HER VOICES, HER ROOM
Marjorie had her impersonations of Truman Capote down pat. You could’ve sworn it was Truman, returned from the dead, although she looked nothing like him so you had to close your eyes.
She had enrolled herself in a three-day Haiku workshop on the coast, in January, a thing she signed up for without understanding Haiku intricacies, or ever having written poetry, Japanese or otherwise. It was the last night and the teachers, who each were married to other people but slept together during the workshop weekends, assembled the group in the fireplace room of the old inn. They’d hauled a large whiteboard over in the back of a pick-up, and now they rolled it into the room. The wine bottles from dinner were drained, but the lesbian with cauliflower braids came in carrying a tray of rose-colored juice glasses and a bottle of Dewar’s.
Upon first arriving at the workshop, Marjorie had been dismayed to see that all of the students were under thirty, while she would be seventy-five next month. She hadn’t imagined so many young people giving up an extended weekend to drive over to the coast to write three-line poems. She tired of hearing their clomping up and down the vinyl-clad stairs during the night to smoke outside, and watching as they filed out of the inn to go to town without her during the day.
At the teachers’ beckon, they piled onto the two sofas in the fireplace room. But there wasn’t enough space, hadn’t been the whole three days, and Marjorie once again sat in the cushion-less Edwardian armchair behind one of the sofas, looking at the backs of half the students. The teachers said they were going to create group Haiku, and asked for a word list. Shouts of words with Haiku potential filled the room. Marjorie stayed quiet. She’d written fifty-six Haiku in the course of the three days, even though the assigned amount was only four. She hadn’t volunteered to read any out loud.
The teachers halted the verbal stoning and asked them to create the first Haiku from the list of words. Marjorie got up and walked to the hearth. She poured some Scotch into a juice glass and walked back to sit again in the hard chair. She pulled a Valium from her smock pocket and used the Scotch to get it down her throat.
The female teacher, who had drunk many glasses of wine before and during dinner, directed that the first Haiku should be a thank you to the proprietor for his well-cooked meals, his constant chopping in the kitchen yielding, as she put it, the finest in coastal gourmet. Marjorie personally didn’t think a leek broth lunch and cold cereal for breakfast warranted this kind of tribute, but she stayed silent, enjoying the burn of the Scotch on her throat.
Cat-calling, shouting, and sexual inferences were pelted at the teachers as the students took a circuitous route to create the Haiku. With much erasing and loud laughter, the words were finally put in their proper order, pared down to meet syllable requirements, and everyone clapped.
Feeling warm and bold from the Scotch and Valium, Marjorie sat forward in her chair and, when the cacophony died down, said, “I’ll do an imitation of Truman Capote, if you like.”
Marjorie first encountered Capote in 1960 when she lived in Kansas and he came to investigate the Clutter murders for his book In Cold Blood. She’d been married to a veal processor named Leon for nine years. In high school, she’d been a reporter on the newspaper with every intention of moving to Kansas City to pursue journalism, but she turned up pregnant at eighteen. The veal processor married her, and by the time Capote came to town, she had four children.
The evenings Truman was in town, Marjorie drove to the Windsor Hotel, hoping to catch a glimpse of him. At home the children were in front of the TV, Marjorie counting on her nine-year-old, Dicky, to maintain order. The Veal Tyrant was in his favorite bar out on the highway. The first night, she sat in the corner of the lobby in a low mohair armchair, reading Other Voices, Other Rooms. It was hard to keep her concentration on the pages she’d read before. Finally Truman came in and asked at the desk for messages, bouncing up and down on his toes while he waited for the clerk.
Marjorie was not a forward woman; just the nerve to wait in the hotel lobby was beyond her normal bravado. She stayed in the corner, eyeing his actions over the top of the book, her heart racing. Her mind played a continuous loop of imaginary conversations but she didn’t approach him.
Subsequent evenings she read other books in the lobby, deciding that reading his own book looked too staged, and should he look her way, which he hadn’t yet, he’d think her just another adoring fan wishing to smother him with an autograph request. After that first evening, he did not appear again on the nights Marjorie could manage an hour or two away; she had to be home before Leon wove his big Buick into the driveway and discovered her gone. She couldn’t chance any more of his rage. The incidences with Leon Marjorie talked to no one about, but shielded with closed curtains and layers of face makeup that never quite did the trick.
