Mrs. Frances Parkinson Keyes
Time was full. Time was malignant. Time was a phantom of a friend who hovered incessantly above my head as the ruckus on Chartres Street wrapped around the clapboards of Beauregard House and invaded the serenity of my courtyard. I wanted time to be lighter, less spiteful. I wanted it to be my clandestine collaborator, to nestle away with me in my courtyard, where nature's charms and magical inspiration could nurture my writing in its secret garden hands and earth soul and dragonfly skies.
My mornings always began with such a disposition, while I sipped on herb tea in the old slaves' quarters that looked out upon an ancient courtyard. It would be past noon before I could catch Old Man Time unawares and pass a few hours putting forth little more than moderate effort not to reflect on my state of dishabille—today I would write about Odile, about her own paralysis agitans. Time was our enemy and a fraud, and neither of us had time for Great-Uncle James Parkinson's prognoses.
But it was barely morning, and time thrashed about in a tantrum and beat on my under-skull like some unexpected visitor with the screaming meemies had been let loose. The morning hours were remorseless for their intrusion, though only moments earlier I had left Antoine's in good humor after a long night of the idealistic ranting and stale philosophizing of which writers never tire.
I had found no cause for being anything other than giddy when I received the invitation to dine with my friends at Antoine's, knowing that an evening with such a troupe would in no way be disappointing. Though I most often enjoyed their companionship at the invitation of Dr. George Crozat at Burnside Plantation, this was a special occasion, and I relished the thought of dining on Angelo Alciatore's most excellent cuisine with a hodgepodge of South Louisiana gentry in large part an ilk of maladjusted intellectuals, to use the latest psycho tagline (a bit of a pip to throw out a particular suggestion between the lines rather than say nuts outright as it were, though, I must confess, of their sober conditions I have no personal experience).
When I arrived at Antoine's, my dear friend and assistant Clara Wilson did her best to help finagle my canes in such a way as to make my withdrawal from the car and up onto the high curb least cumbersome and gawk-worthy, but alas! to no avail. Though I have never been what I would consider prudish in my administrations, I did take pause for an uncomfortable moment when I slid out leaving my olive velvet dress hiked up on the seat at my rear – a quite long queue at Antoine's threshold received at the very least a full view of my petticoat (and perhaps a bit of a direct view even past my garters… and such). Presently, Faulkner, the least tardy of the maladjusted, exited the black sedan inched up behind Clara's car and aided me across the deep banquette along St. Louis Street. As we approached the entryway, a man near the front of the queue breathed just loudly enough, "Should be foist come foist served."
"Mind your manners, suh, you're in the South this eve-nin," Faulkner never one to not redress indelicacies.
It always struck me as a bit queer, if not amusing (and it evoked in me more than a bit of melancholy), when William summoned such embellished inflection, as it brought to mind the manner of speaking I so longed to hear, the rolling lilt and yaw of our South Carolina and Virginia friends, not resembling much at all the sing-song of our Louisiana neighbors. Bill's extrapolation of Southern voices was more of what I imagined to be the drawl of one of his Civil War soldiers, by osmosis or metamorphosis now internalized within the artist who created him, perhaps in the same manner Bill's heavy limp (healthier even than my own), was ostensibly internalized from one of the injured soldiers in his prose, though it was the late Forties and Bill had already begun to retire his cane and limp, along with his old uniform and any aphorisms he had theretofore utilized to project his image as a devoted soldier, as his public now understood him well and he required no further use of props (though I do believe his hobbled gate was at one time true and his Royal Air Force service of more consequence than he would prefer others believe at this juncture of his career, heightened as it were).
Bill escorted me and my canes through the lead-glass doors, accordingly giving my hand to Roy, the maître d'hôtel, who led us through a main dining area vast and open as the cosmos and speckled with the starry flames of gas chandeliers, hundreds of glimmering, bobbing pinpoints of fire emitting an incandescent light that flung patchy shadows across diners' faces in the way old silent movies flicker and lose frames like a flip book.
The chandeliers were the only source of heat for the room, resulting in a temperature too cool for my joints and, had we dined there, the chill would have rendered my back brace less than utile (a well-known susceptibility our host had surely considered—Mr. Hemingway had made arrangements for the celebration from Cuba, where he then lived). Rather, we continued on to the 1840 Room, where dwelled a warm glow from five-stick candelabras, where the nutmeg, cinnamon and orange peel of Café Brûlot hung heavy in the air, where pavé of white hydrangea studded with American Beauty roses broke the contrast of blood-red walls and glowing white tablecloths.
Not being a woman of small proportions, as I adjusted myself in a spindly chair, I managed to rock the table and tipple the glass of burgundy Roy poured. It drifted through the weave of the cloth, slowly inching along the linen just as a serious wound leaks blood. I would reflect on this foretelling moment when I later wrote about Odile's murder.
Faulkner appeared witty, and his affable repartee did not suggest an overt escape into the bottles that so often numbed him to the pressures of fame. In his presence, I myself took to a type of banter I had theretofore been unacquainted, and did what I could to spurn him in jocularity and goad him into that peculiar menagerie of voices somehow derived from his childhood years in Lafayette County and college days at Ole Miss, along with his years enlisted in the RAF and stints in Hollywood.
Suave, well mannered, and sincere though he was, Bill was the sort of fellow to mock my invalidism and make good fun of my lifelong spine issues, his flippancy a welcome respite from the somber kindnesses afforded by well-wishers swelling with pity. Bill had no time for disingenuous affectation for others nor himself, and rather tended toward self-debasement, most obvious in his dismissal of gushing reviews and accolades, and clearly evident in his referral to such as "dead gestures of dolls," quoting his own Darl Bundren in As I Lay Dying. He was no doubt grinding his teeth as we made our way through the restaurant's expansive dining areas, past open doors of private rooms and onlookers' beguilement over the sublime, their craning necks and exasperating Oh, was that… Or, you won't believe who just walked in.
If only Billy could know a woman like my dear Odile, someone who could help him find some measure of tranquility. I imagine he would perceive her as the sort of creature who'd never live anywhere but Paradise, while he thought himself a lifelong inhabitant of Purgatory, Dante peeking over a shoulder, wagging a finger each time Billy banked too much personal satisfaction. I would have liked Billy to know a woman with Odile's innocent charms, one who could encourage him to believe his too was a worthy soul.
His preference for anonymity notwithstanding, dear Billy had just won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and he did ask Roy to make Antoine's famous Baked Alaska for the occasion (surely the most frivolous dessert ever), then had Angelo inscribe it Ignoble Prize. How the chefs managed to create such a delicacy is beyond my comprehension, given that they still used ancient coal-burning stoves and ovens.
The attendees sipped on Armagnac liquor and Bacchus cocktails, and nibbled on shrimp aspic and oysters Foch. We savored juicy lamb clasped by the blue Limoges chop handles Dr. George provided, crawfish bisque with heads stuffed by Chef Alciatore himself, and pressed duck from the Atchafalaya swamp. Then we desanctified the Ignoble Prize and topped it all off with a vat of Café Brûlot trickled over long swirls of orange peel aflame in violet and crimson and bright carrot orange.
I do wonder what we might have done with knowledge of the forthcoming.