(Mr. Sotheby and Wash Fathers are walking home from the town together. It is late at night and they are sharing a flask of bourbon between them, talking with their arms resting high around each other’s shoulders. Cicadas scream across the sidewalks underneath them and bats beat their wings like twisting black smoke above their heads. A motorcar is coming around the bend; Mr. Sotheby stands in the middle of the street to flag a ride. The motorcar doesn’t slow down and Mr. Sotheby doesn’t step aside. Wash Fathers pulls him from the street at the last moment, the motorcar speeding past where Mr. Sotheby just seconds age had stood.)
You’re a hell of a fellow, Wash Fathers, I’ll tell you what. That was one hell of a close call. But you saved my life, Wash, I’ll be damned if you didn’t just save my life, and that ain’t the first time, neither. I owe you everything I got now ’cause of you, you little rascal, just for you saving my life just now. Every pretty penny in a long line of pretty pennies. I owe you my life, you rat bastard! So you stick with me, Wash Fathers – you stick with me and one day soon I’ll find a way to repay my debt to you. We’re in this together, Wash. You and me. Just like it’s always been.
And we’ve made it this far, Wash. Isn’t that something? We’ve made it as far as we have, because we were damn lucky, but too because we deserved it, Wash, you and me, we deserved it. No one is entitled to anything, except us. We’ve made it this far – and this ain’t nothing yet.
I hope you had a ball tonight. Did you have a ball, Wash? Did you? I know I certainly did. Do you remember those broads in the Burgundy room? Do you remember how we had our way with them, and how you took two at once? You old dog! “That old Wash Fathers,” I say, I says to those boys about town, “you best keep your eyes on that one – he’s some kind of trouble.” Look at you, tripping over your shoelaces. Keep your back straight, you old dog – walk like a man! We’ve made it this far and we’ll make it farther yet. What a friend I have in you! One hell of a fellow. I can tell you that much. And public schooled, too! Well? Who wasn’t! What a friend you are, you old dog, you wily jiminy cricket – bam, pow, right in the kisser! – ha! – a bit of the old one-two punch, huh, Wash Fathers? A bit of the old wive’s tale!
“I’ll tell you something, Mr. Sotheby. I ain’t never yet met a better man than you, and that’s the plain truth of it. You’re tricky – I can’t trust you half as far as I can throw you, and that’s the plain honest of it all. But it don’t mean a thing, not really, because I’d still trust you with my life, do you know that? I’d trust you with my life and everything else, everything I got, and you know what else? You got style, you know that? And that’s something most men don’t have these days and I reckin it’s not a bad thing to have, and you have it. You got style, and you ain’t afraid of nothing! Not nothing, ain’t you, one bit? Y’ain’t. I know y’ain’t, and you don’t need to even prove it ’cause I can see it clear as day on your face, and I can see it’s always been there, and it ain’t going nowhere.”
Come here, you knuckle-headed – you better believe I ain’t afraid of nothing! Not nothing, not one damn thing, not no how! I’ll put it all on the line, all of it, just so I know I tried. But I don’t even have to try! It just happens. I just happen. I own this town – I’m the greatest man this side of the Mississippi – from Freeman’s Creek to Bastonia – self-made! Do you see it? What do you see? I see me! Look around you! Everywhere I look, I see nothing but Sotheby! All of the South knows the Sotheby name! How about you, Wash? Have you heard of the Sothebys? Have you laid eyes on those pearly, opulent legs of Mrs. Sotheby? Have you intellectualized in the parlour with the wise Mr. Sotheby? I heard he’s a sonofabitch! Have you met those charming swindlers, that infamous new money, those dapper gents and dames of modernity, seven days a week in their Sunday bests, those philosophes and philanderers and war heroes, those good Christian souls, those decent good-hearted philanthropists, made and making good for the good of all mankind –
You see, Wash, there are good men, and there are bad men, and then there are all the rest. You and I are the good men, the best men, and so we’ve nothing to fear, not from no body, not from the bad men nor the rest of them, for good men such as us are too strong to be bested by the likes of them, of anyone! No – we have nothing to fear. We are the things that people fear. Bad or worse we’re the best and win or lose we’ve done right by the eyes of our selves and our world and our savior, too. We are safe in the eyes of our savior. The intentions of good men are clear; we work for the welfare of ourselves, for the welfare of our fellow men; and always in the best interest of another good man. We are business men. We have intentions. The intentions of the bad men are less clear, and there are they only distinguishable from you and I and our own good intentions. The bad men must never be ignored. They must be befriended, so as dis-armed, and treated to a drink while the coals of their vainglory are stoked into flames of self-satisfaction below them, and then we must mute them with sand.
