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Authors: John Domini

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BOOK: Bedlam and Other Stories
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In a moment the evidence fell into place. “I understand;” and that low-bore chuckle; and Garbeau's soft, soft tone of voice. Garbeau and Hartley had been the only ones to stay behind at the hotel this morning. They'd been the only ones to visit the bar last night. Everyone here
knew
.

Now Hartley couldn't free himself from that grinning, painted mirror. He tried to straighten up, be a soldier, but instead stumbled backwards on the heels of his unfamiliar sandals. He thought how he must look, in his colored beach shirt, his swim trunks that showed off skinny legs white from a New England spring. He felt utterly freakish. The wrinkled member between his legs seemed without warning to hang down enormously, heavy and prominent, as if Hartley was dragging around some kind of dinosaur whose tail was roped to his waist.

“You never wanted me to come here.” He spoke to Garbeau but kept his eyes on the actor. “You did everything you could to keep me from seeing this.”

“Just let them sing,” Garbeau said. “Just let them
start
. You'll see.”

Hartley's chin dropped to his chest.

It seemed that the actor playing him had already struck the opening chords. There was some dialogue Hartley didn't catch, as the kid strummed. Then they were into it, “Silent Night” of course. They sang with a wonderful shivering raggedness. Hartley found he could lift his head, they sounded so good. He saw a man by one camera holding up a cue card with the lyrics printed on it. He saw that the actor who played Hartley sang looking just enraged. The kid sang with a look as if he were ready to tear somebody's guts out. And by “holy infant, so tender and mild,” Garbeau had pressed up close to Hartley, pinning one of his arms against his side.

“Now tell me,” she murmured in his ear, “doesn't this feel right?”

All he could feel was the uneven gentleness of her body against his arm. His knuckles dangled in the cushioned opening at the top of her thighs. He thought:
I must be in love
. Only if he were in love, he reasoned, could he have let her play him so easily for a sap.

“Hartley, you're such a natural,” she whispered. “You're such an apeman. You must see this is true to life.”

And to hide his feelings, to pretend another explanation for the tears that had started to stream down his cheeks, Hartley opened his mouth and crowded it with song.

The next morning he made an honest effort to get resecured. He'd been unable to resist spending the night with Garbeau again, unable to resist yet another bout of roughhousing come morning. But when she went out to swim he drank coffee at the coffee bar. He wore his fatigues, long sleeves and all. After his second cup he knew what he'd do. Yes, really get resecured. He climbed the stairs back to Garbeau's room. Her company had set up a couple business lines, so a person could talk as long as they wanted. He double-checked the DO NOT DISTURB sign. Then Hartley let down his pants and settled himself once more in the bed. He didn't bother with his boots, only pulled his pants and shorts down round his knees. He and Claire had done this before. Took so much concentration, so much give and take, it always wound up clearing his head. He dialled the number and then held the phone in one hand.

No answer. Hartley tried twice more. He had the switchboard operator try a third time.

“Afraid no one's home, sir.”

Hartley tried to think. He'd thrown the pillow on the floor and lay at ramrod attention.

“Operator. Ah, could you tell me. I was wondering what day it was?”

“The 15th, sir. Father's Day.”

“Good, good.”
What
? What was good about that? “But I mean, operator? Ah, I'm from out of state. What day of the week is it?”

“Friday, sir.” Obviously the woman handled this kind of question all the time. “Friday, June 15th, 10:06 A.M.”

Suddenly Hartley was furious. His insides were going on spin-dry for the third day in a row and this headphone jockey downstairs was showing off her watch.


Operator
? Hey, operator, I'm in love. I came down here to see my life story and now I'm in love.”

“Very good, sir. Would you like a newspaper?”

“Huh? Hey, operator, never mind that. You know what Willy Peter is? Willy Peter, Make you a buh liever. You know what Willy Peter'll do to a dink in a cave?”

“I'm sorry, sir. It is the policy of the hotel to stay out of our patrons' personal affairs whenever possible.”

Her formality had iced over about two questions back; by this time nothing would crack it. And Hartley knew that he wasn't being straight either. This bragging on love, bragging on violence—it wasn't him. He slammed down the phone. He was still lying there, frowning and with his hands where his belt would be normally, when Garbeau came in.

