The Accomplished Guest
THE INDIAN UPRISING
“There’s no copyright on titles,” he said. “It wouldn’t be a good idea, probably, to call something Death of a Salesman, but you could do it.”
“I wanted to see the play, but it was sold out. Tickets were going for fifteen hundred dollars at the end of the run. I did get to New York and go to the Met, though, and paid my two dollars to get in.”
“Two dollars is nicer than one dollar,” he said.
“Ah! So you do care what people think!”
“Don’t talk like you’re using exclamation points,” he said. “It doesn’t suit people who are intelligent. You’ve been fighting your intelligence for a long time, but exclaiming is the coward’s way of undercutting yourself.”
“I wonder why I’ve created so many adversaries,” he said, then did a good Garth Brooks imitation. “?‘I got friends in . . . low places . . . ’?”
“George Dickel interests you more than any person, every time. We used to come see you and we had a burning desire
to talk to you, to pick your brain, find out what to read, make you smile, but by the end of every evening, it’s clear who’s your best friend.”
“But pity me: I have to pay for that best friend. We don’t have an unlimited calling plan.”
“How can you still have so much ego involved that you hate it that my father’s company pays for my cell phone and doesn’t—what? Send someone to come rake your leaves for free?”
“The super does that. He doesn’t have a rake, though. He refuses to think the maple’s gotten as big as it has. Every year, he’s out there with the broom and one black garbage bag.”
“Made for a good poem,” I said.
“Thank you,” he said seriously. “I was wondering if you’d seen it.”
“We all subscribe to everything. Unless we’re as broke as I’d be without my daddy, as you so often point out.”
“If the maple starts to go, the super will be thrilled, and as a good citizen, I promise to chop and burn the wood in the WBF, not let it be made into paper. Paper is so sad. Every sheet, a thin little tombstone.”
“Rudolph is energetic again, since the vet’s found a substitute for the pills that made him sleep all the time. I envied him, but that’s what the old envy: sleep.”
“Is this the point where I try to convince you seventy isn’t old?”
“I’ve got a better idea. I’m about to turn seventy-one, so why don’t you get Daddy to fly you here and we can celebrate my birthday at the same restaurant where Egil Fray shot the
bottle of tequila and then offered the bartender a slice of lime as it poured down from the top shelf like a waterfall. Egil was funny.”
Egil, back in college, had been the star student of our class: articulate; irreverent; devoted to books; interested in alcohol, bicycling, Italian cooking, UFOs, and Apple stock. He’d been diagnosed bipolar after he dove off the Delaware Memorial Bridge and broke every rib, his nose, and one wrist, and said he was sorry he’d had the idea. That was years ago, when he’d had insurance, when he was still married to Brenda, when everybody thought he was the brightest boy, including his doctors. He’d gotten good with a slingshot—none of that macho shooting the apple off the wife’s head—but he’d caused a significant amount of damage, even when taking good aim. He was finishing medical school now.
I said, “I wonder if that’s a sincere wish.”
“It would be great,” he said, and for a second I believed him, until he filled in the details: “You’d be in your hotel room on your cell phone, and I’d be here with my man Rudy, talking to you from the Princess phone.”
He really did have a Princess phone, and he was no more wrong about that than Egil had been about Apple. Repairmen had offered him serious money for the pale-blue phone. His ex-wife (Carrie, his third, the only one I’d known) had asked for it officially, in court papers—along with half his frequent-flyer miles, from the days when he devotedly visited his mother in her Colorado nursing home.
“You know, it would be good to see you,” I said. “I can afford a ticket. What about next Monday? What are you doing then?”
“Getting ready for Halloween. Looking in every drawer for my rubber fangs.”
“Can’t help you there, but I could bring my Groucho glasses and mustache.”
“I’ll take you to the finest new restaurant,” he said. “My favorite item on the menu is Pro and Pros. It’s a glass of prosecco and some very delicious hard cheese wrapped in prosciutto. Alcoholics don’t care about entrées.”
“Then we go dancing?” (We had gone dancing; we had, we had, we had. Everyone knew it, and every woman envied me.)
