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Novembers run through all lives, a month of uncertainty either as the tail end of an Indian summer or the dry rehearsal of winter. The ninth month, like some people, refuses to admit what it is; a time sequence spanning thirty days with a Roman name revealing a curious human quality, it suffers from an identity crisis. The days are usually too cold for tennis in Fairfield County, but today, perhaps as an unexpected welcome to Jane, the weather had the soft dreamy balm of a spring day. She heard the thwack and twang of a ball hit well as she approached the tennis court from the rear driveway. She got out of her aqua Mini Cooper and decided to watch for a while before surprising her mother, who was crouched low in the forecourt waiting to receive service. Nancy, in any case, wouldn't interrupt the game, so it was just as well for Jane to restrain herself.
Nancy Teller Siddley played with the measured grace and cobralike anticipation of someone who had been taught very young by a pro with style. Her opponent was not Jane's father. Although less assured in his strokes, he had the clumsy power and determination of a slum kid who had spent hot summers with a tennis permit on the city's concrete courts. He moved like a beached crab pursued by small children with shovels. He reached for a high lob and with a lurching, twisting angled wrench, put away an overhead smash which sent him sprawling on his backside.
"Three all," he said, picking himself up and wiping a red-clay raspberry off his shorts.
What discipline Jane possessed had been self-taught and in a sense a survival tactic to balance against Nancy'swayward self-indulgence. Since she understood her mother, she didn't really dislike her, except occasionally.
Looking out in the vast lawn, she saw neatly arranged cones of sodden leaves. Abandoned rakes and gardening tools were strewn under trees, on the paths, as if the gardeners had been warned of a storm or an earthquake and had run for the high ground. Perhaps her mother, on a whim, had given them all a day off. She was quite capable of inexplicable kindness, but the fact remained that leaf burning, like everything else at home, was left until too late. They had begun to shift beneath the sudden attack of a breeze. Jane sat down on a bench to watch. Her childhood, then her adolescence had been spent in this household, with its unceasing emphasis on games, the conduct of spectators and players; and she had learned patience, despair, quiet, all of the weapons of the prisoner. She might escape punishment by setting the house on fire, but interrupting a tennis set brought with it banishment. They were strange people, her parents -- odd, wasteful.
"I can count," Nancy replied irritably as they paused in midcourt to towel off.
"I've got you going."
"Like hell." She paused and took a long belt from a bottle of vodka on the courtside table.
"Even the Rocket can't mix liquor and tennis," the man said smilingly, but it came out -- or rather Nancy took it -- as a rebuke.
"Listen, Luckmunn, would you like to bet on the result?"
Jane remembered that her mother had always hated to lose. The two would play endless sets, and Nancy would work out some form of handicap so that the contest would always be close and finally end when she, a child of ten, would reel dizzily from the court too exhausted even to cry. Maternal kindness would as if by magic appear in the form of an ice-cold towel held on the back of her neck. Noticing that the child had been revived, Nancy would ask in a coaxing voice:
"Do you want to quit, honey?"
"Maybe one more game."
Crouched low, Jane patiently waited; then all of a sudden, Nancy would halt. "Hey, we forgot to change sides."
Jane wondered how Nancy, a stickler for rules, could tolerate her father's maze of affairs; legibly writing down phone messages from abandoned mistresses who called day and night for news, or last known whereabouts, of her father. Some exquisite madness was at work which Jane could not comprehend, for in spite of his frequent absences, she too adored her father and forgave the unforgivable: incarceration with her mother.
Jane glanced back to the court at the man. He was dark with a swarthy beard, doleful brown eyes set close, medium height and with narrow shoulders, altogether rather delicate. He had his hair done in a razor-cut swirl with the sideburns sculpted in the shape of small sword handles. Rather careful about his appearance, Jane thought. Sweat trickled down his forehead and he flushed as Nancy waited for an answer.
"What would you like to bet?" he inquired with that defiance peculiar to the persecuted lover.
"How about a thousand dollars? Let's see the color of your blood."
"It's Jewish and not particularly philanthropic. The thousand doesn't matter one way or another to me -- "
Jane couldn't hear what her mother said next because Nancy picked up an ice cube and swished it around in her mouth.
" ... what's that worthy?"
"You're kidding," he said. Nancy's tactics always caught him off balance, and he substituted gameness for talent.
"How much?" Nancy insisted.
"You name it. But just remember I'm not a gentleman."
Nancy looked up at him and laughed in a jeering, unpleasant way. Jane recognized the sign of impending drunkenness. She'd seen it as often as a television commercial, and she had a mental nuisance button which she had developed at the age of five to switch her mother off. One of nature's many kindnesses designed for the protection of children....
"Why do you always bring an air of mystery to a simple fact? 'I'm not a gentleman.'" She mimicked him brutally. With strangers she revealed delicacy, but only for a short time.
He had a hurt smile on his face. He walked past her and took up his position on the far side of the court, inviting service and assistance from God.
"You've got a bet," he muttered, still reluctant, and Jane watched with renewed interest. Prejudging her mother's mood, as one does when the act is backed by years of experience, was nothing more than automatic.