Wet, her short hair had grown longer. Rivulets wandered slowly into the bottom of her bikini. Hartley was so disturbed he spoke up first.

“I tried to call home.”

Garbeau had been standing looking startled. Now, again, he'd made her laugh.

“Hartley, God.” She shook her head. “You are such a natural.” She sat, picked up the other phone, gave him a different look. “But I guess you didn't get through. Poor boy. It's still all wrinkled up like Mr. Froggy.”

She turned away from him and started making calls. More TV shorthand. So far as Hartley could tell, it was something about when he'd get his first check. Then, the phone still over one shoulder, Garbeau picked up a clipboard from the hotel desk and began making notes on the attached pad. The noise of the pages riffling back and forth grated on Hartley.

“It's Friday,” he said finally. “Friday is when the wife does the errands. Plus Bobby and Janey are at school.”

Garbeau turned a couple more pages.

“The
wife
,” Hartley almost shouted, “is doing the
errands
.”

“All right.” She left the clipboard and phone where they were but met his gaze. “All right, let's hear it.”

Hartley could only blink.

“I've sat through this riff a hundred times. You just go right ahead.”

A hundred times. So, Hartley thought. Men fell in love with her right and left. So he was Sap of the Week.

“Oh, come on, Slim,” she said. “It's the real people like you against the TV people like
me
, right? All TV people are artificial. All TV people are parasites. They don't have feelings of their own so they suck off everyone else.
Right
?”

Hartley felt his ideas going inside out and looking foolish. Suddenly he wanted just to hide in a hole somewhere.

“I mean, you married your high-school
sweetheart
. You have Bobby and Janey and they go to school. But a person like me, I'm hardly human. All a TV person like me wants is money and a good fuck. Well fuck
you
, Captain Hartley.”

Her face was wrecked. She whipped the phone off her shoulder and shook it at him.

“Maybe some of us didn't go for that quaint-little-New-England crap! Maybe some of us thought a little more of ourselves than just, ‘the wife'! The
truth
is, Hartley, if I'd stayed in St. J. I'd be so godawful beaten-down by now you wouldn't give me a second look.”

He lay there bewildered. He was hurt by the crack about wives, thrown by how far off base his own ideas had been, deeply embarrassed about his nakedness. He'd knotted his fingers over his stomach tight. Yet at the same time Hartley felt—and this was the bewildering part—honestly good. He felt as if he'd just got some bit of what he needed, this morning. There was an honest satisfaction in finding out another terrible thing about himself. Hartley began to think of wisecracks, and of how he might take off the rest of his clothes without insulting her.

But nothing came to him quickly enough. Almost at once, like putting the period with a sledgehammer, Garbeau went back to her phone calls. She looked a little thrown and embarrassed herself. Hartley had to watch her sit there stiffly, had to listen through two more conversations in that maddening shorthand code. The pages on her clipboard riffled again. So the more satisfied part of his mind dropped away as mysteriously as it had arrived. He couldn't even decide whether or not to pull up his pants. Garbeau meantime went through a lot of gimmicks, ignoring him. She touched the stems and petals on the flowers he'd bought her last night. She wrapped the phone wire round her index finger. Somehow she found time for a cigarette too. Hartley understood the lines of battle had been drawn, that much he could trust, but he couldn't be sure if a man in love was supposed to cross those lines or back away.

“Hey?” he said finally.

Another surprise: Garbeau smiled at him. She untangled her finger and lay the phone on her shoulder again.

“Okay, Hartley, okay.” She stubbed out her cigarette. “I guess I—
okay
, I apologize.”

“No,” Hartley began. “No, don't.”

“Let's just say I brought a lot of stuff down on you that other people put on me.”

He wouldn't nod, wouldn't give any sign. He didn't want those clear lines of force dissolving.

“But look, now, we've had a lot of fun these last couple days but, I do have work here—”


Ronnie
.” He actually waved a fist at her. “What I want to know is, what do you think of this? What do you think of how you and I can do this?”

