Wallis J. Baxter arose from the bed and turned away from Marilyn’s accusing look. It wasn’t the first time; that was the point. The first time, she had been quite sweet, quite understanding and had told him it was probably due to stress, he was just tired and so on. But this was the third time and now she was beginning to look a little teeny bit annoyed. Like he was doing it on purpose, for God’s sake!
He flung on a robe and walked into the bathroom to have a shower. The cool water revived him a little but he felt terrible. He’d have to see his shrink about this. Joke, of course, when shrinking was his problem just now. It was really too awful. He was only forty-two. It wasn’t as if he was an old man or something. This had never, ever happened to him before.
When he went back to the bedroom, Marilyn had dressed and gone. He had a funny feeling he wouldn’t see her again and in a way he felt glad, relieved of her accusing presence. Yet, his sense of shame went with her and he was suddenly afraid that, like all these unfeeling girls now, she would laugh at him behind his back, spread it around that he, Wallis J. Baxter, the big shot of Boston, couldn’t raise a fluffy pillow let alone his dick. It would hardly be good for business, let alone his love life.
Marilyn’s perfume lingered in the air and yet it had no pleasure for him. If anything it now seemed sickly sweet rather than seductive. He began to wonder what he had ever seen in that girl. Maybe that was the cause of the problem. He had simply lost his desire for her and that had made him react this way. Of course, that’s what it was! He heaved a sigh of relief and pouring himself a whisky, lay back on his bed.
He picked up the small book that he had taken to keeping on the bedside table. It was a little book, bound in soft, green leather, full of sayings and aphorisms from famous philosophers. He had found it in an old bookshop years ago when he had been a student at Harvard. It had lain amongst his possessions for some years but he had re-discovered it lately and glancing through the pages once more had been struck by the wisdom of the words in it. There were snippets from Kant, Plato, The Geeta, Deeprak Chopra and many other Eastern and Western wise men and wise books.
Generally, the words gave him some detachment, some comfort. He felt the need of that just now. So he lay there, sipping at his whisky, and flipped almost idly through the pages. Then he came across this passage from the Bhagavad Geeta:
“Beset with immense cares, ending only with death, sensual enjoyment their highest aim, certain that that is all there is. Bound by hundreds of bands of hope, given over to lust and wrath, they strive to secure by unjust means hoards of wealth for sensual enjoyment.”
Reading this filled him with more than discomfort. It gave him a sense of terror. He looked about himself at this elegant bedroom, its plush green and gold furnishings; a Monet and a Matisse adorned his wall, antique Venetian glass and Sevres porcelain crowded the shelves. His dressing gown was made of exquisite pale blue silk and he loved its luxurious feel. He was surrounded by wealth and always had been. He came from a wealthy family, his father an equally well-known and admired figure in Boston. Both his parents came from old and respectable Boston families that went back generations.
Somewhat mockingly those old families were called the Boston Brahmins. They were a superior lot; that was why they had this nickname. They felt themselves morally and intellectually superior to the rest of the crowd. They were full of pride, morally respectable on the face of it, yet “given over to lust and wrath” was putting it mildly. Why, his father had kept three mistresses... though he tried to keep it a secret. Boston was a highly puritanical place and it didn’t do to boast about one’s sensual excesses. Mother had certainly known about these women he kept in various houses round Boston. She hadn’t liked it a bit, but she had accepted it as part of what came with the wealth and magnificence that surrounded her. It was the price she paid for all this luxury. But in the end her jealousy had eaten away at her and she had committed suicide in her early forties.
Their present immense wealth had been handed down by those parsimonious and astute members of the family before them, though the fine art collections that Wallis now possessed had come via the elegant and eclectic members of his mother’s family. Like most of the old Bostonians, his father had been mean as sin and wouldn’t even have a chauffeur driven car but went about in some rackety old jalopy. Yet no-one could say that he, Wallis, was like his father, could they? He gave to charities and tried to do the right thing by the city, help with various foundations and other ventures. He had just donated thousands of dollars toward a new restoration project on Beacon Hill. Just to appease his conscience? No, no, it was because he loved the city, loved its history and felt the pride of all Bostonians.
