The Hedonist

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Romance  |  House: Booksie Classic
Its 1951, four WWII veterans return home to small-town America to discover that they have irreparably changed and each live a dissolute, hedonistic lifestyle. That is until they meet Virginia Paige.

Submitted: October 21, 2010

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Submitted: October 21, 2010

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The Hedonist

by

Stuart Ramm

It happened during the year of 1951 in the small Mid-western town of Durant. It was natural and silent back then, a calm and useful place, used well and long by its good people. The land was still formless, soft and virgin; there were well-kept houses, white picket fences, warm blues and reds of rusted signs, grasshopper green lawns. Durant was the hometown that prodigal sons and golden boys always return to no matter who they were or how they changed.
Durant was in the middle, squashed between the culture of East Coast and the influence of the West Coast. Being in the middle it possessed a sense of keeping things together.  People there were torn between the old and the new, the country and the city, the American reality and the American dream. 
Those who did survive the war had returned as though they arrived washed up by the tide. It had been years since the war and not all of them had returned. The war had been a castrating experience. The ones who did return were ruined. Their lives marked by terrible tragedy.

Winter

It was very cold in Durant during the winter and the dark came very early. Snow had powdered the roads and the wind was strong and powerful. In the winter of 1951, David Twist returned to his hometown and squatted in a secluded and discarded house near where he grew up. Back in the East, Twist lived in an unheated apartment in a rundown tenement where he learnt to nurture his talent as a boxer. But now he was back. The war affected Twist. He believed a man had to continuously prove himself by confronting the dangerous, that in the presence of death, a man discovers himself. But Twist was not a complicated man. He was a self-confessed meat and potatoes type. He did not crave fame or fortune, or any big shiny thing, but to paint a great small picture and know that he could, he wanted to do this sincerely, badly and urgently.
He had a quietly confident boy-like charm and was usually short on words. When given the chance to speak, he could be intellectual and charismatic, with a gift for structuring conversation. His words could be both gracious and full of surprises and his voice had a startlingly smooth and harmonious texture. He possessed a steady look in his eyes, an elusive bovine quality that portrayed vigor, as if he was always hungry. He ate steak and beef before a brawl. And when he did brawl he combined gentility with brute strength, relying on his reactions as opposed to actions. The scrap would look like a dance. Often he wanted to be hurt before he could paw, foam, growl or snort, not unlike a stricken animal. It was like bringing a latent volcano to eruption. His rage was ferocious. In the ring there is much cruelty and much danger, man is capable of such a thing if he wants to win. Twist could not afford to be slow.
After a scrap he treasured the flavor of crisp bread, on luminous cutlery. If he did not win clothes would become rags and food would be sparse. But his spirit was as enduring, strong and inured to hardship as his prizefighter body. He did not always win, but he always fought a good fight.