What am I going on about? Nevermind me! We’re good men, you and I, and that’s all there is to it. So drink up, Wash Fathers. We’ve come this far, you and I, and we’ve farther yet to go. Hardly yet has passed a moment in time but miles have we come, miles have we to go before we’re home. Miles to go, Wash – miles borne on the backs of you and I, and this jubilant fifth of liquor betwixt our stumbling hips, and may the motorists who refuse to give a man a lift be damned all to Hell, anyway. You and I may very well be the last good men in the country, do you know that Wash? Do you know that?
“Shucks, Mr. Sotheby. I mean… well, shucks. Do you remember that one? That time I rang you up on the telephone from that payphone in the middle of nowhere, middle of the night, pockets empty and outturned, real down on my luck, real desperate-disillusioned-sick-of-it-all-depressed, and I asked you if you would wire me a few dollars for a bus ticket out of dodge, and do you remember what you says to me? You says, I can hear it plain as day, you says, ‘I can’t promise you anything, Wash. I sincerely wish I could; but I can’t.’ And do you know what came in the mail the next morning, personal courier? First class train tickets west – and a hundred dollar note!”
You’re bringing tears to my eyes the way you talk about me, Wash Fathers. That wasn’t nothing, you old dog, not nothing at all. I wouldn’t even mention it again if I were you, it weren’t nothing doing. There wasn’t nothing else I could have done no how, and that’s that. But you knew that, didn’t you? You knew I’d help you, that I had no choice, didn’t you? And that’s why you called fat old Mr. Sotheby, anyway. I’m a rich bastard, anyway, and that’s fine to know it. I’m a rich sonofabitch and I’ve been one as long as I can remember and you always did know that. And how I made sure you did, too! Look at these shoes of mine, Wash – if you were a poor man, a murderous man, you could murder me for my shoes and walk away a thousand dollars richer, and that’s a fact. Five hundred a heel, and these are my work shoes. I never kept my wealth in a wallet, Wash, you know – never somewhere so well concealed. I wear it around my neck, Wash, I wear it where people can see it. I string it through my belt loops. I drape it over my shoulders. I line the panties of my wife with it, and when I strut to the city I paint the whole town green with it. I speak of it, I speak for it, I whisper and I bellow it, I condone it, I belie it, I hoard and I loathe it – I’m a rich sonofabitch, Wash Fathers, and you always did know that, didn’t you? And I always made sure that you did.
(They approach a fork in the road.)
Here we’ve come at last, Wash Fathers – the last split in the grass before home. Here at our crossroads. Where will we find ourselves headed next? Which road will it be for you, Wash? To the left, or to the right? The low road – or the high? Or neither one – what do you say of that, Wash? Neither one! To hell with them both! We’ll double back, you and me, to town, and then we’ll steal a car, and we’ll take the interstate clear out of this state for once and for ever – just you and me, Wash! I can pawn my rings for some bread and sell my shoes to pay the rent. We’ll live like kings on my clothes alone, so long as we’re cheap bastard kings. Quit laughing, you hyena. I’m being sincere. I’m always sincere with you, Wash. I’ve never been more sincere in my life.
“Well, you know I couldn’t just up and leave my family like that, Mr. Sotheby – and neither could you. And since my home is to the left, then to the left I reckon I’ll go, so the low road it is for me. Take care, Mr. Sotheby – why don’t you hold on to that liquor, finish her off on your own?”
Is that it, then, you little rat? The low road – just like that? I gave you a choice! I gave you recourse! The low road home, alone – the road that raised you, and raised you good and decent and taught you up proper how to do the right thing, and stay poor, and stay stupid – well, Wash, that’s fine, then. That’s fine, and you’ve inspired me to do the same. I’ll do the right thing, you little rat. I’ll go home tonight, too. Don’t think you’ve outshone the great shining sun of a Sotheby. Go home, then, down your little road to the left – I, then, will take to the right, to the high road, where a wife and child await me so as too a wife and child await you. I wish it weren’t so, Wash Fathers – I wish we could take this high road together, you and I, and that it led west, alone on the highways, like once you’ve been led before – but you’ve a lower road to travel, so go on now, go on – you and I, you old dog, will have to travel alone from now on. Quit laughing, you hyena! Quit!
(Wash Fathers takes the low road home. Mr. Sotheby reluctantly walks onwards, lonesome and alone on the high road, through his private, rolling acreage, his endless vistas of country grace and charm, his pecan groves and fig trees alight by the gentle vision of moonlight, his cornfields green and scenic and tall.)