Perhaps she wounded him, or brought out some naïve, pointless sense of threatened manhood, or simply a glandular reaction; but Luckmunn played with an air of hysterical tenacity which allowed him to make seemingly impossible gets of perfect placements. He lobbed with accuracy, passed her at the net through a combination of luck and clumsy lunging forehands. His backhand, what there was of it, he exploited with great deftness, and in a little more than twenty minutes he had claimed the set. It wasn't so much a victory as a mauling he had administered. The common alley cat existing on a diet of garbage had ripped apart the spoiled petted Siamese. For all that, Jane classified her mother as durable goods.
Nancy twirled her racquet nervously and headed for the small white hut on the side of the court. Luckmunn remained outside, indecisive, pacing, to bring his breathing back to normal. Surrounded by the detritus of enormous inherited wealth, he still could not quite accept the fact that he'd been allowed through the gates, let alone into the starring role of a sexual conqueror. He craned his neck up toward the house, a sprawling, gray-stoned, turreted junior castle, smothered in ivy, with yellow shutters (he'd painted his own the same color). An English rock garden designed to look nonchalant and tranquil was appropriately wild. If he hadn't seen with his own eyes half a dozen gardeners hacking away at it every week, he would have sworn that it had never been tended, a natural happening which just magically belonged to the property. All of it, well over a hundred acres, would have made a perfect site for one of his developments. Beside the lake he visualized Luckmunn Towers -- or should it be left alone? He had developed a real fondness for the little lake when he discovered that it was stocked with pike, whitefish, and carp. He'd never seen these fish except in their gefilte form, a white ball on his plate with aspic which he enlivened with horseradish. And here they were, living, actually swimming. He marveled at these liberal WASP's who stocked their water with Jewish fish. What nerve, what confidence!
"Come on," Nancy called out. Shaking his head from side to side, his hand still firmly gripping the racquet, he walked slowly inside.
Jane still felt constrained to wait before announcing her arrival, but she had a wave of uneasiness which she couldn't shake, borne of an instinctive blood connection and porpoiselike communication, nature's test of true animalism. Her mother was in danger and she darted from the beach. She was breathing hard after running down the hill, and black motes of light interfered with her vision. Why the hell am I worrying about her? she thought angrily. Jane stopped a short distance from the back window when she heard Nancy crisply asking what he'd like to drink, and she remembered that there was a wet bar inside as well as the sofa and shower.
"Have you got a NoCal?" Luckmunn asked. Government interdictions left him cold.
"Yes." Nancy poured herself a vodka on the rocks. "Me."
Luckmunn laughed nervously, saw that there was only one door and that his tennis victim was bolting it. She undid her top, and Jane watched the nimble fingers that had once upon a time stroked a child's feverish head unhook the white elastic bra strap with practiced thoughtlessness. Marital indifference had achieved a new parity; her mother was now betting her ass on a tennis set, and dumping.
An eternal childish gaiety played on her round face; the amber skin, whipped by sea and sun, revealed a last flowering of a farm girl. A healthy woman with a forgetful body as available for inspection as a fountain mermaid and ignored by everyone. Time had paid a surprise visit under her chin, the skin now wattled; and Luckmunn, rather choosy for a barnyard male, Jane thought, was on the point of refusing.
To his credit, when it was dwindling later in his life, Luckmunn began to protest, but without firmness. Since she wasn't a complaining customer or competitor, he could hardly tell her to drop dead. He couldn't even call his lawyer.
"It's not funny, Nancy. A joke's a joke."
"You're about to be educated," she said. Lonely, Nancy became rapacious, Jane recalled without fondness.
"Thanks, but I've had this course before," he replied.
"The point is, Luckmunn, that when you lose a bet you pay off. The other thing is, that when you win, you collect. Lesson one in being a gentleman. Fulfilling an agreement."
Luckmunn had paid all sorts of expensive dues for having been a summer romance; expensive only because he didn't realize he was paying. Like a leftover from a meal, he couldn't guess what use would next be made of him. Also he was in the grip of an undeniable love affair with himself and his new status, a dangerous situation, making him heady, his motives undefined. He didn't love Nancy, was useless in service agreements; but the displeasure of his neighbors, a constant possibility, troubled him. He didn't want a great deal: just to be slapped on the back, talked to familiarly, to get lots of invitations so he could have small conflicts in his social life. Although his commercial instincts contradicted the possibility, he was a self-made gentleman; and he required certain innate assurances that equality of opportunity, which had made him rich, didn't simply end but went on, finding many outlets for social attainment. He had learned to whisper, marching well in a parade of small talk. Having succeeded in adopting the manners of people he despised, he now had the audacity to be gallant.
With her large breasts but still firm hips, her mother reminded Jane of a rotting peach -- golden, sun-smooth, the star of the fruit bowl, but for some reason not eaten and left to languish, perhaps because the season had been too bountiful and people had got sick of eating peaches.
Luckmunn made a move to rise, but Nancy's head was on his lap and with a strange dispassion, almost kindliness, he ran his hand through her long speckled blond hair.
