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The Nowhere City
By Alison Lurie
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1965 Alison Lurie
All rights reserved.
"It's so dark in here," Paul Cattleman said. "Don't you want me to open the window?"
"No, thanks," said his wife. She turned and lay face down under the sheet, her head ground into the pillow. Katherine Cattleman had got off the Boston–Los Angeles plane three hours ago with a violent sinus attack which had been growing worse ever since.
Paul pulled one side of the Venetian blind away from the bedroom window and stepped behind it. It was hot and bright outside. Eight-foot stalks of enormous bright green leaves ending in clusters of red and gold trumpet-shaped flowers (Heliconia) lined the small square of back yard.
"You ought to come and look at these fantastic lilies, or whatever they are, Katherine," Paul said. "They must be six inches across. And it's October!"
Katherine did not answer. He let the blind fall back against the window, noticing that each slat was coated with dust—possibly dust that had collected since he had moved in, possibly dust that the previous tenant had left for him. Whichever it was, Katherine would not like it.
With her face still buried in the pillow, she shifted restlessly, pushing the covers aside. Her loose nightgown had slipped up, and Paul observed a pleasing arrangement of pale round pinkish shapes, the important places marked with curly brown hair. Desire rose rapidly in him; he had been separated from his wife for six weeks. But if he were to propose to make love to her now she would feel hurt and misused; she would think him selfish, greedy, and inconsiderate. She would acquiesce, but she would not respond.
"How do you feel now?" he asked.
"Terrible." Katherine smiled wanly. "This is the worst attack I've had for months. I'm not having any of those shooting pains, but there's this horrible, horrible ache. It's as if an iron band were screwed around my head. No. It's more as if my whole head had been pressed into some kind of tight metal container."
Over the past three years, Paul had developed the involuntary habit of picturing the images related to his wife's sinus attacks. As he looked at Katherine now, he saw her naked body topped by a tin can with a pink and white paper label—advertising canned apple juice, perhaps, or apple-sauce.
"I imagine—I think it might be the Los Angeles smog," the tin can went on. "It must be the smog, or something in the atmosphere here. I wonder if it will go on all the time. Affecting me this way, I mean."
"Oh, I shouldn't think so," Paul said. "You'll adjust to it."
Katherine half raised herself in bed on pretty pale arms. "Sinuses don't 'adjust,'" she said in a sad whine. "You know that. An allergic condition like mine doesn't ever adjust to irritants, it only becomes more and more sensitive to them."
In other words, I won't adjust to Los Angeles, Paul heard her say. I hated the idea of our moving out here and I'm going to go on hating it, worse and worse. I'm going to be sick all the time. How could you have done this to me? He could think of nothing to reply. They stared at each other for a moment hopelessly; then Katherine sighed and fell face downwards on the sheet again.
"You get some sleep," Paul said. "You'll feel better."
He went out of the bedroom into the living-room of the smallest house he had ever seen. However, Paul liked it: during the three years of their marriage he and Katherine had lived only in large, gray apartment buildings. This house was made of stucco, painted white outside and pink inside like a doll's house. The west walls of the small living-room and smaller dining-room were almost completely filled by large picture-windows, increasing the resemblance to a doll's house, one whole side of which usually stands open. Katherine's antique Victorian furniture had an air of being a little too large for the rooms, as sometimes happens with toy furniture.
All the houses on the street were made of stucco in ice-cream colors: vanilla, lemon, raspberry, and orange sherbet. Molded in a variety of shapes and set down one next to the other along the block, behind plots of flowers much larger and brighter than life, they looked like a stage set for some lavish comic opera. The southern California sun shone down on them with the impartial brilliance of stage lighting. And though it was late in the afternoon and late in the year, the temperature was that of a perfect windless June day, as it had been almost continually since Paul arrived.
But Katherine refused to be pleased. She wouldn't even open her eyes to see this warm, bright, extraordinary city. She behaved as if he had deliberately set out to make her unhappy by coming here—as if his professional career had nothing to do with it. Walking up and down and looking out of the picture-window, Paul reviewed his defense again. What was he supposed to do when, in April, his adviser and protector at Harvard had disappeared into Washington, taking with him, as it soon appeared, Paul's hopes of a teaching fellowship for the coming fall? What sort of a job did she think a young historian without a Ph.D. could find at that time of the year? Paul had discovered the answer to that one: he could find a temporary instructorship at some remote college, with a twelve-hour teaching load.
