"I was beastly but never coarse. A high-class sort of heel."—George Sanders
Here’s what the hierarchy looks like:
At the top is the child, a nine-year-old named Andrea. It is smarter than all of us, and essentially malign.
It dominates even its grandfather Hazelton, a billionaire bully from Boston, and not easily governed, but the child does it. Haze loves his little granddaughter. We others fear it.
Then comes Marcie, the child’s mother and Haze’s widowed daughter-in-law. Marcie is in all possible senses blonde and untroubled by intellect, which for Haze is why she loves me and keeps me in a style to which few of us can aspire. Haze resents this, but Marcie controls the child, and to that degree controls Haze.
Then comes Zozo, Haze’s young French mistress with a charming accent. There isn’t much of her that isn’t charming. Of course it’s me she wants, but I ignore her unless no one else is looking. “Could you put me my sun-scream?” she says, offering me her bare back.
In a rare “family” excursion we are on the beach at Ostia, and Zozo is intruding on my before-dinner nap, her forearms crossed over her otherwise bare breasts, her string-bottom bun-divider a mere patch on her tabby.
I raise my head and look at her. “Marcie will do it,” I say.
“Marcie is talking forever with Haze, patati patata.”
“Andrea will do it.”
“I’ll do it, Zozo,” says the child. It takes charge while I go back to sleep. Hard to get any rest around these people. Sleep is my ambition, and it’s a challenging one. Haze and Marcie are discussing, as usual, my unneccessity, and I can only agree.
“Toby,” says the child, “is that your hat?”
It is referring to the straw fedora with which I cover my face to indicate that I. Am. Sleeping. I raise it warily. “Yes.”
“No it’s not. It’s mommy’s.”
“Well, legally speaking.”
“Why don’t you take a poop in it.”
“You think I should?” It doesn’t do to contradict the child. “Won’t it ruin the hat?
“Yeah, but then you can put it on and be a total poop-head.”
I cover my face and resume my nap.
But Haze, a graying man in a bathing suit that displays his authoritative belly, looks over at me and sneers. “What are you doing?”
“I am holding you in existence by thinking about you. It’s hard work.”
“Why don’t you get a job?”
“So?” says Marcie. “You don’t have a job.”
“Money is a job,” I tell her. “All that effort. So vulgar. I’m just going to lie here and mentate.”
Zozo, carefully neutral in these situations, drinks wine from the bottle as the child smooths on the cream. Marcie, Zozo and I form the base of the intellectual pyramid, but with Zozo I have in common that we are concubines, and discardable.
“I mean, what is he good for?”
“Haze!” says Marcie.
“Well,” I say, “let’s not have a scene.” I hoist myself to my feet and lurch toward the water.
“Toby,” says Marcie as I wade in, “don’t go too far out.”
“Okay,” I say. What a man needs is a mother. One he can have sex with.
I swim out past a surprise sandbar, so far from shore that it looks like a coastline, and contemplate the series of errors that is life. But uh-oh, here comes Zozo, and bobs with me in the sea. Is she still topless? I can’t make out, but her playful smirk tells me she’s got most of that bottle of wine in her.
From shore we’re a pair of gossiping heads, but below the surface her toes work their way into my bathing suit and tickle the underside of my johnson.
“Do you mouth to mouth? If I could drown you could resuscimake me.” I never try to figure out what she’s saying. She dives, yanks my suit down and wrestles it off.
On the beach Haze looks at us, his hands on his hips. “Where is she?”
“I don’t know!”
But I do know. She has fixed her sucker and is attempting to swallow my guy. I try to maintain my above-the-surface composure—I mean how long can she hold her breath?—but it’s changing shape, she must be inhaling through the snorkel.
“Where is she?”
“Toby!” says Marcie.
I would jerk it free but her teeth have too much of a presence. It’s like being fellated by a feminist; you never quite relax.
“Look out!” screams Haze, because a cruise ship as tall as an office building is bearing down on us and I must duck and ease her head—ease her head off, drag her by the ear and frog-kick like hell. The horn blares the last judgment and I am not so much swimming as flying in surf, washed in the churn beyond my calculation toward what, I don’t know.
Several moments later I hit bottom and try to stand, winded, as Marcie and Haze come sloshing toward me.
“Where is she?” he shouts.
I look around. No one. “I guess she drowned, Haze. Too bad. I liked her.”
“Well, I don’t see her. Marcie, can I have a towel or something? I lost my bathing suit.”
“Toby! What did you do out there?”
“Do! I didn’t do anything!”
“So? I don’t even care!” And she wades away.
Haze, beside me, stares out to sea, and is of no help. On the beach, the child watches.
“Andrea, can you get me a towel?”
“No! Too bad, stupid-face!” It smiles.
I turn to Haze and put my hands on his shoulders, first and only comradely gesture. “Haze, you couldn’t get me a towel, could you?”
He looks at me, his eyes vacant.
Behind us the tsunami rolls back and Zozo surfaces. She sploshes towards us, breasts proudly bare, carrying my bathing suit, and with French disdain plonks it into my hand—“Zut alors!”—and proceeds to the shore as Haze, his vigil unrequited, watches.
“It’s all right, Haze,” I tell him, “I don’t need it now.”
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