"I've got the curse," she explained. Her affairs were conducted with the arrogance of an imperialist, requiring new colonies to dump goods only a native would think of buying.
The simple statement served only to shock him. This was one prizegiving he wanted to miss.
"Christ! I think you're crazy," he said.
"Don't tell me that you're a closet queen."
"No, I'm not," he said, beet-red; but he saw that anger would not alienate her. She had gone beyond social diligence and cocktail tactics. She had unzipped his fly.
"Luckmunn's got an Irish temper. Don't fidget." Even in passion. Nancy provided instructions.
"For god's sake, Nancy, will you do me one favor," he said, roughly pulling her head up and looking into the mad blue eyes once the color of lapis lazuli; they had that dim, bloodshot look of a permanent hangover, with their broken wormlike capillaries, immune to regeneration and life.
Mortified, he gave in.
"Call me Charles ... please."
"Of course, anything you like Luckmunn.... "
As Jane walked away, she hated herself for disapproving. After all she's a woman, and she needs it like everyone else from time to time, she thought; then turned back to listen to sounds of laughter, tinkling like ice cubes. The raw sensuality of her parents would always be embarrassing, disgusting, unspeakable. Somehow her own promiscuity seemed innocent.
For the second time that morning Jane vomited. The first time had been at a gas station outside of Utica where she'd stopped to fill up. Her roommate, a tall redhead named Patricia Conlon but known as Conlon, had joined her on the illegal weekend down to New York. Except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the regular breaks between semesters, nonscheduled flights from Saranac College were not condoned. Nor were diaphragms, the pill, pot, emmies, and other condiments, at least no officially.
Originally, Saranac had been part of that girdle of schools (Vassar, Radcliffe, and Smith) that moulded the svelte conscience and spirits of young American princesses. Favoring independence and exclusivity, the college's trustees had in the distant twenties arranged a bloodless divorce from the league. Once removed from entangling alliances, the school prided itself on developing an intelligent, freethinking élite who married the men who would run the country. The suffragette attitude still pervaded faculty ideals but lines had to be drawn. A nation had been shocked in those preriot days when Saranac boldly allowed dorm room visits by enterprising males; but the college had taken the wise precaution of training a corps of sharp-nosed, inquisitive dorm mothers into a team of autocratic proctors armed with extralegal credentials and walkie-talkies. Fucking was an inalienable right but due process had to be suspended. Dropouts were few, and pregnancies even fewer. An army knowing its enemy's position is prepared for a counteroffensive. Saranac girls were getting it regularly, but God, were they quiet about it.
Conlon was trying on a blue-black wig when Jane returned to the car. Conlon had spent her five-hundred-dollar clothes allowance on seven wigs and had returned to college with last year's wardrobe, which was out of keeping for a junior. The buckshot spray of freckles that nature had implanted on her face appeared strangely inconsistent with the Indian-braid affair twisted like snakes over her ear lobes.
"Well, what do you think?"
"It's revolting," Jane said.
"Aren't you one of the all-time ego builders? You really know how to hurt a guy," she added.
"It doesn't go with your color."
"But a red-headed Indian isn't possible."
"Ask Mel what he thinks." A reference to Conlon's unhappily married Great Neck lover always evoked an erotic sigh.
"You're not going to believe this, Jane, but he loves my freckles. Even my shoulder and spinal ones. The last time I saw him, he tried to kiss every one of them."
"You've got the picture."
"How'd he make out?"
"I fell asleep, but I think he quit on my hip."
"That's a lot of kissing."
"Sex isn't everything. There are things like affection."
The pump jockey returned with Jane's change and Conlon leaned over and whispered, "Don't tip the bastard. He was looking under your dress when he had the air gauge on the tires."
Jane held back the quarter she had intended.
"That's okay, girls," the jockey said. "Any time and for nothing."
"Have you got a telex address, so that we can wire you we're coming?" Conlon asked.
"I'll drop you off in Westport and you can catch the train down," Jane said.
"Do you really have to see your mother?"
"I want to. It's almost a year. I'm going to try to talk to her."
"When'd she get out?"
"Two weeks ago."
"What do they do to you in those places? I mean what does drying out really consist of?"
"It consists of no liquor."
"I don't know why anyone would want to drink in the first place. A dry white with lobster is great; champagne with caviar, fine; but hard stuff ruins your breath."
At Westport, Jane had coffee on the platform, as Conlon waited for the train. The wig was packed on its dummy head while commuters stared with barely repressed horror. The train, bulging at the seams with attaché cases and men's hearty chuckles which concealed the omnipresent fear of how the month's mortgage payment was going to be met, pulled into the station.
"Give your mother my love if she's conscious," Conlon said. She exchanged glances with a number of men who preferred studying her to the depressed stock market prices. "Maybe I ought to turn a few tricks on the way down. Won't kill me, will it?"
"Here's fifty," Jane handed her the money through the grimy window.
"Why do I have to be solvent to keep my purity? You're fighting a losing battle, Jane."
"It's my nature."
"Sheldrake Hotel, don't forget," Conlon called, as the train slowly thudded out of the station.
Copyright © 1971 by Norman Bogner