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Authors: Patricia Highsmith

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BOOK: Mermaids on the Golf Course
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Simon watched Chris stirring under all the covers, perhaps trying to get out of bed, and Simon felt tongue-tied about asking if Chris wanted any help.

“Right away, Chris!” Simon made for the door.

Less than five minutes later, Simon was standing with a heavy glass of scotch in his hand, his back to the fireplace, Peter and Richard on either side of him, all chattering about nothing. Simon felt, yet of course something, because each knew something about the careers of the others, that Peter had been working in Hollywood for a year or two, that Richard had with difficulty, being American, played in a musical two years ago in London. Peter was in his mid-forties. In his twenties, nearly to the present, Peter had danced and sung. Simon was aware that he had a place of honor in the house, because he was the oldest, he reckoned, and had known Chris probably before the others had.

The phone was ringing again. Nobody paid any attention, because a servant was going to answer it.

A trio of men, one of whom Simon recognized as Jonathan Truman, was attempting to sing in harmony in an armchaired corner of the living room. They looked unshaven and rumpled. Simon glanced at his watch: nearly 1
A.M.
local time and nearly 8
P.M.
in New York. His understudy would be in his dressing room, making up before Simon’s mirror, aging himself, not trying to look younger, and perhaps nervously saying some lines to himself. Simon drank all his glass.

Someone banged him on the back.

“Chris is here!”

“Chris is coming!” shouted Freddy Detweiler, spreading his arms at the foot of the stairs.

Chris was wheeled down, step by step, by Marcus and August, a blondish man whom Simon had indeed found in the kitchen. August leaned back like a thin mast in a wind against the weight of the chair.

“Chris!”
A scattered cheer went up, a patter of applause that seemed to Simon pitiable, as when an audience was scant. Simon had not joined in, he merely stared in wonder at the heavy man in a blue-and-white striped dressing gown with long-fingered hands gripping the arms of his chair, with the fixed pink and white smile on closed lips. Safely down with his charge, August went to the sideboard and poured champagne, while at least four figures fluttered around Simon like bees.

“Chris, what do you fancy? Carl on the piano? Me—standing on my head? Or my impersonation of an English tourist in Uganda?” This question came from Freddy, forty-five if he was a day, and could he still stand on his head? The question might have been unheard by Chris whose blue eyes were roving as usual, taking in essentials.

“What kind of music tonight, Chris?”

“Indian,” said Chris absently, like a man doped or talking in his sleep. “
Simon
is here!” Chris announced, as if the others didn’t know it.

Fortunately, only a couple of smiling faces troubled to turn to Simon for an instant, and Simon looked away. Simon squeezed his eyes shut, not near tears again, but something like it. He remembered the pleasure, the terror even, of meeting Christopher Wells at twenty. Well, maybe some of the others had met him when they were at that age too, or near enough. Otherwise why would they be here? Freddy was in a London show now, Simon knew, yet he was here. “Can I see you in New York? Do you ever come to New York?” Chris had asked that first night backstage in Stockbridge. Simon in those days had traveled everywhere by bus or by hitchhiking, his worldly goods in a duffel bag. Twenty-nine years ago, and Chris Wells had been even then sixty-five! Had Chris’s age ever crossed Simon’s mind then? Amazingly, it hadn’t. “You’ll go to school with me for a few weeks,” Chris had said, meaning that Simon was to move into his Park Avenue apartment. That huge, rambling apartment with at least six big rooms looked as large in Simon’s memory as if he had been a small child then. You must do this and you must not do that, Chris had said a dozen times a day, and though Chris had often had lunch or dinner with people in Manhattan (Simon sometimes accompanied him too), Chris had always set Simon some lines to learn out of Shakespeare, Pirandello, Shaw, Eugene O’Neill. Simon hadn’t had to memorize them, but he had had to be able to read them, and Chris would play the other parts, male or female. He showed Simon how to get up from a chair without lurching, corrected his diction without insulting him (Simon was from Idaho), and Chris had paid all the bills, saying that he was taking Simon away from possible work then. And when Simon had been strangely in love with Chris, Simon had known that Chris knew it. Simon was not homosexual, and would not have known, at least not then, what to do with a man in bed. But it was not so simple as bed, what he had felt for Chris. It was more like hero worship, more like devotion and absolute confidence. Chris had once said, “Your work is more important than I am—than anybody.
People
come and go.” Had Christopher meant girls then? Or friends? Even that bit of advice had sunk in. Simon had had at least four affairs, two of which he considered important, meaning that they had made him happy and that the ends of them had hurt, but he had never married, and though he had not willed it, or taken it on himself, he realized now that he had followed Chris’s advice: keep yourself independent, your work is more important than personal relationships.

