Undertow, p.1

Undertow, page 1



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  Chapter I

  Chapter II

  Chapter III

  Chapter IV

  Chapter V

  Chapter VI

  Chapter VII

  Chapter VIII

  Chapter IX

  Chapter X

  Chapter XI

  Chapter XII

  Chapter XIII

  Chapter XIV

  Chapter XV

  Chapter XVI

  Chapter XVII

  Chapter XVIII

  Chapter XIX

  Chapter XX

  Chapter XXI

  Chapter XXII

  Chapter XXIII

  Chapter XXIV

  Chapter XXV

  Chapter XXVI

  Chapter XXVII

  Chapter XXVIII

  Chapter XXIX

  Chapter XXX

  Chapter XXXI

  Chapter XXXII

  Chapter XXXIII

  Chapter XXXIV

  Chapter XXXV

  Chapter XXXVI

  Chapter XXXVII

  Chapter XXXVIII

  Chapter XXXIX

  Chapter XL


  Jackson Hole, Uneasy Eden

  Never Too Late For Love

  The Housewife Blues

  Private Lies

  Madeline’s Miracles

  We Are Holding the President Hostage

  Twilight Child

  Random Hearts

  The War of the Roses

  Blood Ties

  Natural Enemies

  The Casanova Embrace

  The Sunset Gang

  Trans-Siberian Express

  The Henderson Equation

  Banquet Before Dawn



  The Ties That Bind

  The Witch of Watergate

  Senator Love

  Immaculate Deception

  American Sextet

  American Quartet

  To Sunny

  Who Shines Always

  Author’s Note

  This is a work of fiction. All the characters are imaginary. Admittedly, there are similarities between the situations in this book and those in our real and complicated contemporary world. It would be unfair to graft onto these situations the flesh of real people—unfair to the author and unfair to the real people who might have been involved in vaguely similar real situations.

  On the other hand, art mirrors life; and people who exist in the imagination are just as real as people who exist in the flesh.


  From where I sat within the screened-in porch, I could see them emerging in the distance through the heavy amber mist. They walked beside an angry sea, a churning mass of whitecaps gliding toward the beaches with ends like frazzled lace.

  They were two barely discernible human shapes, man and woman, floating in my frame of vision as a subtle detail in an impressionistic painting.

  Rehoboth, off-season, in early April, shrouded in a cocoon of early spring haze, offered rare delights. Like now. Sitting on the screened-in porch, soothed by the muffled repetition of the pounding sea, hemmed in visually by a spectacular canvas of changing lights and tingling salted air, I was tranquilized.

  Of course, Christine’s champagne and orange juice, the bubbling eggs in the electric frying pan, the smell and sizzle of bacon, added infinite embellishments. Behind me, Christine was clinking glasses on the tabletop, rolling bright yellow napkins into tapering wine glasses, placing the centerpiece, a wicker basket of hyacinths.

  I watched the figures define themselves as they moved closer, the impressionism defeated by photographic reality. Don, taper-waisted, the belt on his faded denims square and centered, the tucked-in black pullover tight, as if it were painted on, the hair, peppered lightly, parted on the left in a perfect line—one might think it was all contrived, practiced. Never! Don was born that way, a fetus carved in marble. And Marlena, similarly carved out of Swiss chocolate, that long-necked gazelle look, high, smooth cheekbones, polished to a perfect shine, the clipped African hair, the question-mark stance, the dancer’s movements. The couple merged together as they turned in toward the house, sprinkling sand as their insteps dug into white mini-dunes. I refilled my glass from the pitcher, holding it up to the light, now sparkling orange.

  “You do beautiful things, Christine.”

  “Only when it seems to be worth the effort.”

  She smiled and bent over to straighten an errant salt shaker, her breast mounds swinging beautifully free under her long jersey pullover.

  “You’re worth it,” she corrected. “You didn’t drink too much. You made love beautifully. You cuddled me all night long, and I didn’t hear a single telephone call.”