He always knew that when he’s older and not of much use, when he can no longer fight a good fight, he’d paint small and great pictures.  He always considered himself an artist and believed that eventually the tide would turn. He gripped tightly to this idea of a dream, the way only a youngster could. He was alone but not lonely, and owned a dog affectionately named ‘dog’. She had one good eye.
Twist shortly directed all his energy at a giant blank canvas that he bought with the bulk of his money. He knew whatever he paint would be bad, ugly and beautiful. The beauty would have to be spontaneous and authentic. During these nights was an all consuming blackness, the feeling of falling into a deep place. But he was determined and hit the sketchbook with all the explosive energy of a firework. He drew with shades of blues, greens and browns and they calmed and pleased him. And the canvas remained blank.
Art to him was foreign and exotic, though he knew a few things about Matisse and Rembrandt. He felt it kept him pure to not worry about competition or whether he was any good. Twist had an unrelenting drive for what he wanted and he was prepared for whatever may happen. Though always starving, he was on his way to manifesting his childhood fantasies.
A few weeks into the coldness, dog grew fragile and died. Twist gave up whatever rations he had, but it was not enough, muscles started to protrude because of the hunger. After he buried her, he got a bang on the door from a woman looking for a place to stay during the blizzard.
When David Twist met Virginia Paige, he found her naturally interesting, finding in her rare and precious qualities. She demonstrated a remarkable patience and tenderness, complimented by a passion for life and things beautiful. David was instantly fond of her traditional cooking of meat and potatoes, with lots of potatoes and lots of gravy.  They familiarized to living in a small world of two people. His rundown home became a place of solitude where life became uncluttered from the hardships and roughness of the outside world. The house had the closeness and seclusion of a warm cave.
Virginia had become warmly and comfortably tucked in the soft blanket of his refuge. She felt protected and secure around David, and he saw the start of a new person who was no longer weak. She stayed a long time and then one morning was gone. He was all alone in that house with the canvas that was always blank. It had stopped snowing and the fantasy was over. All that was left were the hard cold nights.
The yellow begonia plant, the only real source of color in David Twist’s house, had rot and died. He was running out of time and it was now worse than ever. The one thing he refused to sell was the canvas, the rest of his goods he did not care about anymore. Though he’d still prone to fly into rages when he didn’t meet the towering demands he set himself, destroying his early work. He felt useless. Soon to enter what he was to call his starvation period, Twist knew that one day he’d be poised for greatness, that no matter how long it took he would somehow and sometime inevitably end up there. He would never stop. He’d fight till the end. He now preferred to die knowing that he had endured. He knew that like a bullfighter an artist must possess valour, he must be fearless, bold and cool, as the slightest hesitation could ruin everything.
David was always highly sentimental, regularly replaying the time when he first laid his eyes on her and the way she smiled and that rosy color of her lips, the way she made his home warm like a comfy nest. He knew at the end of the day the painting would be all he has, and all he has to offer. Virginia had left him several tubes of yellow paint and since David was a sentimental man, he used the yellow on the canvas. When he finished, he stared at the pure whiteness of the outside. The winter light was beautiful and majestic. The early darkness was beginning.

