"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

‘Crystal’ Chapter II


Hanks swirled the last of his scotch, went over to the bar, filled his glass, then went over to the porch railing, looking out.  The night was hot, and I had begun to sweat.  The summer heat of South India was always a breathless, enclosed heat that at times was manageable, but at others, like now, thick and impossible.  I looked over at Hanks who was still hanging over the railing, looking alternately at the sky and into the trees, then quickly looking around at some new insect sound behind him.  He was smiling – almost smugly – as though this were really his private domain; that this section of Madras, with all its Fire of Jerusalem trees, thousands of insects, kites, mynahs, and hoopoes, was his and his alone.

‘Hugh’, he said, turning towards me, ‘how’s about some dinner?’

‘Sounds good’, I replied.

‘Let’s go over to Ken’s – you remember Ken Strickland, don’t you? He’s got a little something planned, like he always does, that I’m sure you’ll enjoy.’

‘Fine’, I said. ‘Let’s go.  Do we walk?’  I knew that most foreigners lived in this section of Madras, and that despite Hanks’ vision of Truchipallam being alone and isolated, it was chic, ‘in’, and well-to-do.

‘I have an old adage I always keep to’, he said. ‘When you can sit down, don’t stand.  When you can lie down, don’t sit.  When you can sleep, don’t stay awake.  And when you can ride, don’t, for God’s sake, walk.  Get in the car.  Now where in the buggerin’ hell did I put my goddam keys?’

Truchipallam is a suburban neighborhood, but shaded with great old mango trees, covered with tumbling bougainvillia, and surrounded with thick tropical hedges.  Along the sides of the road were walking, in almost a steady stream, white lungi-ed men and sari-clad women, rustling in the folds of their clothes.  There was an occasional cycle, teetering and wobbling into the soft shoulder as Hanks passed, and a herd of buffalo being whacked on their bony rumps by a small boy.

We pulled into Strickland’s and drove up a long, crushed-stone driveway.  Nearly all the lights were on in his house, and through the closed windows I could see a number of people. ‘Well, here we are, safe and sound’, said Hanks.  ‘Doesn’t Ken have a lovely house!’ We rang the bell and were met by a white-coated, barefooted servant who were American dimes for buttons.  He was old and elegant, dark brown and unlined with a thick grey mustache.  He bowed slightly and showed us in.  In a minute Ken, a big man in his early forties came to greet us.  He had a frosted martini glass in one hand and a large scotch in the other.  The martini he handed to Hanks.

‘Mmmm-mmm’, said Hanks, taking a large gulp.  Now that takes the sting out of Wednesday’.

‘Hi, I’m Ken Strickland.  What’ll you have to drink?’

Strickand’s house was different from most American houses I had seen in India.  It was Indian without the kitsch of Kashmiri screens and endless brass elephants.  There were Rajasthani mirrored pillows on the floor where everyone sat; there was incense burning, and above the fireplace was a large photograph of one of the erotic sculptures of Khajuraho.  There were a few modern sketches in various places; a large, abstract water color; a delicate, feathery plant; and a tenth-century head from Madhya Pradesh spotlighted softly from above – alone and exquisite in its own alcove in the bookshelf.

More than anything I noticed the ease of the room.  It had none of the rigidness of a put-together décor; and there was no discomfort.  People relaxed easily into the deep cushions; there was soft, but interesting music playing.  Two servants moved inconspicuously serving drinks from a silver tray – mint juleps in tall, fresh mint-garnished glasses, gin-and-tonics with a large slice of fresh lime, Bloody Marys in long-stemmed glasses.  Everyone was being taken care of but left alone.  Strickland and the house were perfect.  I reclined on one of the pillows and took a cool-looking drink from the tray of one of the servants.

‘Hugh’, Hanks said to me, ‘Ken gives one of these parties at least twice a week.  Aren’t they sumpin’? And look at Ken.  What a dude.  Over there’s his girlfriend, Annie.  Ken has laid every wife in Truchipallam and he’s so smooth and easy, comes on like lilac and honeysuckle, the men don’t even notice.  Mmmm,…he’s a fine lover.  One woman told me that it’s because he understands women.  Nothing sly or slick or comin’ on fast and crude like a horny AID type.  He insinuates himself into the family, payin’ attention to the little lady, listening to all her problems, letting her know that he cares, and all the while he lets her know that there’s a johnny-cock ready to crow whenever she wants it.  No puffin’ or posturin’ and hot come-on with no action.  Man, Ken is all action.  I’ve never seen a man that dug screwing so much.  And that’s what drives all the men nuts.  Ken is such a sweet guy, a man’s man with class; but they all know that aside from everything else, ol’ Ken’s always ready.  And that up and destroys them.  That ol’ boy’s got a winning combination.’

A few people were dancing now, and Ken, quite drunk, was lying back on his pillow, right in the center of the room, watching.  Smiling and watching.

‘Just look at him’, said Hanks.  ‘Look how he’s digging it.  That’s his chick he’s watching, too.  Shakin’ those tits at the dude she’s with, rubbing that hot little body all over him, and ol’ Kenny just sits back, smilin’ enjoying every goddam thing.  You see what I mean? That’s power, man, power.  Any other up-tight American would be havin’ canniptions….writhing all over the place, tryikng to keep his cool, but stompin’ inside, ready to explode and kill the dude.  “Get your hands off my woman”, he’d be ready to say like an old-time galoot, '”and draw”’.

Hanks rolled back laughing, curling his arms and legs up like a dead roach.  ‘Draw, you son-of-a-bitch, draw!’. Hanks howled and gripped his stomach, gasped and choked, took another swallow of his drink and swayed to my side.  Then he got up and went over to Strickland who was still lying on his pillow.  Hanks looked up and for a minute watched Annie’s sensual dance.  ‘Mmmmmm, he said.  Sure takes the sting out of Wednesday’.

Within another hour and a half, everyone was drunk, yet there was no pawing and slobbering, no loudness or shrill bitching.  Everybody was into it, dancing or talking, or, like Ken, just lying back and watching.  In one corner of the room a young woman was sliding up and down like a cat to the slow, sensuous music on the tape.  In another, three people, two women and a man, were feeling each other; rubbing their hands slowly over each other’s bodies.  I noticed that no one was with their original partner.  Hanks crawled over to me on all fours, licked his chops like a dog, and collapsed next to me.  He reached over and pulled down another scotch from the tray of the servant…..


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