And so I begin my vigil. My lonely, drunken vigil. Now I am alone and dramatic. Now I can really cause a scene. There is no one to see me, out here! No one to fear and admonish me. Out with the demons, then! Out with the secrets! Drunk and drinking as I go. What quiet night is this? What strange new loneness is this? I hate this place. No! I love it. What sort of liquor is this? What a profound silence is this! Where have all the noisemakers gone? All the cicadas, the dogs at the sidewalks, the rustling gusts of the young summer wind? Where is Wash, when you need him? Drunken sonofabitch. Where have all the troublemakers gone – the schoolboys from town roaming my fields with sticks and stones and twenty-twos, up to no good – the young lovers squirming like worms in the grass – the wild mutts that need taming, the nine-points that need hunting, the butterflies to net and pin and showcase and, finally, admire – where are all the intellectuals tonight? The men, like I, their scrolls and quills churning bare parchment into manuscripts, this brains like big vessels of data, men who denote the order of the universe through their own inner order, who transcribe by means of sweat and blood a series of treatises on life and living, who produce the world, construct a modern world to live in, who compose bold poetic verses on the meaning of death, on exaltation, on hope and ignorance and pride and glory – where are all the great men gone? There is nary a rogue tonight but I, and I tip and I swag, waxing morose as I step from puddle to puddle, swinging from roadside to roadside – nary a dog but I! And I’m liable to simply blink myself out of existence entirely – when left all alone on a lonely night like this, a silent night as this.
So come out, all y’all wild-eyed men of the night, all y’all wicked doubters and vigilantes, come to keep me company, because I am not so scared of you; I could really use the company! Come on out now, all y’all, y’all tramps and rakes and curs and cunts and scoundrels, all y’all weasels and you Benedict Arnolds and all you other bastards out there, rednecks and white collars, barons and barbarians both, ready to gouge out the eye of the one-eyed man with a dinner spoon (and when a dinner spoon isn’t handy, you use your fingernails, and when your fingernails are too short, you use your teeth) – victims of passion, who have plead guilty, who alone remain unbound and unblinded – come out, Erastes and Eromenos, Eros and Thanos too, why don’t you, come on out now from under all y’all secret bridges where you keep to in the day, I know you ran to hide when you saw me coming, and maybe you oughtta, because maybe by day I’d get you – but you don’t need to hide by night, you hear? Don’t hide from me now! Come to me! Join me in my drunken boat. Mine is a lonely vigil! Join your master for a jaunt! I’m here with you now – so come on out now, you hear, to the Sotheby estate, for you – are – invited! And there is no one around tonight save fat old Mr. Sotheby himself, that senile old millionaire, given to drink and to foul language, all alone by his own lonesome self – and he’s harmless as a mole rat is, too. Look at him going on, getting fat, look at how fat he’s getting – look at how he plods along into the night without even a light to guide him, or a hand to hold him, or a carrot to entice him – he’s eaten his fair share of carrots, he couldn’t stomach another if he tried – look at how he nearly falls over with the wind! He can’t even bear to stand himself up anymore. He can’t even grin and bear it. His smile is thin, and thinning.
I feel villainous. And it is rightful I feel it. I have broken the spirits, the wills, and the backs of men whose beings were not mine to break. I have bowed to men whose person did not command my respect and I have ruined some who did. I have murdered children and I have enslaved the unwitting, profiting from that which better men might condemn – and I have in turn condemned the better men as incompetent and obsolete, if only in distant defense of my own inadequacies. I have had women under false pretenses and I have abandoned women when they need not be abandoned and I will continue on doing so until I die. And I regret it, and I repent; but I do not regret it. I can justify it all. And I have justified it all.
I think I can see them coming now – they must have heard me! The bad men come, the men like me! How fortunate for me! Yes, that must be them, there over that hill – the villains, long and wispy things, devilishly good looking things – the leviathans, struggling to move their enveloping weight over the contours of the earth – the minstrelsy, playing their pan flutes and fiddles, alight in farce and self-awareness – the lepers of the dark, come to calm me, to accompany me, to fawn over me, and, come the end of it all, to be there to embalm me – fame and renown for one and for all! If it be my sort of tragedy which pleases you, than by all means, join me in this tragedy – I could always use a foil!
(Mr. Sotheby arrives at his porch steps.)
Home, sweet home. Look at you. Look at those blinding violent lights, on at all hours. The roaring peripheral hiss of a television set left on somewhere downstairs. How marvelous a machine is Man! How noble in capacity and how capable of self-fulfillment – how bold and eyeless a master of the universe! How vain! How charming! How ignorant! And here we are now, reaping, craving, and leaving to furrow – reap on, ye reapers – for at last this wealth is boundless!
(Mr. Sotheby begins to laugh. He laughs louder until he starts wheezing, spilling his drink, and soon a light turns on upstairs. Mr. Sotheby clears his throat and throws the bottle into the trees. He throws open the front doors of his home.)