Nor was he a promiscuous character like his father. He had been married twice and both marriages had ended in divorce but he would never keep a mistress. Either marry them and stay with them or divorce them and leave them, that was his motto. And frankly he’d had enough of marrying. Yet, once he had loved women so much, wanted them so much. If only he could find someone who really cared about him, not just his wealth and position. More and more, he began to believe that was impossible.
He put the book down on the table and shook his head at himself. Oh, that philosophical stuff didn’t help at all! He needed to prove himself to himself.
Dr. Munchhauser was highly attentive when Wallis related his problems.
“My dear boy, your lady friend was right. It is most likely due to stress, to overdoing things. You are a very high-powered man, you have a lot of responsibilities, organising, decision-making; your life is a whirlwind of social and business activities. It is not uncommon, believe me, for this to happen.”
“It’s not permanent is it, Doctor?
“Gut Gott, no! You simply need a vacation. Take a nice long vacation, take some good books with you, leave women alone for a bit and rest. Too much sex is like too much food…you lose your appetite. Take some Chinese herbs…some ginseng, lots of vitamin E. You could try Viagra, of course, but the holistic way is the best. You will be fine again in no time. Above all, don’t worry about it, that’s the worst thing you can do.”
“Okay, I’ll try and fix a week or two away. Golding can stand in for me for a bit. I trust him.”
“That’s the way. Enjoy yourself and see the movies, see some scenery beyond the office desk, relax, leave your body to heal itself.”
Wallis took the time off and wondered where he might head to that would be stress-free and peaceful and where there would be no women to tempt him. He decided to take a trip to see an old college friend of his who lived in Burlington. Vermont was a peaceful little state. Fall was upon them and the foliage would be at its peak right now, the countryside would look stunning and delightful at this time of year. There was nothing like Nature to revive and soothe the spirits.
Rather than drive, he took the train just for the sheer hell of it. It was years since he had taken the time to make a train journey anywhere rather than the dash to the airport, sitting in an aircraft, tapping frantically at his computer, sending off e-mails in all directions, fretting till he could get out and have a smoke, use his cell-phone. Life was always so hectic, so little time to think about anything pleasant or enjoy the simple things of life.
Just sitting waiting in the station was fun in itself. He waved away the porter who came up to ask if he wanted his luggage loaded. No, he wanted to do things for himself for once, not keep paying everyone to do these things. He enjoyed a good breakfast, took the train and settled back in his seat. Already he felt the stress rolling away from him.
When he reached Burlington it was late at night and the rain had suddenly decided to bucket down with a vengeance. The few people who were alighting there, scuttled for shelter to the little waiting room, laughing and shouting at the surprise or dismay of getting soaked to the skin. Wallis let the rain pour over him; he suddenly didn’t give a damn if his suit was spoiled. He felt a carefree being for once, and almost wanted to dance and start to warble “Singin’ in the Rain”….but maybe that was going a bit far.
The few taxis had been commandeered by the time he had taken all his bags off the train and Wallis took out his phone intending to ring up his friend, Pete Erikson. However, a slim man, in his fifties, greying head bared to the rain, stepped up and said in a friendly voice, “Got a truck. Wanna come with me? I’ll drop you off someplace. This weather ain’t fit for ducks!”
“Sure, that would be great. I’m aiming for the bottom end of Main St. My friend lives down near the Waterfront area.”
“No problem, hop in buddy.”
They drove a little way, the rain still tumbling vertically like stair rods, the windscreen wipers making clicking, rhythmic noises as they swung steadily to and fro.
“You on vacation or business?” asked the stranger.
“Vacation. Doctor’s orders.”
“Gee,” was the sympathetic response,” you been ill, then? Anything bad?”
“No, no…just overwork…stress, you know?”