“I don’t think so, unless you just wanted to dance around the floor with me held over your head, like Mel Fisher on the floor of the ocean with his buried treasure, or a goat you’d just killed.”
“You live in Philadelphia, not Greece.”
“There is no more Greece,” he said. “They fucked themselves good.”
Pretty soon thereafter, he had a coughing fit and my boyfriend came into the kitchen with raised eyebrows meant to ask: Are you sleeping with me tonight? and we hung up.
* * *
I took the train. It wasn’t difficult. I got a ride with a friend to some branch of the Metro going into Washington and rode it to Union Station. Then I walked forever down the train track to a car someone finally let me on. I felt like an ant that had walked the length of a caterpillar’s body and ended up at its anus. I sat across from a mother with a small son whose head she abused any time she got bored looking
out the window: swatting it with plush toys; rearranging his curls; inspecting him for nits.
The North Thirty-fourth Street station was familiar, though the photo booth was gone. We’d had our pictures taken there, a strip of them, and we’d fought over who got them, and then after I won, I lost them somehow. I went outside and splurged on a cab.
Since his divorce, Franklin had lived in a big stone building with a curving driveway. At first, as the cab approached, I thought there might be a hitching post, but it turned out to be a short man in a red vest with his hair slicked back. He took an older man’s hand, and the two set off, waved forward by the cabbie.
This was great, I thought; I didn’t have to worry about parking, I’d gotten money from a cash machine before the trip and wouldn’t have to think about that until I ran short at the end of the month, and here I was, standing in front of the imposing building where my former teacher lived. Inside, I gave the woman behind the desk his name and mine. She had dark-purple fingernails and wore many bracelets. “Answer, hon, answer,” she breathed into her phone, flicking together a couple of nails. “This is Savannah, sending you her ‘answer’ jujus.”
Finally he did pick up, and she said my name, listened so long that I thought Franklin might be telling her a joke, then said, “All right, hon,” hung up, and gave me a Post-it note with 303 written on it that I hadn’t asked for. I sent him Royal Riviera pears every Christmas, books from Amazon, Virginia peanuts, and hell, it wasn’t the first time I’d visited, either. I knew his apartment number.
Though the hallway looked different. That was because (I was about to find out) someone very rich had been irritated at the width of the corridors and had wanted to get his antique car into his living room, so he’d paid to widen the hallway, which had created a god-awful amount of dust, noise, and inconvenience.
It was funnier in Franklin’s telling. We clinked shot glasses (mine brimming only with white wine), called each other Russian names, and tossed down the liquor. If everything we said had been a poem, the index of first lines would have formed a pattern: “Do you remember,” “Tell me if I remember wrong,” “There was that time,” “Wasn’t it funny when.”
When I looked out the window, I saw that it had begun to snow. Rudolph had been the first to see it, or to sense it; he’d run to the window and put his paws on the ledge, tail aquiver.
“I hated it when I was a kid and this happened. My mother made me wear my winter jacket over my Halloween costume, and that ruined everything. Who’s going to know what gender anybody is supposed to be under their Barbour jacket, let alone their exact identity?”
“The receptionist,” he said, “is a guy who became a woman. He had the surgery in Canada because it was a lot cheaper. He had saline bags put in for tits, but then he decided flat-chested women were sexy, so he had them taken out. I asked for one, to put in a jar, but no go: You’d have thought I was asking for a fetus.”
The bottle of bourbon was almost full. We might be sitting for a long time, I realized. I said, “Let’s go get something to eat before the snow piles up. How far would we have to go to get to that restaurant?”
“You’re afraid if we stay here, I’ll have more to drink and try to seduce you.”
“No, I’m not,” I said indignantly.
“You’re afraid I’ll invite Savannah to come up and give us all the gory details. Savannah is a former Navy SEAL.”
“If you like it when I speak in a monotone, don’t tell me weird stuff.”
“Listen to her! When the only buttons I ever push are for the elevator. I don’t live by metaphor, woman. Don’t you read the critics?”