Oh, my – my wife! My dear – look at you! Standing there at the top of the stairs, hardly dressed – not even in a nightgown! How indecent! Where were you raised – a barn? Come, come – this won’t do. Change into something proper and meet me in the kitchen. I have something I need to discuss with you, anyway, if you’re awake. I mean go on to sleep if you’d like to but if not then come to the kitchen. We need to talk. And I’ll have none of it anywhere but in the kitchen. It is as they say, dear – Life’s riches other rooms adorn, but in a kitchen, home is born
Oh, what trouble am I in now. Where’s that devil Wash Fathers when you need him? Where’s my band of colorful merry-makers to rise in concerted defense of my character? I’m in some trouble now. She hates it when I come home this late – this early in the morning. While the drunks like me and the insomniacs like me and the restless like me are still strolling about the night in a state of perpetual indefatigue, people like her are laying in bed, anxious, unawake. The night is getting weak, and the day is threatening to begin, or is just yet begun, and industrious men and women the world over are rising from a fitful sleep to challenge brazenly the new day – the sailors rise, and the schoolteachers rise, and the carpenters and the fishmongers and the tenant croppers, and the roosters and barnswallows that twill and caw and cast their voices to the dawn – and everything else that the light touches. So does my wife rise, or would rise, had I not arisen her early with my antics. Me and my wily antics. I’ve really cooked the goose this time.
(Mr. Sotheby sits at the kitchen table, his feet kicked up on the polished oak, his eyes closed, his breathing slow. A thin film of sweat has begun to dry from his skin. His wife enters the room, properly dressed, and he asks her for some of her world-famous fruit cobbler, with a mug of coffee, too. She refuses, asking him where he has been, why does he look so terrible, what is wrong with his eyes, and why does he smell so like bourbon.)
Must you even ask, darling? I’m drunk, or are you really too stupid to tell? I didn’t mean that, I’m sorry. Yes, I’m drunk, darling, and all at once I’m dead tired, too, which is fair enough, for if the stovetop clock reads correctly, I am up well past my bedtime. Well past my bedtime. Yet nevertheless I’m wide awake, isn’t that strange? And I suspect I’ll stay this way yet, at least for a little while longer. So stay with me, darling, stay by my side – don’t you dare to leave me alone, not like this, you’d be killing me, that would be abuse. You know how close I am to hating you already in our droll and pitiful old age – don’t give me any more pause to hate. Stay with me, dear, and hear me out. Hear my sad, sad story. You’re the best listener I have right now. And if you listen, if you listen to me now, you might hear something interesting – you might just understand what I’ve been going through.
To be honest, darling, you’re right, dead right – I do look terrible. I look about as terrible as I feel. I haven’t felt a lick of good for weeks. I’ve been feeling ill, downright depressed, and studious – and you know I am nary a studious man, darling. I’m a man of action, not thought. But here I find myself thinking, and thinking hard, and I can’t outthink myself. I’ve been thinking thoughts I haven’t thought in years and it’s like walking with a lead weight swinging from every bone in my body, dripping like heavy bile from my brain down the back of my throat. I haven’t enjoyed myself in longer’n I can remember – I’ve smiled once or twice, sure, you may have even been there for one, but I haven’t had a ball darling, a real ball, and even if I did, I would know that I didn’t deserve it. Do you remember those balls we used to have, darling? Dance, I used to ask, and you’d always answer, Yes. Gone, though, gone; gone are all the masquerades – gone are all the cigarettes and play-pretend love affairs – gone are the insatiable drives from within, the moans and the callouses and the tousled sheets – gone is the frontier, darling, the wilderness, the as-of-yet unexplored. It’s worse than that, though. It’s worse than having discovered all that remains to be discovered. We’ve outhunted and outfarmed the land, turning a sprawling tree-canopied wild into this barren, pruned, infinitely pleasing suburbia. So here are we now, dearest, damned and dead and dried-up. Dying, and drying-out, to say the least – to speak of it kindly.
I’m running my mouth off like a boy again, aren’t I? I’ve been running it all night. It makes me sick. You should have heard what I was saying in town. And the things that I said to Wash! I have nothing to say, at least not until I’ve said it, and then I’m saying things I’ve never even thought until now. It’s like suddenly I remember everything, all at once, and everything is terrible. You’re lucky, darling, because you’re forgetful, and you’ve forgotten what it was like before this – before everything we are and have – and so you are happy, plump, obliging – but I have not been so quick to forget. You’ve been quick to find your place, here where you are, where you’ve been and will be, to find a place where you can forgettably turn to dust, a psychological safety in the gluttonous vestige of comfort. It’s like you’ve never known anything else, and so you are content with it. At least, you seem content… So do I, I guess! I, though, feel like a stranger to these strange customs, to this steady, pleasant decay of the self, of the being, of faith, of virtue, of purpose, of strength, of concern – and far be it for me to intervene on your behalf, darling, even while I crumble. You are happy just as you are – I wouldn’t wish to disturb you in your steady, dole-eyed bliss. So I do not – I could not – tell you how I really feel – about me, about you, about us. I hate the very idea of it – beyond all else, it would be useless, it would be a waste.
This sadness is sincere, my dear; I am lost, I am alone, I am afraid. My speeches are performance pieces, delicately scripted to soothe, to entertain, to confuse my audience. But not this speech, mother. This is a black and simple tale of corruption. This is something which needn’t at all be said, but here I am saying it, and here you are, listening.
