a bracelet, a baby doll and a little red patent leather purse. The purse, Carlson soon realized, was another mistake. On their way to the cabins, a sniffling, hiccupping Della insisted on finding pebbles to fill it.
He’d paid for two cabins. No sitter was available. “She’ll be fine by herself,” the mother said.
If asked, his photographic mind would have easily found the numbers to refute this. But he didn’t ask. He affixed his gaze to the mother and everything in the periphery, the trees, the cabins, the squatting toddler, receded into the night. The mother was fussing with her hair, pulling it back from her face, pulling it up off her neck to let him see more of her before she left to tuck in her daughter.
Next door, Carlson lay half naked on the sloping bed. What was taking so long? He went to the window and saw her lolling in a deck chair.
“What are you doing?” he cried.
She didn’t stir yet she had to have heard. All of Florida had heard. The door opened.
“You’re quite the tease,” he said.
“Is that how you see it?” Her dress buttoned down the front. At the beach, she’d pulled it over her head. Here, she stepped closer and offered him the opportunity to undo these buttons and possess what was underneath. “For you, because you want it,” she said. “Because you always get what you want. See it and it’s yours, isn’t that how it goes? Imagine that, a man who hasn’t had a bad day in his life. Well, I’ve had plenty and you frighten me.”
“I won’t hurt you. Don’t doubt me.”
They went at each other as though they were misers scrambling for the last scrap of gold.
He could not spend the night in that cabin. Sated for an instant, his tunnel vision temporarily widened, he noticed the filthy carpet, the water-stained ceiling, the mattress’s foul smell. What if someone discovered him there? A nearby building might burn and a reporter who wanted the scoop might race to the scene and recognize him.
“I’m taking you north.” It was suddenly that simple, that clear in his mind. “Are you game? I propose we leave now.” He’d explain who he was during the drive home, detail his work and its importance, his importance because of it, the demands he had to meet. After she’d digested his news, he’d list the duties and behaviors he expected from a wife. The word wife sent a prickly buzz speeding through his veins, but there it was, just as there she was, with her hand on his thigh. “I’m talking about when you’re in public,” he’d say. In private he wanted her exactly as she was now but in better clothes, nothing matronly of course, he’d buy her dozens of couturier hourglass frocks.
Once again they sat Della in the backseat. Carlson started the engine and as she’d done in the past, she waited quietly, fearfully, hoping in her imprecise toddler’s way that this newest man would take her and her mother out of their sullen, willy-nilly world and deposit them in a happy place.