The Big-Breasted Pilgrim
Our house in the Florida Keys is down a narrow road, half a mile from a convenience store with a green neon sign that advertises "Bait and Basics." Lowell's sister, Kathryn, called to get us to arrange for a car to drive her from Miami. She considers everywhere Lowell has ever lived to be Siberia, including Saratoga, New York, which she saw only once, during a blizzard. TriBeCa, circa 1977, was Siberia. Ditto Ashland, Oregon. In all those places, Lowell had what he now calls "The Siberian Brides": his first and second wives, who gradually became as incomprehensible to him as foreigners: Tish, who lived with us in Saratoga and later in TriBeCa; Leigh Anne Leighton -- a name so melodic he always speaks of her that way, even though it seems inordinately formal -- who lived with us for a month in Ashland before flying to Los Angeles for her grandfather's funeral, from which she never returned. This was no case of riding forever 'neath the streets of Boston, however: she got a Mexican divorce and remarried a youth Lowell and I recently saw on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, playing soprano sax with a group called Bobecito and the Brazen Beauties.
My own life is nothing like Lowell's. The joke is that I am his Boswell, and to the extent that I used to take dictation in Lowell's pre-computer days, I suppose I have been a sort of Boswell -- though I doubt the man, himself, ever scrubbed down a shower with Tilex, or would have, even if shower stalls -- to say nothing of the excessively effective cleaning products we have now -- existed. Nor, say, did we mistake Ashland for the Hebrides, though Lowell and I have inevitably arrived at pithy pronouncements as a prelude to packing up and leaving place after place.
I, Richard Howard Manson, was an army brat, living in thirteen different locations by the time I started high school. The one good thing about that was that it made me pretty unflappable, though at the same time, it's given me a wanderlust I've tired of as I've aged. Lowell makes fun of me for trying to decondition myself by accepting vicarious travel in place of the real thing; I subscribed to almost every travel magazine, and view cassettes of foreign cities, or even silly resort promo tapes, almost every night before bed. Lowell calls this "nicotine patch travel." Passing in front of the TV, he'll drag hard on an imaginary cigarette, then toss the phantom cig on the floor, grind it out, and slap his right arm to his left bicep, exhaling with instant relief. As it happens, I quit smoking -- I mean real cigarettes -- cold turkey. The travel addiction has not been so easy to break, but since I like my job, and since my employer is terminally itchy, he has often been pleased to take advantage of my weakness. The way wheedling wives have talked husbands into second and third babies, Lowell has persuaded me to give a month at the Chateau Marmont, or a few years in a rented Victorian in upstate New York, a try. He never claims we're staying, though he doesn't present the trips as vacations, either. When he had a larger network of friends -- that period, about ten years ago, when everybody seemed to be between marriages -- our ostensible reason for going somewhere would often be that we were on a mercy mission to cheer up so-and-so. Once there, so-and-so would be found, miraculously, to have cheered us up, and so we would stay for a longer infusion of friendliness, until so-and-so became affiliated with the next Mrs. So-and-so, who would inevitably dislike us, or until that moment when a blizzard hit and we thought of being in the sun, or when summer heat settled like an itchy, wooly mantle.
In most of the places we've lived, there have been constants, Kathryn's visits among them. Other constants are a few ceramics made by a friend, a couple of very nice geometrically patterned rugs, and our picture mugs, depicting each of us sitting on camels in front of pyramids. There's also the favorite this, or the favored that -- small things, like jars of home-grown herbs, or the amazing sea nettle suntan lotion that can be ordered by calling an 800 number that relays a request for shipping to the apothecary in St. Paul de Vence. Our Barbour jackets are indispensable, as is a particular wine pull, no longer manufactured. When you travel as much as we do, you can seem to fixate on what looks to other people to be trivia. I make it a point to be casual about the wine pull, letting other people use it whenever they insist upon being helpful, though I often awaken in the night, convinced that it has been thrown away during the cleanup period, and then I go downstairs and open the drawer and see it, but return to bed convinced that I have nevertheless had an accurate premonition of its fate following the next dinner party.
Excerpted from Perfect Recall, copyright (c) 2000 Ann Beattie. Reproduced with permission from the publisher; all rights reserved.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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