Say, mother, how about a plate of that famous fruit cobbler? I know you’ve got some cooked up for me, you adorable darling pastry chef – I can smell it on your teeth – your pickled, stained teeth. I can see it in your waistline. No, no, I didn’t mean that. I mean that I love you. Will you prepare me a dish, then? No, your teeth are beautiful.
But my teeth are terrible. I’ve kept the stains away, because I’m a man who takes proper care of himself. But nevertheless my teeth reek of over-consumption and a self-inflicted commitment to the burning wheeze of nicotine. I’m twice as pitiful as you, mother, but you wouldn’t know by the grin of me. And you will be okay, in your faulty innocence, while I am he who knowingly self-destroys, so I am most condemned. And I make for a weepy, tragic pathetic condemned soul. I am not even granted sympathy, I elicit no sympathy. I am entitled to nothing. I deserve nothing, and I have been served nothing, and so does it go, going onward.
It has all been brought upon myself, of course. I knowingly – hell, enthusiastically – manipulated things, your life and mine, through an open and limitless future to these immediate and frightful days, these fleeting moments of old age, after the ball has ended, long after the guests have driven home, when all life was to be set in perfect motion, and all we were obligated to do from here on out were to enjoy. Or something along those lines. As though enjoyment was real! To tell you the truth, darling, I can’t even remember anymore. I can’t make heads or tails of it. Nothing makes sense to me. I am exactly where I wanted to be, and now I don’t want it. All I know is that I’m the culprit, that it’s my load to bear, and I take the weight as one more load on a wagon bed already broken, tongue split, wheels rolling through the wheat fields as children’s play things – whether I was meant to carry this load or not, I choose not to, and I choose to let it rot, in its wheat field, for eternity, while I shy away in disgust, and I learn to risk it all to thought.
It wasn’t always like this, darling. I used to have a childhood. When I had a childhood, so too did I have a whole life to live, darling, a whole life which, as anything could happen, everything did happen, dead or alive so it is both, and both are immaculate. I can remember the epoch of immaturity better than yesterday’s breakfast; grade school, when the balance was absolute, the friendships incorrigible, and the bounty anything but scarce. There were, albeit, mutinies; and mutinies turned to revolutions which in turn turned to mutiny; and from the violence a sole victor rose, a tyrant, a despot, the heir to the throne of Leviticus, the wearer of a crown of jewels, kind of the fools, the one-eyed man – it was I, darling, it was I! You should’ve seen me then – terrified, darling, and alone – but no more lonely, I know now, than anyone else. I was despicable. Useless. A one-eyed man – do you know what that means? And I knew, and I controlled, and I despised – me the half-blind – you know what they say about the one-eyed amongst the blind, don’t you, darling? Do you know what they say?
And so passed a time immemorial, a distant and disinteresting fable, like those written in Wales, or the book of Revelations, which is neither here nor there and is everywhere. We weren’t men and women; we were boys and girls, and so as were we useless, we were optimistic. Boys with poker chips and flirting with the infertile, dipping their chins in the cunts of the comely, spraying like spigots on the fritz, running red with rust. So passeth me in my adorable youth. You were adorable too, darling – once, in a fabled and hazy fold of our memories. But so were the other girls. You should’ve seen me with those other girls. You should’ve seen me charm the broads and neighbors, taking them all out through the shoulder-high fields of hay and playing doctor in the grass; quiet hands, quiet shuffling feet, quiet breathing, a motion and a pause when a plane passes overhead, and laughter – the laughter –
And the games we used to play, just for fun! The wild games with the boys in the woods, the filthy games with the girls in their homes – we’d loot the yet looted, break the glass yet unbroken, run along forever half-mad committing random crimes of mischief, violent yet inoffensive, brash and indecisive, rude and unpalatable, yet witty and at ease; but my, oh my, what a ball of time we’d always have. And those mornings after, and those evenings thereof, and then those summer nights come rounding surely once again; and so it was, assuredly! It was like the sun would rise again. Now, who knows? I’m afraid to close my eyes at night in case the bastard burns out on me – or I it. Something which wasn’t meant to last, you see? Not this, this inspirational decadence, this crass civility, this enlightenment – it was a facade which we eagerly bought into, as little boys – our futures – the one and universal future – most assuredly.
(Mr. Sotheby sits up straight, puts his feet on the floor, loosens his tie and undoes his collar. He rubs his eyes.)
I’m mighty thankful that they never told us the truth, though. It’s good to live on in bliss like that for as long as we did. You are born into bliss and ignorance and, for some, it lasts a lifetime – though neither you nor I were so fortunate.
How idealistic we were, for so shortly sweet a time. I used to believe in the cause, darling, just like you – I had beliefs that flew me from the daring peaks of adolescentia into the monstrous thunderclap of age and masculinity, and left me broken and found wanting – yes, darling, I used to have beliefs, just like you, and they used to really mean something. They meant too much – they became too aware of themselves. They became as I had become, and they became unanswerable, and ironic, and just as reasonably as I talked myself into them could I reasonably talk myself out of them, upholding them in one turn and disproving them in another. I trapped myself in a static state of knowing disillusionment, which lingered, long into adulthood, concluding in the foregoing of my ideals entirely. A pragmatic, non-committal acceptance of reality has ensued. And here I am, now, darling – accepting! Here I am now.