He kicked his shoes out from behind the footstool. Good—so he was game. His ankles didn’t look great, but at least they were shoes I’d have to get on his feet, not cowboy boots, and they seemed to have sturdy treads. I knelt and picked up one foot, opened the Velcro fastener, and used my palm as a shoehorn. His foot slid in easily. On the other foot, though, the arch and the ankle were swollen, but we decided it would work fine if the fastener was left open. It was a little problem to keep the Velcro from flipping over and fastening itself, but I folded the top strap and held it together with a big paper clip, and eventually we got going.
“An old man like me, and I’ve got no scarf, no hat, only gloves I bought from a street vendor, the same day I had a roasted chestnut and bought another one for a squirrel. I can tell you which one of us was happier.” He was holding the crook of my arm. “Only you would take me out in the snow for a meal. Promise me one thing: You won’t make me watch you make a snowball and throw it in a wintry way. You can make an anecdote of that request and use it later at my memorial service.”
He’d had a triple bypass two years before. He had diabetes. He’d told me on the phone that he might have to go on dialysis.
“Is this the part of the walk where you tell me how your relationship is with that fellow I don’t consider my equal?”
“Did I bring him up?” I said.
“No, I did. So is he still not my equal?”
“I feel disloyal talking about him. He lost his job. He hasn’t been in a very good mood.”
“Take him dancing,” he said. “Or read him my most optimistic poem: ‘Le petit rondeau, le petit rondeau.’ That one was a real triumph. He’ll want to know what rondeau means, so tell him it’s the dance that’s supplanted the Macarena.”
“I wish you liked each other,” I said, “but realistically speaking, he has three siblings, and the only one he talks to is his sister.”
“I could wear a wig. Everybody’s getting chemo now, so they’re making very convincing hair.”
We turned the corner. Snow was falling fast, and people hurried along. He wasn’t wearing a hat or a scarf. What had I been thinking? In solidarity, I left my little knitted beret folded in my coat pocket.
“Let’s go there,” he said, pointing to a Mexican restaurant. “Who wants all those truffles and frills? A cold Dos Equis on a cold day, a beef burrito. That’ll be fine.”
I could tell that walking was an effort. Also, I’d realized his shoes were surprisingly heavy as I’d put them on.
We went into the Mexican restaurant. Two doctors in scrubs were eating at one of the two front tables. An old lady and a young woman sat at another. We were shown to the
back room, where a table of businessmen were laughing. I took off my coat and asked Franklin if he needed help with his. “My leg won’t bend,” he said. “That’s happened before. It locks. I can sit down, but I’m going to need an arm.”
The waiter reached around us and put menus on the table and rushed away. I pulled out a chair. How was I going to get it near the table again, though? I was just about to push it a little closer to the table when Franklin made a hopping motion with one foot and stabilized himself by grabbing the edge of the table and bending at the waist. Before I knew it, he was sitting in the chair, wincing, one leg bent, the other extended. “Go get those doctor fellows and tell ’em I swallowed Viagra and my leg’s completely rigid,” he said. “Tell ’em it’s been this way for at least ten hours.”
I dropped a glove, and when I bent to pick it up, I also tried to move the chair in closer to the table. I couldn’t budge it. And the waiter looked smaller than I was.
“Let’s see,” Franklin said, picking up one of the menus. “Let’s see if there’s a simple bean burrito for a simple old guy, and our waiter can bring a brace of beer bottles by their necks and we can have a drink and make a toast to the knee that will bend, to Egil our friend, to a life without end . . . at least let’s hope it’s not rigor mortis setting in at a Mexican restaurant.
“Three Dos Equis, and you can serve one to my friend,” Franklin said to the waiter. “Excuse me for sitting out in the middle of the room, but I like to be at the center of the action.”
“You want me to maybe help you in a little closer to the table?” the waiter said, coming close to Franklin’s side.
“Well, I don’t know,” Franklin said doubtfully, but he slid forward a bit on the chair, and with one quick movement, he rose slightly, the waiter pushed the chair under him, and he was suddenly seated a normal distance from the table.
“Gracias, mi amigo,” Franklin said.
“No problem,” the waiter said. He turned to me. “You’re going to have a Dos Equis?”
I spread my hands helplessly and smiled.