“I can do it,” Marjorie said, as the other students stared at her. “I can imitate Truman Capote.” She swallowed a belt of Scotch, noticing that the glass was almost empty. It’d been years since Marjorie’d been in the company of so many people, let alone the center of attention. She sat up straight and licked her lips. She leaned forward, like telling a secret, and let it fly. “Let’s go round the room, and you can all tell me who you’re having affairs with.” The students burst out laughing, because truly, she sounded just like him. The combination of her perfectly executed impersonation, and the fact that she was the quiet old lady in the corner suddenly bursting out in front of a crowd, cracked them up.
“What a hoot!” the braided lesbian shouted.
From Cubby, the guy who sold roller blades, “More Truman!”
The teachers’ laughter turned their eyes to slits, the impromptu whiteboard Haiku forgotten.
Marjorie licked her lips again. “It’s a scientific fact that if you live in California, you lose one point of your IQ every year.” More laughter—Cubby’s guffaws the loudest—and knee slapping, and reaching for the Scotch bottle. In the chilly room of a creaky inn on the coast in January, Marjorie was a star.
On the day of Truman’s next trip to Garden City, Marjorie planned to drive the Dodge downtown and be on the platform to meet his train. She knew there’d be a crowd, but this time she was determined to stride right up to him, hand outstretched, and introduce herself.
She got a late start. The night before had been a rough one, with Leon coming home from the bar after twelve, loud and careening between her dresser and the footboard. He’d railed about everything from a department store bill, to lamb’s new popularity, to the style of her nightgown. He only hit her once.
Then the children were let out of school early because of a breakout of lice found in the scalps of the unkempt Grambol children, and the bus dropped them off before they were expected, just when Marjorie was trying to get ready. They stormed the house all at once (usually they straggled in over the course of the afternoon) and requested cookies and instructions on how to pick through each other’s heads to determine if they were lice-infested. They were getting as demanding as their father. She left Dicky in charge and drove off in the old Dodge, after pushing away the sticky hands of Calvin and Cora, her first-graders.
Marjorie got into the car, careful not to muss her dress. She looked in the rear view mirror and adjusted her sunglasses. Over her hair, she set her chiffon scarf and tied it under her chin. She started the engine.
She expected that Leon would ask her where she had driven for the sixteen miles round trip, and why. She had yet to formulate an answer. Meeting Truman’s train was her focus. She practiced her greeting: “Hello, Mr. Capote, you don’t know me, but I’m Mrs. Darnell, and I admire your work.” No, too generic. “Hello, Mr. Capote, I’m Mrs. Darnell, Garden City’s short story writer.” Hadn’t she written a couple of short stories a few years ago, before she had so many children? She was unsure if they were good.
She drove along trying to concoct more stimulating greetings when the steering began to pull to the right. She maneuvered the car over to the pea gravel shoulder. “Oh hell,” she said out loud. She enjoyed swearing and alone in the car was one of the few times she got the chance. Sometimes she’d get behind the wheel and say things like, “Dammit, you whoring son of a bitch,” just because she could.
It wasn’t that she’d never changed a tire before, but she was in her best outfit, stuck on the side of the road, with the world’s toughest lug nuts. The last time she’d had a flat in this car, it’d been impossible to loosen the nuts and she’d waited in the clinic parking lot two hours for a tow truck, the children shrieking around the hot blacktop, the Dodge’s back end jacked and waiting.
Marjorie got out of the car and walked around to look at the tire. It was as she thought, flat. She stood by the side of the car but didn’t lean, for fear of dirtying her yellow dress, newly bought in secret with the small birthday check from her aunt. She was already running late; Truman’s train would be arriving any time. After minutes in the sun with no vehicles appearing, Marjorie decided to wait inside the car. Surely someone would stop to see if everything was all right. Sun came in the front window, heating up the interior, and Marjorie began to doze.
She was wakened by a tapping on the window. She recognized the face of young Bobby Goodwin, Mac’s son, dressed in a white shirt with a skinny green tie and tan slacks.
“Mrs. Darnell,” he said. “What’s the matter?”
Marjorie waved her hand to indicate she was going to open the door. Bobby stepped aside, and she got out.
“Oh Bobby, I’m glad to see you. I’ve got a flat,” she said.
As she said this, a person came into her side vision. Marjorie turned her head to see Truman Capote walking toward her, wearing a bright red serge jacket.
Bobby said, “Oh, Mr. Capote, I’ll be right there. You can wait in the car.”
Marjorie looked at Bobby. “What’s going on, Bobby?”
“Oh, I’m Mr. Capote’s driver, Mrs. Darnell. I take him out to Holcomb and back.” He turned to Truman again. “You go back on in where it’s comfortable, Mr. Capote. I’ll just be a minute fixing this lady’s flat.”