He opened the front door and stepped out into the steady light—a tall young man of thirty, with dark hair cut short and an agreeable open face, dressed in the Harvard manner. He stood on his cement front walk and looked up into the sky: intense blue overhead, crossed by trails of jet vapor, dimming to a white haze at the horizon.
Then he looked along the block. A dozen architectural styles were represented in painted stucco: there were little Spanish haciendas with red tiled roofs; English country cottages, all beams and mullioned windows; a pink Swiss chalet; and even a tiny French château, the pointed towers of which seemed to be made of pistachio ice-cream.
The energy of all this invention both amused and delighted Paul. Back East, only the very rich dared to build with such variety: castles on the Hudson, Greek temples in the south. Everyone else had to live on streets of nearly identical brick or wooden boxes, like so many boxes of soap or sardines. Why shouldn't people build their houses in the shape of pagodas, their grocery stores in the shape of Turkish baths, and their restaurants like boats and hats, if they wanted to? Let them build, and tear down and build again; let them experiment. Anyone who can only see that some of the experiments are "vulgar" should look into the derivations of that word.
He liked to think of this city as the last American frontier. Whoever has some little interest, even faith, in man, must ask what he might do if he were set free of a restrictive tradition, a hostile climate. Why condemn his first extravagances?
Paul even enjoyed the drive-in milk bar that they had passed near International Airport that afternoon, with a fifteen-foot plaster cow browsing among plaster or plastic daisies on the roof. But when he pointed it out to Katherine, smiling, she shuddered and turned her head away.
After all, Katherine had expected that he would take one of those shabby jobs back East. She had not listened, or not believed him, when he explained that this would be the most rapid form of professional suicide. Any other sort of work that he might have elected to do, even the humblest, could have been justified more easily. He might have, literally, dug ditches for a year with less prejudice to his career. There would have been many possible explanations of that, from Marx to Zen. But if he had accepted one of those cheap academic deals, he would have been typed forever as a failure, a secondrater—someone who has crawled off into the cold woods and covered himself with dead leaves, better off forgotten.
It had been a wet, slow spring, and in spite of his natural optimism Paul had almost felt despair by the end of May, when he heard of this job in Los Angeles. The Nutting Research and Development Corporation, one of the largest electronic companies in southern California, was looking for someone with "advanced training in history, and if possible some scientific background," to write a history and description of its operations.
Paul, with his degrees in history and literature, and his Navy radar training, was just what they wanted. The terms they named were amazing: his starting salary would be almost twice what any college had offered him. He would be sent at Nutting's expense to Los Angeles in September, and as soon as his security clearance came through, Katherine and his furniture would be delivered to him, also entirely at the expense of the company. He had to sign only a one-year contract, so he could return to teaching the following fall—with (he hoped) most, perhaps even all, of his thesis written.
"You're really going all the way out to Los Angeles?" some of his friends had exclaimed, men who spoke daily in familiar terms of ancient Mesopotamia or Transalpine Gaul. Paul had his answer to this. Historians looked backwards too exclusively, he said. Los Angeles obviously expressed everything towards which our civilization was now tending. As one went to Europe to see the living past, so one must visit southern California to observe the future. "Why don't you come too?" he would finish by asking.
The air was still; the street empty except for the line of huge cars parked along the curb, glittering and grinning with chrome and polish and enamel. They seemed larger, or at least on a larger scale, than the houses. They were designed for luxurious giants; the houses for international midgets. Paul had noticed already that in Los Angeles automobiles were a race apart, almost alive. The city was full of their hotels and beauty shops, their restaurants and nursing homes—immense, expensive structures where they could be parked or polished, fed or cured of their injuries. They spoke, and had pets—stuffed dogs and monkeys looked out of their rear windows, toys and good-luck charms hung above their dashboards, and fur tails waved from their aerials. Their horns sang in varied voices, and signs pasted to their bumpers announced: "If You Can Read This, You're Too Damn Close" or "Made in Pasadena By Little Old Ladies." Among them Paul's 1954 Ford seemed an old, lifeless machine. It made a dark, dingy spot in the parade, although he had just had it washed. Maybe he should trade it in—he could afford that now—and (why not, after all?) buy himself one of these amusing monsters. If he wanted to find out how it felt to live in the future, wasn't that almost his duty?
"Paul, you always land on your feet," other friends had said to him when they heard of this job, some of them adding enviously, "Yes, you should go to Los Angeles. You'd do well there" or "You're already a southern California type." Criticism was implied in the laugh that followed this, but he was willing to take it as a compliment.