  “Just the sound of passion.”

  “From them, mostly.” She pointed toward the couple coming closer.

  “They do carry on,” I said. “Do you suppose it’s true what they say about black girls?”

  “Oh, come on, Lou. We’re all sisters under the skin.”

  I opened the screen door for them.

  “The good senator arrives from his morning constitutional,” I said, bowing cavalierly, with the exaggerated fawning of a Cyrano.

  “We must have hiked two miles,” Don said. “Like walking out of an airplane into a cloud layer. Talk about being alone.” He sat down at the table and looked at the pretty setting with the yellow flashes of color. “That Christine is quite a secretary. What do you think, Marlena?”

  “First class. Oh, Christine, you should have let me help. You should have waited.”

  “You can help with the dishes. Besides, it was fun.”

  They sat down. Don poured the champagne while Christine dished out the bacon and eggs.

  “I would like to make a toast,” I said. My voice had a mellow sound. Inside me the champagne was warming, loosening my tongue. “To my friends, Marlena and Christine, all of us, the very beautiful people.”

  “And to the lovely man who lent us this weekend heaven,” Marlena said, raising her glass.

  “And to champagne and orange juice,” Don said.

  I watched him sip his champagne and then put the glass down noiselessly on the tabletop. These little details made the study of Donald James endlessly fascinating. Observing him had been an obsession since our college days. The boy had changed into the man, but nothing seemed to have changed at all. Don always put down his glass without a sound; his movements were fluid, like heavy oil moving down a polished surface. No motion ever seemed extraneous. One could see it even in the way he wore his clothes. He always wore a tie dead center, when he wore one, lined up with his Adam’s apple and the slight cleft in his chin, cutting upward in a line through his slightly flared nostrils, equidistant between the eyes, and downward like a plumb line through the perfect center of his balls. Don was the perfectly symmetrical man. All his camera angles were identical, as if, when he had the malleable flesh of a baby, his mother had turned him in his crib, like a roast on a spit, so that every side would be identically done.

  Perhaps the real fascination was in the contrast between him and me. I was always askew, all imperfect angles and loose ends, with a soft body, a fat mind, always “his” roommate, always tagging along, an endless example for purposes of comparison.

  Senator Donald Benjamin James, senior senator, Democrat, state of California, the unbeatable, unstoppable, sure to be president of the United States. Good old DBJ.

  Sitting now, watching him eating his eggs, sipping his champagne and orange juice like an ordinary mortal, with the angry seas as a backdrop and the fine haze, it all seemed like a motion picture frame, fifty times larger than life. How the hell did he do it? How does anyone get to be fifty times bigger than life? I suppose I shou
ld know. But lately it seemed that Don’s career had picked up a momentum not fueled by the usual man-made sources. Perhaps it was some mystical wind or a hurricane from somewhere beyond the points of the compass. Whatever it was, it was carrying him like a splinter of balsa wood along its mysterious eddies. An old sideman like me only played his end of the music, parading through the political jungle, hoping all the time that he kept in step and played his notes right.

  “How can I eat my eggs if you keep staring at me, Lou?” He turned to Marlena. “For twenty-five years this son-of-a-bitch has been staring at me.”

  “And what does he see?” Marlena asked.

  “He thinks he sees me. He thinks he knows me.”

  “And does he?” Christine piped, daintily, buttering an end of toast.

  “Do you, Lou?”

  “I’m learning.”

  “Beats the shit out of me.”

  “You know it’s true. I do stare at him. It’s a ridiculous habit, but that’s what it is—habit.”

  We finished the last of the orange juice and champagne and Don slouched into the rattan divan and lay back on Marlena’s lap. Her long, bony fingers played with his forehead.

  Christine began to clear the dishes. I followed her into the kitchen and picked a dish wiper off its white perch over the sink.

  “I’ll be magnanimous. We’ll let the kid enjoy her moment.”

  “He really likes her, Lou.”