Truman stepped in closer, and Marjorie saw how short he really was. “Oh that’s all right, Bobby,” he said, in his mincing squeak of a voice. “Who is this fine lady?”
Marjorie could feel her face flush. Her manners and her rehearsals in the car came to her then, in a burst, and she said, “Mr. Ca-Capote. I’m lovely to meet you. I mean, it’s lovely to meet you.” She put out her hand. “I’m Marjorie Darnell.”
Truman took her hand and said, “My pleasure, I’m sure.” He slowly dropped her hand and turned to Bobby. “Do what you need to do, young man,” he said.
Bobby went to work on the tire.
“Won’t you join me in the car while we wait?” Truman said. Marjorie’s legs were shaking as she walked to the car, a fancy new Cadillac donated for his visit by the local dealer. This had been a news item on the radio.
Their conversation took an easy turn right off the bat, Truman smoking his cigarettes with flourishing hand motions and asking about life in Kansas. He sipped from a monogrammed silver flask. They discussed books, for they had both just read Doctor Zhivago, and Marjorie asked him to tell her about the art museums in Manhattan. She wished for the tire to never be changed, and for Bobby and Truman, such an unlikely pair, to be forced to let her ride in their car.
Bobby returned, wiping his hands on his newly-pressed trousers. Marjorie reached for the door handle, pulled it, then stopped and turned to Truman. “Why, so much time has gone by, you must be getting hungry. Lunch is past, and there will be nothing at the Clutter house. Would you like to come to my home for a bite of something?” Her sudden bravery frightened and excited her.
“You do raise a point, my dear woman,” he replied, ashing his fifth cigarette in the car’s tray. Smoke curled up in front of his left eye. “A slight detour won’t hurt the day any.” He smiled without showing his teeth.
“You’ll follow me then?” Marjorie said to Bobby, who had resumed his position in the driver’s seat.
“Certainly, Mrs. Darnell,” Bobby said.
Marjorie felt the spare tire’s confident firmness as she drove home, scouring her mind for what she might serve. There was whiskey, certainly, that Leon kept in the back of his nightstand, and some cheese and crackers at the very least. Maybe a can of black olives.
The house was only five minutes away. Bobby pulled into the driveway behind her. She could hear the children’s yelps from the backyard, and hoped they would stay there. Marjorie opened the front door and stepped into the dark entry hall. She untied her scarf, leaving her sunglasses on, and set it on the hall table. Bobby and Truman followed her into the living room, with its chenille sofa worn on the arms and the dark turquoise curtains blotting out any chance of daylight. She tugged the drape cords and offered them seats.
Bobby wandered through the dining room, toward the back of the house, stopping at the kitchen window to watch the children in the yard. Truman nestled into the corner of the sofa, extending his arm across the back as if in his own home.
“I’ll just get some refreshments,” Marjorie said. She turned to leave the room.
“Marjorie,” he said.
Marjorie turned. “Yes?”
“My dear, won’t you take off those sunglasses?”
Marjorie looked at the floor, which was darkened by the deeply shaded lenses of the glasses. She noticed his shoes, white with black patent leather sewn over the toe. “Oh,” she said, adding a slight laugh, “I, I, they’re just comfortable. You know, sensitive eyes.” She turned to go to the kitchen. He reached out and grabbed her wrist as she tried to pass by him.
“Marjorie,” he said. “Take off those glasses. I like to see who I’m talking to.”
Marjorie looked down at him. His face was determined, jaw clenched, and she knew it was pointless to argue. Hell, hell, hell, she said in her head. She reached her hand up and took them off slowly, folding their white plastic temple bars one-handed, letting that hand drop to her side.
She watched his eyes see the dark bruise ring around her right eye and the remnants of Revlon’s Number Twelve Tan concealer. He stared at her, unblinking. The lies of the last two days ran through her head—“I ran into a door,” “I tripped on that darn oak root,” “I got an elbow from that rascal Calvin”—but she didn’t employ one now.
Truman tightened his grip on her wrist and talked through his teeth. “My good woman, what’s happened to you?” When she didn’t answer, he looked around the room and she thought of what he must be seeing—the broken toys, the peeling wallpaper, the general weight of the dark colors in the room.
Marjorie blinked the starting tears back. This wonderful, accidental afternoon was coming to a close. They no longer could pretend it was just conversing about books, their love of literature, the decline of great art.
He patted her hand with his other one. “Now dear, it seems that you need to get out of this place.” Even though he was sunk into her old sofa cushions, his grip stayed true and she could feel the power in his words.
Marjorie nodded, biting her lip. Her chin quivered.