“Sure, I know. Bin there myself. That’s why I came to live here to get away from it all. Name’s Hank Jones by the way. Come and do a spot of fishin’ with me while you’re here. You’d be more than welcome. I live back of Flynn’s theatre…there..”he pointed out a neon lit building along the Main St., “gotta little place back there. Ask for Hank Jones and they’ll point my shack out to you. Folks all know each other round here.”
“Thanks, I might just take you up on it.”
Hank insisted on dropping him off right outside Pete’s place and then drove away into the rain sodden night. Wallis rang the bell and was ushered into a warm and welcoming house.
Pete had a charming wife. She came to greet Wallis with a smile and took his coat.
“Come right on in,” she welcomed him, “it sure is rough tonight. I’ll get you something hot to warm you up. Sit yourself down, make yourself at home.”
Pete shook his hand and beamed with pleasure to see him,
“Gee, old buddy, you’ve taken long enough to get up here to see us. But I hear you’re a big-shot now. Got no time for us now, eh?”
“Pete, you know that’s not true . I want to make time for old buddies but life is pretty stressful these days.”
“Well, just you sit here by this fire and let all those cares flow away. We’ll sort you out, Franny and I. She’ll feed you like you’ve never been fed before, not even at the Ritz. I’ll take you out and about, explore the countryside a little. You may fancy a little hunting trip for some venison. Franny makes a swell venison pie.”
“Sounds great. I’ve been invited fishing too.”
“Oh, yeh? Well, I’m not a great fisherman, myself. Bit too slow for me, I like some action better. Who invited you?”
“Fellow called Hank Jones, lives back of the theatre. He gave me a lift down here from the station.”
“Yep, I know him; he hunts as well though mostly he does the skinning and butchering for us. He keeps the skins and sells ‘em to the Indians for their moccasins and what not. He’s a bit of an odd guy.”
“What way odd?…gee thanks, “ for Franny had brought up a good strong cup of hot coffee laced with whisky. Wallis drank it with pleasure.
“What way odd?” he repeated.
Pete looked at him and seemed to search for words to say.
“Ah, you know, eccentric. He looks a regular dope but he reads poetry, for God’s sake. Hardly been to school to learn to read yet he’s crazy about Walt Whitman.”
Wallis thought of his book of philosophy. “Can’t see why that’s so dopey,” he said with a smile, “sounds an interesting character to me.”
But he knew of old that Pete had always been a man for science and not literature or art. He was a practical, down to earth guy and poetry was definitely not his scene.
Wallis spent some very pleasant days hunting deer with Pete, going on trips around the various scenic parks and visiting rivers, gorges, taking boat trips on the lake and all the usual tourist pleasures. Burlington itself was a very charming and attractive place, a University town that sprang to life at weekends when the kids came out of their little dens of intensive study, flung their books aside and whooped it up for a while downtown. It had an air of peaceful respectability. Little seemed to happen that disrupted the calm and even tenor of life there and yet it felt vibrant and cheerful with young people. Wallis felt himself unwinding daily.
“This is what life’s about,” he told himself, “Gee, I could so easily come and live here and maybe find myself a really nice woman and settle down near the lake someplace near Pete and Franny. If only…”
Later that week, Wallis remembered the promised fishing trip with Hank Jones. Pete had to drive over to Salem on business and Franny was busy with some women’s society she belonged to and had gone out for the morning. He decided to call on Hank and see if he was around.
Someone directed him to a small and rather scruffy clapboard house, the yard full of bits of boat machinery and old cars. Wallis smiled; he had somehow expected it might be like that. He knocked at the door and Hank opened up and looked genuinely pleased to see him.
“Welcome in, bud, nice to see you. Thought you’d forgotten.”
Wallis stepped into the small house and smelt wet fish at once.
“You been out fishing already?”
“Sure, I rise early, fish early. So guess you’re a bit late now. But we could go another day.”
“What you caught there?” asked Wallis regarding the overflowing creel.
“Got myself a couple of brown trout this morning from the lake. Help me clean ‘em up and you can take one back to your pal with you.”