  “Yes, he does. But, then again, she’s a rather exotic type. Black. Beautiful. Liberated. It’s kind of far afield, even for him. Never saw him turned on by a black chick.”

  Christine kept her head down as she washed away the vestiges of breakfast. She was probably thinking of her time, perhaps ten years ago. How old was Christine then—twenty-three, twenty-four—fresh from a year in New York, trim, sophisticated, knowing, with big puddles of dark eyes. He picked her right off his own tree, as if she was a mature apple ready to fall anyway. It went on for perhaps a year, maybe more, then phased out, sputtered to an end like a steam train that runs out of water—the heat dissipates and the metal grows cold.

  I knew the scar was still there, but the festering was gone, die pain dormant.

  “What are you smiling at, Lou?” Christine asked, looking up.

  “At us, Christine, at all of us.”

  “We are a pretty strange foursome.”

  We finished the dishes and went back on the porch. Don was stirring now. He opened his eyes, stretched, and squinted into the haze.

  “Anyone check the office?” he said.

  “Not yet.”

  Christine went back to make the call, to plug the brain and nervous system of the octopus into its many arms. Don had turned his switch back on.

  “I really miss the papers,” Don said. He had sat up and rubbed his eyes.

  “Forget about the damned papers, baby,” Marlena said. “The world’s not goin’ to change much today.”

  “Come on, Lou, go out and get the papers.”

  “Screw the papers.”

  “It’s mutiny,” Don said. He stood up and picked up a beach ball from a corner of the porch.


  Christine returned with a pad on which she had taken some notes. She had put her glasses on, and, despite the long jersey, pullover and suggestive figure beneath, she was the efficient secretary.

  “Patterson has finished the speech on the Florida thing. Grogan’s called from L.A., and Barnstable has set up the Monday meeting with Fulbright. That’s it. All of it.”

  That was a reflex. Christine screened out all the unnecessary items.

  “Come on, Christine, let’s play catch,” Don said. Christine smiled.

  “Man in motion. He’s got a hyperactive thyroid,” I said. “I’m just going to sit on my tender, active ass and soak up some booze.” I reached for the Scotch and poured myself a tumbler. “Marlena?”

  “Thanks, no.” She displayed the beginnings of a pout on her tight lips. We watched as Don and Christine ran down to the water’s edge and started to throw the ball back and forth.

  “Doesn’t she ever refuse that man anything?” Marlena asked. I could see her tightening, drawing inward like a coiled spring.


  Marlena got up quickly, her graceful legs moving, each like a swan’s neck, across the room. She poured a drink of bourbon into a shotglass and swallowed it in one gulp. The booze must have burned going down so quickly. She grimaced and shook her head.

  Marlena Jackson. Berkeley, 1970. Major in political science. Vanguard of that breed of independent black women who slice their hair down to man’s size and wear big “natural” wigs. Bright, sensitive, antagonistic, belligerent. I hired her immediately and put her on the research staff of the committee. It didn’t take Don long to find her. She was striking in her grace, and her racial ferocity electrified the air around her. The interview was an experience.

  “What does your father do?”

  “He delivers white man’s trash. He’s a mailman.”

  “Don’t blacks write letters?”

  “Badly. There are better ways to send a message.”

  “Are you a radical?”

  “I’m a black woman.”

  “What does that mean?”

  “The black woman is America’s conscience.”

  “Well then, if America has a conscience, she can’t be that bad.”

  “ ‘Bad’ is not the question. ‘Guilt’ is the question.”

  “Do you feel guilty?”

  “Hell, honky, I’m the victim.”

  “Why do you want to work for Senator James?”

  “He can move the mountain. He has the ability to manipulate the media.”

  “Where do you want the mountain moved?”

  “To the left, man, to the left.”

  “Are you a Communist?”

  “Blacks make lousy Communists.”

  “Then what do you want?”

  “I want more than equal.”

  “That’s greedy.”

  “I want a hundred years of back dues, baby. Don’t throw me no bones. I want all the flesh, too.”