Truman let go of her wrist and let his gaze do a quick sweep of the room. “I imagine you have something to drink in this place,” he said.
“Y-yes,” she said, “of course.” She stepped around the end table and looked through the dining room, to the window where Bobby stood. The children were gone from the yard, in explicit defiance of the rules that they not leave without permission, yet Bobby still stared out the glass. She sighed and felt her shoulders sag. Images of last night invaded her, and other nights—the broken arm, a couple of black eyes, once a hip welt from his belt. Never at the children, only her.
She walked down the hall to their bedroom and opened the door of the dark room. In the cabinet of Leon’s nightstand she found the whiskey bottle. He would notice the exact amount missing. She’d have a drink with Truman and soothe her nerves. She took the bottle back to the living room and poured two glasses. “Bobby, there’s a ginger ale in the refrigerator,” she said.
Bobby walked into the living room, hands in his pockets. “I think I’ll just go out and touch up the car a bit, Mrs. Darnell,” Bobby said. Marjorie was grateful he could think of an excuse to leave the house. Truman lit a cigarette and they clinked their glasses in a fragile manner. The conversation from the car resumed—the Met, Park Avenue, how to understand the Clutter murders.
Then Truman got up from the sofa. The clock on the mantle told her she’d kept him from his research for just under an hour. He stood next to the coffee table and she stood up next to him, towering. “You must find your way, Marjorie Darnell,” he said.
He laughed suddenly, in a burst, as if to break the somber bubble. “Now you be sure to read my article on the murders, won’t you?” as if this had all just been a planned, merry visit. She nodded. He briefly touched her hand then walked out to the car, paisley scarf blowing out behind him in the breeze.
The Haiku teachers were brazenly holding hands standing next to the whiteboard. “Encore, encore!” shouted the young man with the blonde crewcut who called himself Twinge.
Marjorie held up her empty glass. “Will someone get me a refill?” she said. Jasper, the bald video store clerk and Pete, the doughnut maker, jumped to get the Scotch. They’d not so much as looked at her all weekend. Jasper’s pale, round face was like what Marjorie imagined her oldest, Dicky, might have looked like when he was thirty. She hadn’t seen her older sons since she left Garden City, a year after meeting Truman.
She’d managed to extract Calvin and Cora, the risk being too high to take all of them that first day, and later attempts Leon blocked. They became rebellious teenagers, pilfering bourbon from their friends’ parents and unable to hold down the merest of jobs. Now they visited her once a year on Thanksgiving, and only then if they had enough bus fare.
Before she left, Leon won a big contract from a meat market in Kansas City and while his drinking stayed steady, he seemed to ignore Marjorie more, to stay up nights in his office at the plant. She imagined he’d become a man placated by a burgeoning demand for wholesale veal. But it was just a respite. There was a sprained arm and another black eye. Then the day finally came when she caught him slapping Cora’s cheek and the next morning they were gone.
Jasper delivered her new Scotch with Pete on his heels. “Thank you, gentlemen,” she said, holding up the glass. Then she allowed a little time to flutter her eyelids at the others. She took a long swallow of the Scotch, which was a nicer brand than she ever bought. Mixing it with Valium produced a cottony feeling in her head. She smoothed her skirt and poised her lips for the next imitation. The room was quiet. “The good thing about masturbation is that you don’t have to dress up for it.”
More laughter. The innkeeper stood in the doorway in his standard plaid flannel and red kerchief, grinning wide. She knew he was gay, in the way she knew about Truman when he visited. The most caring men she’d ever met had been gay. She wondered how her older sons had turned out.
“Pictures!“ the lesbian shouted. Pete dug around in his knapsack on her command. Jasper moved the floor lamp over near Marjorie and took off the shade.
Marjorie turned her head and looked around the room. She had them now, all eyes and ears. “Well, I’m about as tall as a shotgun, and just as noisy.”
The gal teacher wiped her nose, laughing. Oh how she looked like Cora, thought Marjorie, her blonde hair sloppily piled on top of her head, the small separation between the front teeth. If only Cora thought she was funny, enjoyed her company, threw back her head in carefree laughter, as the teacher did. Marjorie felt a welling inside, as if it was suddenly an eighty-degree summer day. She licked her lips, readied her tongue in position. “You can say I should apologize, but to who?”
The innkeeper held up a bottle of champagne. “I found this in the basement,” he said. Whoops and hollers all around, since the Scotch bottle was empty.
Marjorie stood up, proud now of her imposing height. “I have written a few Capote haikus,” she said. “Would you like to hear them?”