Like on Noah’s Ark
They moved in at the start of autumn. The possessions came all at once, but it was only gradually that the place began to fill up with their lives. It had been a shock for Witherspoon to emerge into the space one afternoon and find not a construction site but his home, complete with a pair of Lorrain’s slippers on the floor next to the couch, in exactly the position of her feet when she stepped out of them.
Now Witherspoon stood in the special silence of the place, listening for her. The tall narrow windows reached upward two stories, slicing the exposed brick. Above him soft light filtered through the skylights.
“Lorrain!” Witherspoon called out. This was his homecoming ritual. “Lorrain?” She had pointed out that he sounded like the Pink Panther returning home and calling “Kato? Kato? Where are you?” And the next time he returned home from work she leapt out at him, emerging in a sudden burst from the secret bathroom, whose door fit like a giant enamel tooth into a smooth white wall, and scared the shit out of him. Theirs was a home built for surprises.
Two months had gone by since they’d moved in, and the weather had turned gray and low. The heating system whispered loudly, and their brick spaceship felt as though it were airborne, propelled by distantly heard jets. It was the season of dinner parties, and they were having one—their first in the new place—that night. From upstairs he heard the drone of the multijet shower system. Lorrain was getting ready. He fiddled with the knobs that controlled the light system. They were made from Gibson guitar knobs, one of the many little touches that so pleased him. The little light fixtures that covered the wall lit up with cascading light—pinks, blues, and greens began trickling down from one fixture to the next like a waterfall.
Then Witherspoon made a fire. The way the downstairs fireplace existed in its own glass box, projecting out from the wall, delighted him. He opened a bottle of wine. He poured nuts into a bowl and peered into the oven where several rotisserie chickens were staying warm. Finally there was nothing to do but wait.
“What is it?” Lorrain said when she came downstairs in a dress, high heels, bare legs. Her hair, now blond and straight, was damp. “You look like you forgot something very important. Everything is fine. Don’t worry. I promise. It’s all here. It’s beautiful.”
Witherspoon leaned against the long curving kitchen counter whose boomerang shape he had pondered and peered at and fantasized about for months, for years really, ever since the original sketches of the place had been presented to them.
“It’s some kind of pregame jitters type thing,” he said.
“You’re not playing a game. You’re having friends over for dinner,” she said. “Though come to think of it, dinner parties are sort of gamy.”
“Gamy means chewy.”
“Don’t get technical. These are our friends. There’s nothing to worry about.”
Lorrain was extremely reasonable in the department of socializing. For her the world was composed of people who either were her friends or who were assholes. Sometimes members of one group would abruptly morph into members of the other group, and a new friend would appear, or a new asshole.
For Witherspoon these distinctions were more fluid, and tonight among the three couples who would be marching up the felt-lined staircase and entering the atrium of personality that he and Lorrain had been laboring and fussing over for two years was Begley—his old roommate from college, his dear friend, and a man who in the twenty or so years they had known each other had managed to toss off at least one savagely undermining remark directed at nearly everything Witherspoon held dear, including Lorrain.
The exact wording of Begley’s remark had long vanished from Witherspoon’s memory, but it had to do with her hair, as it once existed. He didn’t even notice the remark at the time, because Begley had encased it in a drawer full of praise and flattery, and only later did Witherspoon find himself wondering what Begley had meant by it. Lorrain’s wild, kinky, unruly dark hair became, gradually, a source of distress for Witherspoon. In the early days he had grabbed fistfuls of it, squeezed it, pushed his fingers into its dense bramble. It was so out there, so unrestrainedly in the world, piling up, sticking out, looming like a Tower of Pisa of sheared wool. After Begley’s remark he came to feel about it the way some men feel about their wives’ cleavage when they are showing too much of it. It was as though she were giving something away. Witherspoon knew it was childish, and he hated Begley for planting the seed of his own objection to what he once loved.
Witherspoon loved Begley’s hugeness, his turkey gullet wagging under his chin, the bemused and faintly aristocratic manner with which he appraised everything. But now he could not look up into his fabulous creation without wondering what Begley might choose to single out and sear with disdain.
They came in pairs, like on Noah’s ark. Rick and Jean. Said and Becca.
“Oh my God.” “Wow.” “It’s a safe-house, I mean, you could hide out here!” “God damn!” “It’s beautiful.” The noises of greetings, coats removed, cheeks kissed. Lorrain hugged everyone. Witherspoon hugged the women. He took them all on a tour, showing them the light fixtures made from plumbing parts, the hidden bathroom, the exposed beams, the gangplank upstairs—all the while listening for the arrival of Begley. He heard the buzzer, and a little after that the sounds of another pair coming up the stairs. Witherspoon moved to the gangplank, a captain on his bridge looking down at the galley, and the first thing he saw was the bright shiny crown of Begley’s bald head. Then he heard a child’s voice. Begley had brought Melanie, his four-year-old daughter, adopted, Chinese. From above he heard Jane Begley deliver explanations: “The sitter canceled. I can’t stay, but we wanted to say hi. Isn’t this place wonderful? Melanie look at the lights!”
And from Begley, in his low sonorous voice, as though he were a radio announcer broadcasting at night to homesick soldiers who wanted to be comforted: “Very interesting.”
Witherspoon looked down, smiling, waiting to be spotted. Huge Begley, dainty Jane, tiny Chinese Melanie.
“Beams!” said Begley, his eyes roaming upward. “Look at those beams! Ahoy, Mr. Witherspoon!”
Witherspoon descended, fetched the new arrivals, and shipped them upstairs for the tour. From room to room they walked, Witherspoon talking, explaining, joking, Begley and Jane and Melanie nodding and craning their necks as though on safari.
“It’s a tall man’s house,” Begley said. “It’s got a cathedral air about it. A fun house. A house of amusement.”
“It’s so fantastic,” Jane said.
Next was the master bathroom, expansive open plan, blue tiles, glass boxes interspersed with bright white porcelain, a small spa.
“Why there are two potties, Mama?” Melanie said.
“Look at that shower,” Begley said. “The nozzles! Oh heaven!”
“It’s an amazing shower,” Witherspoon said. “It attacks you from six directions.”
“I’m tempted to disrobe right this minute,” Begley said. “But I’m a bashful man.”
“Why two potties?” Melanie asked again. “You make caca together?”
He had designed his bathroom with two toilets right next to each other, one enclosed in a glass case. This particular eccentricity of design was especially dear to Witherspoon. A variety of toilet scenarios was a kind of absurd comic luxury that made him smile whenever he thought of it. And he liked looking at Lorrain on the can. But this was not information he wanted to volunteer.
“You never know when two people have to go at the same time!” Begley said.
“We just thought it would be funny,” Witherspoon said.
Downstairs everyone sipped wine, and their faces were lit by the fire on one side and the glimmering lights—those colorful, falling computer-generated stars—on the other. The natural and unnatural light fell upon the guests, combining to make them devilish and appealing.
Jane said her good-byes with Melanie while Lorrain and Witherspoon begged, “Stay, come on. Stay!” But there were bedtimes and other obligations, and the pair descended the steps. The walls of the stairwell were lined with felt, so Witherspoon was surprised at how clearly he heard Melanie’s little voice reaching up from the bottom of the last flight: “Maybe one is for grown-ups and one is for kids?”
It was a Begley comment if ever there was one, and Witherspoon received it with a frozen smile on his face.