  “How will working for Senator James help you get it?”

  “He’s going to need us. He’s going to have to turn us on, and then he’s going to pay our freight.”

  “You sound quite certain.”

  “That’s politics, and you know it.”

  “You may be overrating black power.”

  “That’s why I’m here.”


  “I want to be near power, and Senator James spells power.”

  I had never quite seen that raw intensity in any human being. Marlena wore it embedded in her forehead like some tribal jewel. Placing her on the committee was like dropping a bottle of TNT from the top of Mount Everest—a long burst of quiet, and then an explosion as she made her presence felt. In a way, I felt a little sad for her. She was turning out to be a goddamned star-fucker like all the rest of them. Besides, how long can a pure blue flame burn, anyway? Black power! Bullshit power! The power of fuck.

  She paced the length of the screened porch like a trapped tigress. “I guess maybe I should thank the guy,” she said after a while, her smile pearly, the tension subsiding. “He’s made me more tolerant of the power structure.”

  “Good for you.”

  “No, bad for me.” She laughed.

  “Oh, take it in stride, Marlena. Enjoy the moment. It’s truce time.”

  I hoped I was displaying just the right amount of flippancy. If Marlena felt she was more than just a passing fancy to Don, she was acting out a cruel fantasy. Black pussy was exotic, different, a turn on. Soon Don’s letch would ebb. After all, hadn’t I been doing this sort of thing for so many years for Don? I had even developed a style. It was a combination of casualness and confidence. “Don’t take it too seriously, baby” balanced off with “Nothing, but nothing, stops the big show.”

  How in the name of hell did I ever get
into this bag? We were two of the most unlikely characters imaginable, thrown together as roommates strictly by chance. We were like those two guys in Carnal Knowledge; I was the Garfunkel kid and he was the tall, good-looking one. That moment when “Mr. Great” arrived at the dormitory door with his footlocker—glistening, of course, everything shiny and perfect—a shadow fell over my image. I became something over which I had no control. I must have liked it. Like the guy who eats too many eclairs, it may not be good for him, but it sure as hell tastes good. Besides, I’m not a winner. Everything I ever did was mediocre—maybe less than mediocre—everything, that is, except fastening myself, like a leather-braided umbilical cord, to Donald James. I guess if I weren’t really mediocre, I couldn’t walk in his tracks, always picking my way over the fresh droppings. Here again, it’s not so bad getting sloppy seconds on the first-class stuff. Better than getting a first crack at the tenth-raters.

  I lived with the illusion that Don needed me as much as I needed him. Who but me would tell him the truth? Who could withstand his intimidation?

  History is full of such relationships. But, after using them to rationalize my own position, I long ago discarded any ideas about delving into them too deeply. Maybe, under the surface, there’s something sexual about it. Hadn’t Karen tried for years to shoehorn between us?

  Long-stemmed, blonde, blue-eyed, of course, Karen Whitford. To me she was the absolute zenith of the dream girl of my generation. With those beautiful, bronzed legs in tennis sneakers, that tight, small-assed jiggle, and those bras that made her tits pointy under the tight sweaters—the seduction uniforms of yesteryear. She was a sophomore when we were seniors—the perfect complement to what we called a BMOC, “Big Man On Campus,” in those days.

  I spent many nights bumming around downtown Berkeley waiting for Don and Karen to finish their action in our room, which might have a little to do with present antagonisms. Those were the years of “everything but,” and nice, sweet, bronzed, long-legged daughters of rich right-wing doctors just didn’t give away their virginity so fast, preferring instead to invoke the time-honored hypocrisy of the intact hymen. Many a man was trapped by this flanking strategy of sexual encirclement in those days. There was that gloriously sweet, clean, juicy pussy winking up at you day after day, enjoying the embellishments of tongue or fingers, while your stiff prick got second-bested by her hand; and still your manhood yearned—cried—from some bone-petrifying tarpit for fulfillment.

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