After this operation had been completed, Hank wrapped up one of the fish in a piece of tin-foil and laid it aside for Wallis to take with him. The other one he cut up and put in the fridge for his own supper.
“Nothin’ like fresh fish,” he said.
He went to a cupboard and produced a bottle of Jack Daniels.
“Too early for me,” said Wallis and Hank smiled and nodded but poured himself a tot.
The two men relaxed and began to chat. Wallis felt very comfortable with Hank but it was hard to say why. They could not have come from more different backgrounds, he a wealthy, spoilt Harvard boy, Hank brought up any old how with little schooling apart from the exigencies of life. Yet, he felt as if they were alike in some deep part of themselves. He soon found himself talking about his problems, though he didn’t mention who he really was and he had a feeling Hank wouldn’t have given a damn anyway. He was such a simple, natural person, so honest and straight and kind. He felt a sort of brotherly love for the guy.
“So you reckon you’re having problems with the gals?” said Hank thoughtfully.
“It worries me, Hank, not because of their opinions but because I reckon I don’t feel I’m a man any more. If folk get a wind of it, I’ll never live it down.”
“Getting your dick up ain’t nothin’ to do with your being a man, Wal. That’s somethin’ you feel inside you. Your pride, your dignity, your inner strength and sense of honour. It ain’t to do with sex. But not being with the ladies is a sad thing. I love the ladies and you say you do too. Just like old Walt Whitman. He screwed ‘em wherever he went and he loved ‘em all too. Loved every one of ‘em. Loved men too, I guess.”
“Yeh, I do love women. But I think they scare me too.”
“What’s to be scared of? They are generally real grateful when a guy treats ‘em nice. They makes out to be all tough and rough but they’re still scared and soft somewhere inside. You have to be gentle, like with plants or tickling a fish…then you land ‘em in your net! See listen to this here!”
He took his well thumbed book of poems down from a shelf. The pages were almost falling out but he tucked them back in again with a reverent hand.
“I am he that aches with amorous love;
Does the earth gravitate? Does not all matter, aching,
attract all matter?
So the body of me to all I meet or know.”
“Walt, well, he loved men and women and all the people he ever met. He was some crazy guy. I read this book all the time and it’s like my friend, like I know the man. He’s my companion, he’s my teacher, I need nobody else.”
“Looks like you found peace of mind,” said Wallis and gave a deep sigh, “I read this little book but it doesn’t seem to make me feel any peace.”
Hank looked through the green book and smiled at certain passages.
“No reason why not, it’s good stuff,” he said, “make it your friend too. Jest open it up any place and you can bet it’ll be the right thing…the page will talk to you. It’ll be what you have to hear. But you have ter listen to it. Not ignore it. That’s the trick. It’s tellin’ you about yerself from inside yerself. You gotta listen, see?”
“I think so,” said Wallis dubiously.
He went back to see Hank as often as he could without upsetting his old buddy Pete.
“What do you see in that old guy?” asked Pete with a laugh and Wallis could tell he was puzzled and a bit annoyed. So he had to play it carefully. But those times he spent with Hank were wonderful to him. They both swapped ideas on life and philosophy and Hank seem so interested, so keen to discuss these deep problems, knew so much about so many things that Wallis was amazed. What had been the use of his expensive education then? He felt he knew absolutely nothing in comparison to this simple, gentle old man.
“Ain’t got nobody much interested in these things,” Hank said sadly, “yet these are important things. These are out dreams, our souls. People round here go to church and pray a lot but they ain’t got no soul. They ain’t got no soul, Wal. All they care about is money and comfort. They just wanna be comfy and asleep all the time. They don’t wanna wake up and have ter think for themselves for a change.”
Wallis knew he was going to miss Hank so much.
Wallis seemed so pre-occupied at the Board meeting that his partner, Golding, asked if he was all right.
“Sure, sure, I’m fine,” Wallis said as cheerily as he could.