At that exact moment, my ex-husband and a very attractive woman walked into the back room, followed by a different waiter. He stopped and we stared at each other in disbelief. He and I had met at Penn, but for a long time now I’d lived in Charlottesville. Last I’d heard, he was living in Santa Fe. He said something hurriedly to the pretty woman and, instead of sitting, pointed to a different table, in the corner. The waiter complied with the request, but only the woman walked away. My ex-husband came to our table.
“What a surprise,” Gordy said. “Nice to see you.”
“Nice to see you,” I echoed.
“I’d rise, but I took Viagra, and now I can’t get my leg to move,” Franklin said. He had settled on this as the joke of the day.
“Professor Chadwick?” Gordy said. “Franklin Chadwick, right? Gordon Miller. I was president of Latin Club.”
“That’s right!” Franklin said. “And back then we were both in love with the same girl!”
Gordy blushed and took a step back. “That’s right. Good to see you. Sorry to interrupt.” He was not wearing
a wedding ring. He turned and strode back toward the faraway table.
“Why did you say that?” I asked. “You were never in love with me. You were always flirting with Louisa Kepper. You paid her to cut your grass so you could stare at her in shorts and work boots. She knew it, too.”
“I wasn’t in love with you, but now it seems like I should have been, because where are they now? Who keeps in touch? I never hear, even when a poem is published. It was just a job, apparently. Like a bean burrito’s a bean burrito.”
“Here you go, three beers. Should I pour for you?” the waiter asked.
“I’ll take mine in the bottle,” Franklin said, reaching up. The waiter handed him the bottle.
“Yes, thank you,” I said. The waiter poured two thirds of a glass of beer and set the bottle beside my glass. “Lunch is coming,” he said, putting the last beer bottle in front of Franklin.
“I’ll tell you what I’d like: a shot of tequila on the side.”
“We only have a beer-and-wine license. I’m sorry,” the waiter said.
“Then let me have a glass of red wine on the side,” Franklin said.
“Okay,” the waiter said.
“Take it easy with the drinking. I’ve got to get you back in one piece,” I said. “Also, I don’t want to feel like an enabler. I want us to have a good time, but we can do that sober.”
“?‘Enabler’? Don’t use phony words like that. They’re ugly, Maude.”
I was startled when he used my name. I’d been “Champ” in his poetry seminar. We were all “Champ.” The biggest
champ had now published six books. I had published one, though it had won the Yale Series. We didn’t talk about the fact that I’d stopped writing poetry.
“I hope you understand that he and I”—he tilted his head in the direction of my ex-husband—“had a man-to-man on the telephone, and I told him where we’d be eating today.”
“I wonder what he is doing here. I thought he lived in Santa Fe.”
“Probably got tired of all the sun and the turquoise and coyotes. Decided to trade it in for snow and a gray business suit and squirrels.”
“Did you see if she had a wedding ring on?” I asked.
“Didn’t notice. When I’m with one pretty girl, what do I care about another? Though there’s that great story by Irwin Shaw, ‘The Girls in Their Summer Dresses.’ I don’t suppose anyone even mentions Irwin Shaw anymore. They might, if only he’d thought to call his story ‘The Amazingly Gorgeous Femme Fatales Provoke Envy and Lust as Men Go Mad.’?” He turned to the waiter, who’d appeared with the bean burrito and the chicken enchilada I’d ordered. “Sir, will you find occasion to drop by that table in the corner and see if the lady is wearing a wedding ring?” Franklin said quietly into the waiter’s ear.
“No problem,” the waiter said. He put down the plates. He lifted two little dishes of sauce from the tray and put them on the table. “No joke, my brother José is the cook. I hope you like it. I’m getting your wine now.”
The first bite of enchilada was delicious. I asked Franklin if he’d like to taste it. He shook his head. He waited until the waiter returned with the glass of wine, then took a big
sip before lifting his burrito, or trying to. It was too big. He had to pick up a fork. He didn’t use the knife to cut it, just the fork. I’d studied him for so long, almost nothing surprised me anymore, however small the gesture. I had a fleeting thought that perhaps part of the reason I’d stopped writing was that I studied him instead. But now I was also noticing little lapses, which made everything different for both of us. I liked the conversational quirks, not the variations or the repetitions. Two months ago, when I’d visited, bringing fried chicken and a bottle of his favorite white wine, Sancerre (expensive stuff), he’d told me about the receptionist, though that time he’d told me she’d had the surgery in Denmark.
