When a place is too beautiful, there will be repercussions. Such places attract disruptions, encroachments, noxious pollutants of sound and deed. Things of the daily sort that would pass unnoticed in an ugly suburb, or even on some normal residential street, work a vengeance here. It is a burden, I’m saying, to live where I live.
Below the house is the beach. The bay is bright with water and light, and there is the wistful cry of gulls. But even now this is spoiled by the pounding of hammers against wood. It is my neighbor’s porch steps being rebuilt. The pounding should stay attached to this. But in this place of relative tranquility my mind flings itself into gruesome possibilities — one moment there is the idea that a guillotine is being constructed, the next that a man-sized cross is being readied, or that someone is assembling a coffin board by board outside my window. But all the while, it is only the domestic carpentry of my neighbor’s workmen.
Nonetheless, there is a privacy to be had here like no other. I can settle myself nicely into a sun-warmed chair and put my feet up on the railing and dream. But just then someone might come to knock at the door — the same neighbor who is building his steps, for instance, insisting, as he did once, that black ants have made a nest under the property and are threatening to carry away the entire hillside.
But not all disruptions to the beauty of this place are entirely unpleasant. Some fall into the range of what one might call “spectacle.”
Our house overlooks other well-kept houses in this development which is situated outside a small seaport. One morning not long ago we looked down and saw a naked woman bicycling toward the tennis courts. It was raining. Not heavily, but enough so that those who would have been going for their morning walks had stayed inside. I put the binoculars on the woman and watched as she entered the fenced and forbidden tennis court of our neighbor. She pedaled round and round the court in wide, opulent circles.
“What does she think she’s doing?” my husband said, drying his hands on his darkroom apron. He had already been at work printing the latest photographs he’d taken of the mountains of our area. “She’s got to be nuts,” he said and reached for the binoculars. “Give me a break!” he said, and shoved the binoculars back into my hands. I lifted them to my eyes again and saw that the woman had a message smeared on her back: COWARDS! it said in what I thought was lipstick.
“She probably knows everybody in this place just picked up their binoculars,” I said, handing the glasses back to him.
“Not bad-looking,” my husband said, pressing the lenses to his face. “But old Rosenthal won’t like it a bit, her ruining the surface on his tennis court.”
But no one came out of his house and no one interfered with the woman’s methodical desecration of the tennis court. The rain kept falling. We ate our toast in the breakfast nook and went about our daily tasks. We had learned by now that it was best not to devote too much time to such occurrences.
Sometimes the assault on our tranquility persists and becomes an unwelcome, permanent part of our days, as when one of our neighbors, against all regulations, erected a bell tower into which he installed a carillon. At precisely noon and at six o’clock in the evening, it played notes approximating “Amazing Grace.” There were complaints, of course. A vote was taken, as it is for any adjustment in our community. But unaccountably, there were more consenting households than not, so the carillon became a fixture in our days beside the beautiful light-shattered bay.
But when all seems too calm from without, my husband and I become uneasy. It is then that a rupture is most likely to come from within. Thus, with a certain false confidence, we noted that during the past several days of hammering, nothing untoward had happened — no arguments had broken out between us, no malfunctioning of appliances, no lost items that needed searching for. The snarl of saws, the thudding of hammer blows, seemed to have absolved our days of a beauty too open to decay or of the wearied bliss of resort havens, which our area most resembles.
But today, just as we began to settle into the relative comfort of this routine, the phone rang. It was my friend Jerome, a sculptor. He is a man who treads an uneasy path between fear and despair, and someone who could ill afford to be calling me at two o’clock in the afternoon on a weekday when telephone rates are at their peak.
“Jerome,” I said, “this is costing an arm and a leg.”
“I know. I can’t help it,” he said grimly. “I’m furious and I can’t stop myself. Catlin was supposed to call me two hours ago. I’m about to be evicted. I’ve got to get payment on those pieces he sold. Why didn’t he call when he said he would? Why does he torture me like this?”
Catlin is the gallery manager who handles Jerome’s work. He is a conscientious fellow but recently had taken a lover and fallen into domestic problems.
“I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation for why he hasn’t called,” I said, trying to wipe flour off my hands. I’d begun to roll out pie dough when the phone had rung. I cradled the receiver on my shoulder and continued to shape the oval of dough into a circle with the rolling pin as I listened. Jerome was always working himself into a frenzy over things normal people would have shrugged off. But Jerome would take nothing for granted. There was no such thing as an unwilled act. If someone failed to answer his call or letter, it could mean one thing and one thing only — malicious, intentional neglect. He was forever bludgeoning himself with imagined betrayals — so much so that his anguished phone calls brought ridicule from out mutual friends, including one who even bragged that he kept crossword puzzles near the phone to amuse himself during calls from Jerome. My husband was similarly unsympathetic to Jerome’s panics and turmoils.
“Tell him everyone hates him. Who’d want to call him anyway?” my husband shouted, then slammed the door to his darkroom. As I say, we live in a beautiful place and this puts an unnecessary strain on out lives.
“Jerome,” I said. “Something must have come up. Catlin’s a fair man. He means only the best. Remember he’s just been through a hard time and it still isn’t easy. Maybe he isn’t attending to business as well as he should.”
“You can say that again!” Jerome said. “It’s no excuse. I’m tired of their breakups, their influenzas and visiting in-laws. They won’t get away with it!” I thought I heard him bang his fist down on something. But just then there was an awful rash of pounding close by that I mistakenly took for the sounds of the carpenters. I placed my free hand over my ear and pressed the receiver against my head with the other. Jerome’s plaintive voice continued to enter my head despite the noise.
“Why? Why should I waste my forgiveness on such people?” he was saying.
“Jerome, dear, why don’t you hang up and write me a letter. This is costing a fortune,” I said. Yet the moment I suggested it, a fear rose up in me that this might lead to disaster. Jerome had once tried to gas himself but had been discovered by his landlady. Another time he’d thrown himself in front of a passing car. Luckily the driver had slammed on the brakes in time. Jerome had actually been committed to an institution for the mentally disturbed for a brief period during our college days — a time during which he got hold of a packet of matches and inflicted burn wounds on fifteen percent of his body. He joked about these scars now as “outbreaks of insanity.” I was terrified of his silence, yet this too was an expected ritual of these conversations. As I listened for his reply, my front door opened.