Yet, he felt sure his secretary was regarding him rather oddly. Did they all know? Had Marilyn somehow spread the word around? It wasn’t possible, yet he felt as if everyone was laughing at him, already seeing his downfall. Even Blake Thomas of Thomas Enterprises was staring at him in a manner he had never done before. Blake had to believe in him if he was going to agree to this merger. Had to believe that he, Wallis J. Baxter, was a man of power and strength, a man who could be trusted. What would he think if he knew that inside he was turning to jelly?
Later that evening, Wallis cancelled a dinner at the Ritz-Carlton with some company executives on the pretext that he felt a little unwell.
“Guess it’s something I ate,” he said, “those prawns maybe. Never could stomach prawns too well. You boys have a good time and send me the bill. It’s all on me.”
He took a cab and asked it to take him to Harvard Square. From there he took another cab, trying to lose himself in anonymity.
“Know any place in this uptight town where I can find a girl…you know?...”
The taxi driver smiled a little and winked.
“Sure, I know where to drop you off. Cost a bit more though.”
“Never mind, just take me there. You’ll get a good tip, don’t you worry.”
The taxi pulled up outside one of the old converted houses near Chinatown. Wallis got out and rang the bell and an oldish woman, her wispy bleached hair darkening at the roots, came to the door. She ushered him in without a word, hardly even a glance. He supposed she must be the Madam of the establishment. He had never gone in for this sort of thing in years, not since he was a young student and had set off with a band of other guys just for fun. In those days they used to go off to the South End but that area had changed now; it was all nice and respectable.
He was taken upstairs and the door opened for him. The room was sparsely furnished, just a plain square bed, a small dresser with a swing mirror on it and an armchair. On the bed sat a young dark haired girl in a red slip, her legs crossed. As he entered, she sat up a little more, uncrossed her legs to reveal her nakedness beneath.
Wallis felt his normal, male reaction. Thank God for that!
The old woman shut the door and he went over to the girl. No time to mess
about. He pushed her back on the bed, stopping only to unzip his pants. She looked surprised at his abruptness but also resigned.
The girl turned her back to him and lay still on the bed. Wallis arose and zipped himself up and looked at her. Yeh, he had managed all right, he had been fine though so quick. But he had to be quick, just in case he failed himself again. Something about her body language, her silent act of turning away from him made him feel strangely guilty. He had been rough, he had been so rough. But she was used to it, what did a girl like that care or matter?
The room felt stuffy, smelly suddenly and he flung open the window and let in some cool, sunny October air. He touched the girl on her shoulder, she shook him off.
“Leave the cash and go,” she said.
It was the first time he had heard her speak. Her voice was kinda sweet. He felt remorse.
“Look, sorry, didn’t mean to hurt you…”
“Jist go, your time’s up anyway.”
Sitting in his board room, he looked about at the oak panelling, the huge table, the framed pictures on the wall. It represented power, wealth, prestige and glory. He sat at the head of the table and thought of his father and the sort of bastard he had been. He was fast going the same way. He thought of Hank and his wise words, his gentleness and the love for humanity that shone through his open, lined face.
What where those words?... he had written them down. He took a scrap of paper out of his wallet and unfolded it, looked at it for the umpteenth time.
“I am he that aches with amorous love;
Does the earth gravitate? Does not all matter, aching,
attract all matter?
So the body of me to all I meet or know.”
But Hank was lucky. He hadn’t been born privileged, hadn’t been lumbered with what passed for education, didn’t have a whole heap of possessions. Wealth wasn’t just about money though, it was about all the baggage we carried about with us, our natures, our past, our parents, our ideas, our desires…even poor folk had that sort of wealth. Hank was truly blessed and poor in spirit. Lucky man.
Should he leave all this and go retire early to Burlington or someplace like that? Yet he knew that even if he did, he could never be like Hank, never shed all the burdens, all the “bands of hope”, the lust and all of it. It was firmly round his neck, like the Old Man of the Sea. Only one way to escape it all.
He took the gun out of his pocket and putting it to his head, pressed the trigger.