When Paul's acquaintances called him a southern California type, they were probably thinking of his love of the beach and other outdoor pleasures, and of the pleasure he took in movies, and even TV. No doubt they referred also to his occasional enthusiasm for such things as surf-casting, surrealist poetry, hypnotism, and the repair of his own household appliances—and his readiness for small adventures. They knew of enthusiasm mainly as an interesting phenomenon of eighteenth-century cultural history; not the characteristic of a serious historian—and yet, most of them would admit, Paul Cattleman was a serious historian. He was certainly not the standard graduate school product, though. He was too healthy and played games too well, for example, and he did not wear horn-rimmed spectacles. He did not wear spectacles at all; at large academic gatherings his brown eyes stood out oddly in a sea of glass goggles and refracting lenses, as if he were a man among Martians.
Paul walked up the narrow cement drive past his house to the back yard. Though the grass had begun to go brown in patches (he must water it again) flowers grew tall against the cinder-block walls, and there was a real peach tree, still hung with peaches.
Yes, he thought, leaning against the rough trunk of the tree, this city suited him: it suggested a kind of relaxed energy, the sense of infinite possibilities. Since his arrival, he had sometimes entertained himself by imagining that he saw parallels between Los Angeles and his "own" period of English history, the late sixteenth century. Here was the same tremendous expansion of trade, building, and manufacture; the flowering of new art forms; the discovery of new worlds. And still the city remained a city of walled gardens like the imaginary gardens in late medieval romances, full of allegorical blooms—fruit and flowers ripe at the same time. Perhaps here, too, he might find other paraphernalia of courtly love: the impenetrable castles, the opening-night pageants and tournaments, the elaborate ceremonies of public praise, the worship from afar of the beloved movie starlet.
"You'll end up in bed with some starlet," had been the jocose prediction of one of his friends. Paul had allowed himself to play with this fantasy a little. After all, there were plenty of starlets in Los Angeles, and some of them must get tired of the fat producers and vain, effeminate actors who surrounded them.
Of course he would never leave Katherine. He was in love with her; he had never seen a girl who moved him so deeply. On the other hand, in the three years since his marriage there had already been several episodes. It was Paul's belief, verified by experience, that among the people one meets every day there is an informal, unrecognized secret society—a confederacy of those who, though they may appear to sustain the conventional code in public, subvert it in private. These members of what he liked to call "the underground" were able to recognize each other upon meeting by indefinable signs, rare in academic life: half a smile, a preference in fiction, a look of erotic aptitude and calculation.
Katherine was not, and would never be, a member of the underground. Cool, shy, affectionate but almost passive, she knew nothing of that side of life; love for her was an emotional, not a physical event. She was still very much the isolated country child, brought up in semi-rural New England by sickly parents whom it was impossible to imagine engaging in sexual relations. Maybe they had only tried it once, for Katherine was an only child. It seemed likely that their temperament had been hereditary.
As far as he could manage, Paul tried to be honest with himself; he was one of those fortunate people who, when they lift the lid of a dream or an acte gratuit, find mainly forgivable, if embarrassing, impulses. Besides, as an historian, he considered it his job to remember his own history. He therefore admitted now that it was just this shy, rural, even sylvan aspect which had first attracted him to Katherine. He had been moved to passion not only by her pale beauty, her white arms and long brown hair, but by something in her manner which recalled the unsophisticated, almost mute spirit of a tree or stream. She had the grace and tint of a Botticelli—and almost exactly the profile of the nymph who holds out a flowered robe to cover Venus as she rises from the sea. And she was all his; no one else had ever known her, in either sense.
Reaching up into the tree, Paul pulled down the largest, reddest peach he could see. After all, it had been stupid expecting Katherine to appreciate those plaster cows and artificial flowers. The thick stalks of the heliconia snapped readily, and soon he had a whole armload of them, brilliantly red and yellow and green.
Coming into the kitchen out of the sun, Paul could see nothing for a moment. Blinking, he opened cupboards, looking for a vase for the flowers, but could not find one, though he had unpacked the crates himself. Katherine would solve all that soon, but meanwhile—Impatiently he slammed the doors shut, took the mop out of the tin pail by the back door, and crammed the flowers into the pail (forgetting, in his hurry, to add any water).
Holding his offerings, he went into the bedroom. Here again he could not see at first; he had the blind sensation that comes when one enters a darkened movie theater.
"Katherine?" His eyes adjusted; she lay looking at him, speechless and sleepless. "Katherine, look what I brought you to eat: a peach off our own tree in the back yard."
Excerpted from The Nowhere City by Alison Lurie. Copyright © 1965 Alison Lurie. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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