The question, lumpy and badly put as it was, exhausted him. He watched as Garbeau changed the way she was sitting. And she took time for another cigarette. Between slow drags, plainly trying to feel for what he was after, she told Hartley that during these past couple days she'd come while he was inside her. “I mean, that's pretty rare, you should know.”

Hartley shook his head. That was just something he'd learned over in Nam. He pressed his knuckles against his stomach muscles, felt the coffee down there bubble against his diaphragm. The only things that came to mind were more wisecracks.

“You've done this before,” Garbeau said. “I mean, God, with this war-hero business, what else do you need? The AP put what you did number six on the list of the ten greatest stories of American bravery since World War II.”

Again Hartley was waving his fist, as if to ward this stuff off.

“Hey, Hartley. You're the one who goes around giving speeches. You're—”

“I don't give speeches,” he said quickly. It was such a relief to put in something simple and certain. “I
hate
speeches. I feel like the world's biggest fake up there. The Army stopped making me give speeches a long time ago. They know I'm at my best working one-on-one.”

Garbeau bought some more time with her cigarette. Then she smiled.

“Well, so, that just proves what I'm saying. You're a natural, Hartley. I mean, if you're telling me these last couple days have stirred up some doubts,”—she snorted at the idea—“forget it. You're what every man wishes he was. You're lady bait.”

She laughed. The flowers changed color behind her scattered smoke. And when Hartley tried to chuckle in response, to help her blow away this silly idea of doubts, he discovered something that left him ruined. He was almost in tears again. His throat clenched round his breathing. Everything beneath the neck was straining, revving with the pedal to the floor. Hartley must have gone three years without crying and now he was breaking up two days in a row. He thought:
What have these guys done to me
? He flexed his feet in his boots, locked his fingers together tight, tight. What had they done, now that Hartley couldn't ask a simple question? Garbeau's laugh now was nothing special, only the same trick she'd been using on him since he came off the plane in Fort Lauderdale. She was only trying to keep the customer satisfied. But how was Hartley ever to get round that act, here with his dinosaur hanging in his way again, falling out over the edge of the bed, trolling across the hotel floor?
Ladybait
? Hartley had to get out of there. These users, with their codes and contracts—he had to escape.

Garbeau had stopped laughing. No doubt she'd seen he wasn't going along with it. She sat back and waited for him to explain.

“You people,” he began. His tone was just barely under control, but the lie took clear shape as he spoke. “You
TV
people.”

The fight that followed didn't take much imagination. She'd already given Hartley all the weapons. The first time he said that Garbeau didn't have any feelings, he could see he'd scored. The surfaces of her eyes flattened. When he asked if she ever planned to have some kids of her own, she threw the clipboard at him. It caught him on the ribs and sent paper flying everywhere. After that Hartley no longer had to work to keep his voice from cracking. He began to shout like a born officer. Garbeau made the mistake of going for him with her fingernails, and he put a quick hand-to-hand move on her. Then she simply lay on the rug awhile, screaming insults. Hartley could swear that at one point he heard a maid giggling outside the door. In no time the two were reaching back for high-school slurs:
tramp, white trash, stupid grease monkey
.

“Why don't you go back to, to camp or wherever it is they keep you apes?” Garbeau was standing up. “We sure don't need you here. You can come back with your
wife
.”

She shook her hair angrily. Hartley was still lying in bed, playing the cool dude. From this angle he was stung by the unexpected revelation, her fine legs against the numb synthetics of the hotel curtain. He felt the old tug. Amazing, he still wanted her. Could that—could
that
have been the reason he'd gotten so jerked around? For now at least it was obvious that he'd never been in love with Garbeau. No never; love had been only a game for switchboard operators.

“You'll still get your
checks
,” Garbeau said.

They sat and made the necessary phone calls. She in her chair and he on the edge of the bed, they sat with knees touching, with even a few inches of their naked thighs touching. They faced each other. He called Fort Devens and then Fort Pope, Louisiana, where he'd done his basic training. He had no idea how far Fort Pope was or how he'd get there. Meantime she called Los Angeles and New York.

BOOK: Bedlam and Other Stories
2.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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