In the next couple of minutes, the drink took effect, the atmosphere, the realization that Russ Johnson was on the stage now, playing William in New York. There was music, a buffet banquet laid out on a table in a grotto of the garden, down some lighted stone steps from Chris’s house. Simon remembered a summer lunch here the one time he had been to High-Ho. August was tending a brazier, grilling beef, and a few figures stood near the fire for warmth. The cheerful voices carried to the black curtain of fir trees all around: they were talking of former visits, telling old anecdotes, and Chris was among them, in his wheelchair. How much longer did he have to live, Simon wondered.

Simon glanced at several faces. Whom did he dare ask that question? Who would give him a straight answer, even a straight opinion? However, he was here, the last of the disciples that Chris had wanted. The rest was up to Chris. Was Chris going to die with a smile on his lips, like now, lifting a glass of champagne? Simon watched Chris tip his head back and laugh at a remark Peter had made, and Simon fancied he saw Chris’s belly shake like jelly under the mohair coverlet that was pulled up to his waist. Death and decay—was indeed not funny. Simon went to the buffet table for some wine with which to finish his supper. He had decided not to ask anyone his opinion of when Chris might die.

Now it was nearly 3
A.M.
At least four had drifted off to the house to retire. Detweiler was rather drunk.

“A toast to Simon!” Chris shouted. “One of my more brilliant children. Oh, you’re all brilliant! To Simon!”

“Simon!” echoed a half-dozen voices and the name seemed to reach the mountains.

“And to those who never doubt,” Chris added.

They chuckled and drank.

A few minutes later, Detweiler did attempt to stand on his head, and fell, got up to mocking laughs, rubbing the end of his spine, but he wasn’t hurt. Plucky of him to have tried it, Simon thought, with no soft grass to land on here, just stone.

Simon turned towards the descending steps, and took a deep breath. He needed relief from the scene of Chris surrounded, oppressed even, by his former protégés. Somewhere ahead on the stone path another electric light glowed. Then Simon caught his heel on an uneven stone and plunged forward. He had not been walking fast, but he was going to land on his head, and he was aware that he did not put out his hands to protect himself. He was going to die, now. This was the great plunge, and it was like a dream, after all, painless yet final.

He woke up to a soft roar of voices that sounded like a sea, blinked his eyes and recognized the faces bending over him, smelled the wood smoke of Chris’s fireplace. He was lying on one of Chris’s long leather sofas in the living room.

“He’s come to! He’s okay!”

“Oh, good—good.” That was Chris’s tired and relieved voice in the background.

A man laughed. “Simon, you really took a header! We heard the plop!”

“But there’s no bleeding! Not a scratch on him!”

“Take a sip of this hot tea.”

“I’m going off to bed . . .”

Simon got up, and in a near daze said good night to Chris and walked up the stairs, even washed to some extent before he donned pajamas. He felt even stranger than when he had arrived, not drunk though he must be a little drunk, but as if he had left this world and entered another. He pinched his forearm hard through his pajama sleeve, and felt it.

He flopped into bed and at once fell asleep.

He had a very vivid dream of being about sixteen, on a bicycle, hampered by groceries which he was supposed to bring to his family’s house. He knew the old way—in the dream it was along certain curving unpaved lanes, though in Simon’s boyhood the streets near his home had been paved—but he kept getting lost. And Chris Wells was hovering somewhere above, like God, saying, “Come on, Simon, to the
left
here. You know the way. What’s the matter with you?” And Simon awakened, unsuccessful in returning home.

What did that dream mean? Anxiety, insecurity. Even Chris had not been able to show him the way.

Simon lay on his back in the near darkness of his room, enjoying the slow coming of dawn at his windows which made black lumps of Chris’s handsome furniture, of the high-backed chair on which Simon had put his jacket last night. The jacket looked like a bat hanging there. The house was silent, and only one bird’s voice—it did not sound like a lark—cried once or twice beyond the windows.