Here in my antebellum home by a river whose bends I’ve hardly ever known. I speak with the same superficial drawl I’ve ever known, the drawl of the times, the calm and withdrawn know-how, the reservation, the courteousness; I speak the ancient tongue of my people, a tongue once pure but now muddled, a tongue in lasting decline since the late unpleasantries – in short, I am where I’ve ever been, and always will be. I am where my people tilled and plowed and overturned the earth for profit. I speak the syntax of the foreman who cracks his nasty whip, the diction of the sharecroppers, given way to cropdusters, given way to book-learning and incivility; I am where I was meant to be, darling. The lasting decline. I am who I was ever set to be. And I have been backed into a corner, acceptance my only conclusion. So I accept, and so lasts the decline.
And what of our dreams, mother? What of Portugal, what of Praha, what of our studio apartment in Paris, or the art gallery in St. Petersburg, the secret literary societies of Morocco? What of the sailboats down the riviera, of weekending in Monaco, of Spain? Of Spain! Espana! El pais del amor! Pienso de nosotros dos amantes, profundamente dormido a orillas del Cadaquez… I bet you haven’t practiced your Spanish in years. Neither have I. Repeat after me. Si mi mujer me amara de verdad, yo sonreia todo el tiempo. Espana! Espana! What of Spain? What of the coasts, the landscapes, the portraits, the self-portraits, the easels, the picnics, the trout, the tennis courts, the gambling, the memories, the linen suits, the fresh serrano ham to hang in the mudroom – Que lastima – Desearia estar en Espana! We, young and in love, would wake to the sweeping caws of seagulls every morning from outside our curtained window, and by nightfall we would dine on the freshest catch, with the finest wine, in a calming mid-evening breeze, and we would walk for hours through the countryside thereafter, holding hands and philosophizing on the stars, on love, on each other – Que lastima!
We never did make it to Spain, did we? And why is that, darling? It isn’t me. It must be me. It may be you. Perhaps that’s it – perhaps I have regrets, and you’re one of them. Perhaps I should’ve married a Londoner. Oh, only I lived now on the West Bank, and could romance my fair-haired Londoner from her window high above, high where she belongs, in my esteem, in my priorities, in her splendor. I could play my clarinet for her from her stoop, serenading her long into the night – she was a woman, all right. La mujer. My, what a woman was she. She had class. Where is she now, save my dreams, my fitful dreams that keep my tossing and turning and then laying paralyzed in my bed at night, one side of the pillow cold, one side burning hot. Where is she, my lovely Londoner? Does she suffer, as I suffer? Is she as miserable as I? Does she sit by the open window early in the morning, while the rest of the house is still fast asleep, having a smoke, gazing out through the downcast weather, feeling down, feeling blue all over – do you feel down like me, darling? I never meant to blame you. I am why we never went to Spain. I am why; not you. I never meant to blame you. I should never have gone to school – I shouldn’t have wasted all my precious time at such vain and fruitless ends. I should have never joined the ranks of the shining, of the elite, of the disillusioned and the disgraced – school! What a proposition! I, darling, Mr. Ivy League, riding on the backs of my forefathers, institutionalized, influenced – pansies, esthetes and sophisticates – partialities and subjectivity – nothing worth nothing, darling, nothing at all worth nothing. I myself am responsible for my lasting decline. We should’ve fled together, forever, to Spain.
This isn’t right. You look upset. You look tired. You should go to sleep, darling. You’ve listened long enough. You could never understand me anyway. Never someone as sweet and innocent as you. As dole-eyed. My worldview is too cacophonous for your delicate ears. Let me just say, my darling, that you make an excellent fruit cobbler, that I love the way you iron and fold my collared shirts, and that tonight, as every night hence, I’m liable to die before I wake. So turn out the lights – take me to bed. Lace up my shoes so I won’t trip. Don’t mind my hand while I play around. Guide me up the stairs, little woman, and be careful with my hips – you know how sore they are. There’s a beetle living in my heel. He’s electric. There’s a lively hop to my step – but I ain’t dancing, mother! No-ho-ho. You know I’m not a dancing man. I’m ill at ease, and I can’t help it. Hold me still, sweetheart – bestill my beating feet – disrobe yourself for me – and keep quiet! Lest you wake the young one.