The waiter came back and made his report: “Not what I’d call a wedding ring. It’s a dark stone, I think maybe amethyst, but I don’t think it’s a wedding ring, and she has gold rings on two other fingers also.”
“We assume, then, she’s just wearing rings.”
The waiter nodded. “You want another glass of wine, just let me know.”
“He and I had a man-to-man last night and he promised to keep me supplied,” he said. “I told you the guy with the Messerschmitt gets drug deliveries? Thugs that arrive together, like butch nuns on testosterone. Two, three in the morning. Black guys, dealers. They’re all How-ya-doin’-man best friends with the receptionist. That’s the night guy. Hispanic. Had a breakdown, lives with his brother. Used to work at Luxor in Vegas.”
“Take a bite of your burrito,” I said, and instantly felt like a mother talking to her child. His expression told me he
thought I was worse than that. He said nothing and finished his wine. There was a conspicuous silence.
“Everything good?” the waiter said. He’d just seated a table of three men, one of them choosing to keep on his wet coat; he sat at the table, red-nosed, looking miserable.
Leaning forward to look, I’d dropped my napkin. As I bent to pick it up, the waiter appeared, unfurling a fresh one like a magician who’d come out of nowhere. I half expected a white bird to fly up. But my mind was racing: There’d been a stain on Franklin’s sock. Had he stepped in something on the way to the restaurant, or was it, as I feared, blood? I waited until the nice waiter wasn’t looking and pushed back the tablecloth enough to peek. The stain was bright red, on the foot with the unfastened Velcro.
“Franklin, your foot,” I said. “Does it hurt? I think it’s bleeding.”
“My feet don’t feel. That’s the problem,” he said.
I pushed back my chair and inspected the foot more carefully. Yes, a large area of the white sock was bloody. I was really frightened.
“Eat your lunch,” he said. “And I’ll eat mine. Don’t worry.”
“It might . . . it could be a problem. Has this ever happened before?”
He didn’t answer. He was now using both his fork and knife to cut his burrito.
“Maybe I could run to CVS and find some bandages. That’s what I’ll do.”
But I didn’t move. I’d seen a drugstore on the way to the restaurant, but where? I could ask the waiter. I’d ask the waiter and hope he didn’t know why I was asking. He might want
to be too helpful, he might insist on walking us to a cab, I might not get to eat my lunch, though the thought of taking another bite revolted me now. I’d wanted to say something meaningful, have what people think of as a lovely lunch. Were we going to end up at the hospital? Wasn’t that what we would have to do? There was a fair amount of blood. I got up, sure that I had to do something, but what? Wouldn’t it be sensible to call his doctor?
“Everything okay?” the waiter said. I found that I was standing in the center of the room, looking over my shoulder toward the table where Franklin was eating his lunch.
“Fine, thank you. Is there a drugstore nearby?”
“Right across the street,” he said. “Half a block down.”
“Good. Okay, I’m going to run to the drugstore,” I said, “but maybe you shouldn’t bring him anything else to drink until—” and then I fainted. When my eyes opened, my ex-husband was holding my hand, and the pretty woman was gazing over his shoulder, as the waiter fanned me with a menu. The man in the wet wool coat was saying my name—everyone must have heard it when Franklin yelped in surprise, though he couldn’t rise, he saw it with his eyes, my toppling was unwise . . .
“Hey, Maude, hey, hey, Maude,” Wet Coat was saying. “Okay, Maude, you with us? Maude, Maude? You’re okay, open your eyes if you can. Can you hear me, Maude?”
Franklin, somehow, was standing. He shimmered in my peripheral vision. There was blood on the rug. I saw it but couldn’t speak. I had a headache and the thrumming made a pain rhyme: He couldn’t rise / He saw it with his eyes. And it was so odd, so truly odd, that my ex-husband was holding
my hand again, after one hundred years away, in the castle of Luxor. It all ran together. I was conscious, but I couldn’t move.