And maybe Chris would be found dead this morning in his bed. Simon imagined August going in with a tea tray and finding him. Simon tensed, preparing himself for this, as if it were a truth to be announced in an hour or so.

Weren’t some of the others thinking the same thing, since his own arrival last evening?

Simon showered and shaved in the bathroom down the hall, then dressed in old gray flannels, a shirt and heavy sweater. The bruise on his head throbbed a bit more painfully. It had awakened him last night, an ache and a rising lump that felt like the classic egg. He wasn’t going to mention it to anyone, though it made some of his short hair stand straight out.

Simon went out the front door and retraced his steps of last evening, went past the old stone table that had held their supper, and was unable to identify exactly the spot where he had tripped. Wouldn’t it be odd if he had died here a few hours ago, if the others had carried up his corpse instead of him merely unconscious? Simon looked quickly back at the big chalet, and heard a faint
ting
of metal striking metal, a sound from the kitchen. Two soft lights glowed behind curtains.

He ran back up the steps.

Detweiler was in the living room, on his feet, looking tired but nervously alert, dressed as was Simon in trousers and sweater. “Up already! ’Morning, Simon!”

“Good morning! And how’s Chris?”

“Chris? Same, I suppose.”

“Well—” Simon hesitated. “Is he really going to die? Is he on the brink, I mean? Carl’s telegram to me—said so.”

“Yes,” said Freddy, looking Simon straight in the eye.

Was Freddy Detweiler still drunk? Simon strolled towards the fireplace where embers still burned, then turned. “Last night—I didn’t have a chance and I didn’t really want to ask what the doctors said. Do you know?”

“Oh, to hell with the doctor or doctors. They’re amazed he’s still alive. A piece of a lung he’s got, as they said of old Keats, or maybe Keats said it about himself. The rest is water. But with Chris it’s mental, whether and when he dies. You know that. I could use a weak scotch, how about you?”

“No, thanks.” He watched as Detweiler poured an inch into a glass and added water from a Perrier bottle. “But now that we’re all here—”

Just then, August came in with a tray. “Good morning, sir. Good morning. Your tea, sirs.” He arranged teacups and toast plates on the low table near the fireplace.

“What?” asked Detweiler.

Simon saw in Detweiler’s nervous eyes the same question that he had asked. When was Chris going to decide to die? “I meant,” Simon began as he poured tea, “how long do you think this will go on?” He handed Detweiler his cup. “Sugar?”

“Today, tomorrow. Who knows?”

“You’re going to stay—till the end?”

“Yes,” said Detweiler with the same firmness as before, though now he looked whipped by fatigue. “But Richard has to go back to London today, I think. He’s been here four days, and I—three or four.”

Simon felt uneasy, and tried to take comfort from the tea. Chris would be incomplete again with Richard gone. Then what? “Won’t it be—”

“We haven’t had our presents yet,” Detweiler interrupted on a suddenly cheerful note. “He’s giving us all little presents. Maybe big ones, I don’t know.—What were you going to say?”

“I—I started to say, isn’t it impossible to imagine Chris gone? Not with us any more. He—Not that I wrote to him so often in the past—lately. But I always knew he was there. He always spoke on the phone at Christmas or around Christmas. Somehow we each found out where the other was.”

“What’re you trying to say?” asked Detweiler.

Simon frowned and glanced at the fire. August had added wood to it. “I suppose I’m asking, do you think Chris is going to die—or not?”

“Are you in a hurry?” Detweiler asked with a smile, and sipped his scotch.

Simon knew Detweiler wanted an angry reaction, but Simon didn’t feel angry. “I love Chris—and I’m upset. Also I know he’s going to die. So I’m sorry I asked you.”

“You should be.” Detweiler reached for the bottle again.

The telephone rang in the room. “Is a servant supposed to answer this?” Simon asked, but Detweiler showed only indifference, and Simon picked the telephone up. “Hello. Christopher Wells’s residence.”

“Simon, it’s
you.
What luck! I know it’s early for you but I had to tell you—all goes well. Russ did a good job, really made it last night. The
Times
this morning even had an item about him. Russ must’ve done some fast phoning before he went on or somebody else did it for him. He’s happy as a fool. Probably thinks he’s become Laurence Olivier overnight.” It was the voice of Stew Davis, the director of
William.

BOOK: Mermaids on the Golf Course
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