I need to stand still. Support me, darling. Hold me in your arms. Allow me to study your features. They have long gone unstudied by mine eyes. You know, darling, you’re prettier than I ever give you credit for. You’re somewhat one of the prettiest – and you’re just so endearing. This doleful eyes. You’ve never been moreso. No, darling – I can safely say, whatever ails me, it isn’t you. Well, it may be, but nothing of your doing – nothing that can be done. I’ve stood still long enough. Take me to my bedroom, mama. Let’s forget this night ever happened. Take my back to my bedroom and we can pretend there’s still meaning in our lives. We’ll go to sleep, and then we’ll wake back up again, and then we’ll lay together and smoke our cigarettes. Just like old times. And I’ll smoke mine and you’ll smoke yours and we’ll watch the clouds come and go outside our window while patting our little boy on his head and saying re-assuring things, like, “The world is your’s, son. The world is your’s.” And we may or may not be telling the truth – you never can tell.
(Mrs. Sotheby carries him up the stairs, down the hallway, and into the bedroom. He sits on the edge of the bed, his head in his hands. She goes into the bathroom and latches the door behind her. The bathtub runs.)
That’s very nice of you, dear – you are always there when I need you. You know how sore I am these days, and you, so strong, so buxom, so stable, like a mule, like a sandbag, always there to stay the flood, to bar the passage of evil, to still the brutal winds of life. Darling, don’t you go taking so long in the bath, you hear me? I feel like you aren’t listening to me. How can you hear me from in there? I can’t hear you. I want to talk to you. Don’t you want to talk with me? I’ll be here, in bed, when you’re finished. We’ll have ourselves a handsome little romance then. We’ll fondle and play. I’ll make everything I’ve said up to you. I know I’ve said some rotten things and I didn’t mean any of it. I am ashamed of my language and afraid that I’ve hurt you because of my brashness and I aim to make it up to you. It ain’t you – it ain’t. You’re a doll. You’re a plump, porcelain antique. I’d love to keep you locked up in a plushy trophy cabinet, or safe in place over a fireplace, underneath my war rifle, or besides a bust of my Grandsir. You’re beautiful, doll, and you’ve got nothing to do with me. Nothing is as I expected it to be. Nothing at all – and it never could have been any different.
The flat truth is, darling, it couldn’t have been any better, either. I did everything just right – and where I did wrong, my luck turned things around again. Just my luck. Everything as I envisioned it – how then, darling, am I so upset? Everything went according my own master plan.
A master plan, I realize now, that was penned by the master hands of a boy at the height of his bold and reckless youth – a time when his wits were at their frivolous and hallucinatory end. A master plan every bit as frivolous and hallucinatory as any and every other belief I have ever held. The stupidity is accentuated by how proudly I beheld it – and how strongly I have come to regret it. It’s like I’ve eaten the bread from the hands of a fool my whole life, and grown fat and foolish in turn – and that fool is myself, that which thinks, therefore is – I have been my own unwitting undoing. Here I sit, undone.
(Mr. Sotheby falls from the edge of the bed and to his knees. He folds his hands in front of his face.)
Jesus Christ all-mighty savior my father thou who art in heaven who hallowed be thy name, Jesus Christ, glory be, glory be – glory be to the father, and to the son, and to the holy spirit – as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be – world without end – glory be thy kingdom come, thy will be done, et cetera, et cetera, amen.
(Finishing his prayer, he opens his eyes, chuckles, and stands up. He sees his reflection in the mirror and goes closer to it.)
Did you hear me just then, darling? Hah! Who do I think I am? I was trying to pray – it just seized up over me like that – but I could hardly think of a damned thing to say. But damn if I didn’t do it all right. You’ve married you a praying man, darling. How absurd. Darling, can you hear me in there? Are you even listening? I don’t bet you are. I bet you’ve cut your wrists open, or taken a toaster in the bath with you, or sunk below the water level of your bath and drowned there until you were through with me forever. Well no matter either way, you stay where you are, you here? I ain’t calling no doctor, not this early on a Sunday morning, to come and raise a fuss about you. You should be ashamed.
(He leans in to the mirror and begins preening himself.)
Hell. ‘You’re a handsome devil. What’s your name?’ Look at how handsome I am – how well I’ve aged. I’m as handsome as a man can be – I’m scarred, I’m weathered, and I’m getting fat – by the looks of me, I’m a man – I’m a big game hunter – I’m a figure from Hemingway. The soft, round boyishness of my childhood has long bled away, leaving a raw and caustic leather in its place.
Except for those eyes. When did my eyes get so hollow, darling? Are you listening? No, I guess not. What bleary, hollow eyes I have! And my sockets have sunk so deep – were I a thinner man, I’d look like a junky with these eyes.
Since you’re not listening, I’ll tell you the truth. I’d tell you – it’s tragic – but it wouldn’t sway a heart like yours. you’d remain unconvinced, and you’d throw your stones and beat me with your sticks. But now I can safely say it. I’m afraid to sleep at night. When I sleep it tears me to pieces. Last time I slept, I dreamt of a letter from a Londoner. I read it and I re-read it and I cried myself awake over it. When I woke I was feeling something I hadn’t felt in a very long time. Something like that terrible institution, childhood. Something vain and fruitless – and something I had no desire to return to.