“We had sex under the table, which you were kind enough to pretend not to observe, and she’s got her period,” Franklin said. I heard him say it distinctly, as if he were spitting out the words. And I saw that the waiter was for the first time flummoxed. He looked at me as if I could give him a clue, but damn it, all I was managing to whisper was “Okay,” and I wasn’t getting off the floor.
“The color’s coming back to your face,” my ex-husband said. “What happened? Do you know?”
“Too much sun and turquoise,” I said, and though at first he looked very puzzled, he got my drift, until he lightened his grip on my wrist, then began lightly knocking his thumb against it, as if sending Morse code: tap, tap-tap, tap. He and the pretty woman stayed with me even after I could stand, after the waiter took me into his brother’s office and helped them get me into an armchair. For some reason, the cook gave me his business card and asked for mine. My ex-husband got one out of a little envelope in my wallet and handed it to him, obviously thinking it was as strange a request as I did. “She didn’t have nothing to drink, one sip of beer,” the waiter said, defending me. “She saw blood, I don’t know, sometimes ladies faint at the sight of blood.”
“He’s such a crude old coot,” my ex-husband said. “I should be impressed with your loyalty, but I never knew what you saw in him.”
Savannah the receptionist came for Franklin, and he went to the hospital—but not before paying the bill from a wad of money I didn’t know he was carrying, and not before
taking a Mexican hat off the wall, insisting that he was “just borrowing it, like an umbrella.”
“There might be an Indian uprising if we stop him,” the waiter’s brother said to him. “Let him go.” He called out to Franklin, “Hey, pard, you keep that hat and wear it if they storm the Alamo.”
I thought about that, and thought about it, and finally thought José hadn’t really meant anything by it, that a little shoplifting was easy to deal with, especially when the culprit announced what he was doing.
With the worried transgendered woman beside him, and Franklin holding her arm, it was amazing that he could shuffle in a way that allowed him to bend enough to kiss my cheek. “Awake, Princess,” he said, “and thank God our minions were all too smart to call an ambulance.”
He refused dialysis and died at the end of April, which, for him, certainly was the cruelest month. I spoke to him the day after I fainted in the restaurant, and he told me they’d put leeches on his foot; the second time, several weeks later, he was worried that it might have to be amputated. “You’re the ugly stepsister who crammed my foot into the slipper,” he said. “And time’s the ugly villain that made me old. I was a proper shit-kicker in my Frye boots. I would have had you under the table back in the day. But you’re right, I never loved you. Maybe you’ll find something to write about when I’m dead, because you sure aren’t kicking your own shit while I’m still alive.”
If you can believe it, that Christmas I got a card from the Mexican restaurant signed by staff I’d never even met. It could have been a crib sheet for remembering that painful
day: a silver Christmas tree with glitter that came off on my fingertips and some cute little animals clustered at the base, wearing caps with pom-poms and tiny scarves. A squirrel joined them, standing on its haunches, holding sheet music, as Santa streaked overhead, Rudolph leading the way. Rudolph. What had become of Rudolph?
There was no memorial service that I heard of, though a few people called or wrote me when they saw the obituary. “Was he still full of what he called ‘piss and vinegar’ up to the end? You kept in touch with him, didn’t you?” Carole Kramer (who’d become a lawyer in New York) wrote me. I wrote her back that he’d had to give up his boots, but I could assure her that he was still full of piss and vinegar, and I didn’t say that it was an inability to piss that finally killed him, and that he’d drunk himself to death, wine, vinegar, it didn’t really matter.
He’d mentioned squirrels the last day I’d seen him, though, so now when I saw them I paid more attention, even if everyone in Washington thought of them as rats with bushy tails. I even bought one a roasted chestnut on a day when I was feeling sentimental, but the squirrel dropped it like it was poison, and I could see from the gleam in the eye of the guy cooking the nuts that he was glad I’d gotten my comeuppance.
Then winter ended and spring came, and I thought, Even if I don’t believe there’s a poem in anything anymore, maybe I’ll write a story. A lot of people do that when they can’t seem to figure out who or what they love. It might be an oversimplification, but they seem to write poetry when they do know.