In London, indeed, and elsewhere, too, I’ve known a woman or two, darling. Though I needn’t tell you about those things. I don’t suppose you’re too unfamiliar yourself with such affairs – with the traditions of the gallant, and of gallantry – with the mistresses and the courtesans – with the way of the rake and the femme fatale. But my side of the story is invariably more complex than yours, and more breathtaking, and all the more appalling for it. and I should expect from you an appalling despair. Appalled by my indiscretions. Appalled by my lifeless remorse.
Nevertheless, you and I both played our games, and we both came out the same – unsatisfied, wanting, and faithful to each other, more faithful than ever before, for each time it happened it became clearer that this was as good as it gets. And how liberating an expression that is to have clearly in your head.
I’m getting awfully lonely by myself, darling. And sick to death of talking to myself. Come out of your bath, please, and join me. Are you all right in there? Darling? I was playing about what I said earlier. I was just playing. You know that. I haven’t heard a sound out of you since you went and locked yourself up in there. What’s that all about, anyway, darling? Speak up. Speak up for yourself. Tell me something – I need to hear it – my lips and my tongue have run dry and my ears are ragged red from my own rough voice. You have no idea how badly I need to hear it – to hear you say what you want to say. What you deserve and need to say. I’m a lousy old drunk with empty bastard thoughts. You’re a healthy woman who reads canonical literature. Tell me something good, darling. Tell me why you hate me and why you wish you’d never met me. Tell me why you love me and why you forgive me my transgressions. Come to bed and whisper it in my ear. Whisper it to my legs. Come from the bathroom, darling, and come to bed with me. My shoes are off, my clothes nicely folded – come to bed with me, darling, and we’ll pretend like none of this never happened. The sun will shortly rise, and you and I will rise with it, and we will join our son at the breakfast table, and we will go to church like good Christians, and after church we’ll take our son to the beach, where we’ll all enjoy ice cream cones, and I’ll buy everyone a kite to fly, and so against the gusty seaside wind will paper kites find flight at the end of our strings. What fun we’ll have then, darling – you can stand by, under your parasol, and take photographs of your handsome family on our charming holiday out together. It will be like none of this never happened, darling. Come to bed with me. The sun is rising. Come to bed.
(Early Sunday morning and the Sotheby family is gathered around the breakfast table, one half hour before church begins. Mister, Missus, and Junior have just sat down to eat a meal prepared by Mister himself of bacon and eggs with his signature fruit juice, ruby red.)
You milk is getting warm. You need to drink up. Build strong bones, like me.
Yes, sir. Only thing is I don’t have much time to eat, I’m supposed, assuming that’s all right that is, to go and meet Jack Bixby in ten minutes to go hunting. If that’s all right by y’all, that is, papa, that I can go hunting today, I mean.
A hunt! I’ll be damned. Sounds like a ball.
It isn’t hunting season, I don’t think.
Oh, mama! Hunting season? Old Buck Fuller’s the only game warden there is and what’s he gon’ do? Five dollars says he’s out hunting right this minute. I say have at ’em, son. Yours is the earth and everything in it, isn’t that what they tell us? What are you hunting, anyway? Turkey? Coons? Deer?
I couldn’t say, papa. Only thing is, truth is, I want me a fox.
A fox! Why, I really don’t think you ought to miss church for a thing like foxhunting. That isn’t even…
Nonsense, mama. To be honest, I can’t think of a single better reason to skip church than a bit of the old foxhunt. God made man in his own image, and our son is just trying to be a man, and I’ll be damned if that ain’t the Christian way. I’m too decent a Christian to have my son do anything else today, in fact, than go on a foxhunt.
I can’t believe my eyes. Two heathens and an uneaten breakfast at my breakfast table. You won’t be skipping breakfast, and you won’t be skipping church, neither, especially outside of hunting season. Especially to shoot foxes.
Now hear here, son – you don’t need to pay your mama no mind this morning. She had a long night and she isn’t feeling too well. Do what you want to do – shoot you some foxes. Make a clean enough kill, we’ll stuff one, would you like that? Here, now, take a few dollars for some food and some bullets, whatever you need, if yo need it. But be back in time to clean up for dinner, you hear? You best not be late and disappoint your mama, you hear me? She doesn’t need no disappoint like that. And, listen, boy – while you’re out there, don’t you go getting arrested for poaching or nothing neither, not today.
(Junior excuses himself from the table, his plate uneaten, and kisses his mother on the cheek.)
I best be on my way now. I’m late as it is. Thank you for breakfast, papa. I love you, mama. I’ll be home by dinner, I promise.
Bag me something handsome, boy.
(The screen door opens and closes behind Junior as he leaves. He runs across the fields, over towards the distant treeline where his young friend is already waiting for him, kicking his heels in the dirt, blowing snot from his nostrils, and shooting his rifle aimlessly in the air.)
There goes our boy, mama. Just like his old man.
Yes, sir. Just like you.