Spring

In that spring, the town’s novelist watched himself spiral into unrepentant promiscuity. The Greeks could not have written his fall from grace any better.
Jack Gray was rakish, a Dionysius, who was handsome in a way that transcended regular handsomeness, whose physical flawlessness masked a damaged interior. The war had affected Gray. He felt a man had to always indulge in all life’s sensual desires with eating, drinking and sex, and valued these things more than anything. He felt physical pleasures were life’s compensation. It seemed the rest of the world had reversed and decayed and became perverse as he glowed with shimmering beauty through the use and wear of many a hard year.
After a hard night he’d warble in a searing bath and marinate in the most expensive of perfumed oils and scented soap. He possessed an appetite and would spend a lot of time preparing an artful multi course dinner, spending time to sauté the onions and garlic, timing the whole thing to enhance the flavors and make it sweat, always spending a fortune on great wine.
It did not stop there; he possessed a good eye for art, with an appreciation of things conductive to lavishness whereby the more it had cost, the better it was. He was preoccupied with his appearance and loved to preen and peacock his feathers and debonair mane. He would spend a lot of time and riches on the right everything. Still, his happiness did not always come through with sensual fulfillment, his enduring goal was to be revered and worshipped by an admiring, adoring public.
It would often eat at his skull that he burnt all his bridges long ago. He had shrugged his shoulders over a fickle business and become a recluse. He deemed the crowd as being gods in their own mirrors and told them to shove it. He was on his own. The days of wild, decadent parties were long gone. Everyone was no longer falling over themselves to spoil and pamper him. His privileged lifestyle was fast becoming harmful to his natural creative juices. He looked weathered. He would stay in the same room, pining and hiding whilst outside the sun would be shining.
The glimmering and shiny mansion he lived in was a cruel reminder of golden days and shattered dreams. Back in the day, he was a champion swimmer and a champion long distance runner. The towns very own golden boy. He no longer talked about past triumphs, and the very thought made him doubtful, regretful and haunted. He was a forgotten man.
He was still self-sufficient and loved to work. For years he had perfected and honed his craft, often exhausting himself finding the truest sentence.  He loved draining himself, and losing himself to the sifting and searching. He was obsessed with running out of time, and would be encircled by endless clocks and calendars, screwed up pieces of paper and the smell of coffee left out too long. He needed to write a novel that could redeem him, that could communicate a universal truth in the most accessible manner. But he had writer’s block. Nevertheless, as a champion long distance he had learnt it to be cowardly not to finish. The champion must suffer and be hurt like hell before he can do it well. But Gray had long lost the strength and willpower to work as desired.
On a cold, windswept street, the town was a warm cheerful place with warm cheerful people and Gray found himself in the town’s café with paper and pencil.  He would sit there for weeks with nothing, a lot of the time he didn’t even touch his café creme. Writing usually fed him, nurtured him, it was wine and water, and not writing was destroying him like a cancer. It made him feel as though he could no longer pleasure a woman. He took to Brandy.
After twenty one days, at five o’clock in the afternoon he was naturally and inexplicably drawn to her. Virginia Paige was intriguing. She had come in the cafe and sat by herself at a table near the window. She sipped her café au lait, pinky finger in air and her beautiful legs elegantly crossed, Jack appreciated that though she looked sweet and innocent she had a body built for sin. He appreciated attractiveness and beauty in a woman and she had it in abundance. She was graceful socially, either charming or quiet, with a bright saint-like quality and a melancholy combined with incredible strength. She wore just the right kind of skirt with just a hint of leg and a bit of skin, dressed with a touch of red pleasing to the eye. Jack was like a bull. In his heyday Jack ravenously past through girls with curiosity, enthusiasm and thankfulness, he never courted a woman in his life, simply attracted them to him.
Jack stood up and fumbled his words. He spilled his coffee too. Once he got her attention, he felt a tingling, hypnotizing feeling. They had locked eyes. Just one glance at Jack made her feel faint, it humbled and worried her, it made him laugh, and that laugh was contagious. He forgot the coffee trickling into his groin area.  It brought a smile to her face and she could not help but laugh along because of it.
They started to have a conversation that seemed to be about everything and nothing, and he’d gesture when he had too many thoughts running through his head and stutter and stumble over words. She asked whether he’d put her in his new book, and he spoiled her with a knowing smile. Her intellect was understated. She talked profoundly and sincerely, thinking through what she’d say then choosing the safest sentence, sometimes seasoning her talk with French words and phrases to wow him. He listened to every word. She ordered him not to quit his day job, then left and disappeared. He realized their conversation was short but memorable; Durant was like that in spring time. The leaves lay wet with rain, and it was clear, cold and pretty.  Jack Gray never saw her again. And he didn’t get the girl.
But he sat down, and started to scribble. The story moved through his head and his memory at a speed that can be compared with nothing but itself. It was as though he was swimming again. His eyes were no longer empty and his lips were silent. His face contorted into some kind of smile, it was glimmering and shiny.
He now had the knowledge that beauty is a form of wealth that’s spontaneous, that cannot be bought. He had a joie de vivre. It was a warm spring day again, it was very bright.

Summer

In the summer, James Sawyer returned home the same way he was born, butt-naked and covered in blood. How or why he came back was a mystery. He’d always done a lot of thinking about his future whilst riding the freight trains or spending a night in the cells.
He’d drifted from town to town, making money from gambling and living the natural life. He had found himself drifting through an America deemed unrecognizable; it was no longer wide or hopeful. He’d drift with just the clothes he stood up in and the ever present bottle of gin or vodka. Disillusioned, he cared little about family, friends, religion or work.
The war had affected Sawyer. He felt when a man dies, what’s done is done, there’s no going back, a man’s gotta’ go his own way, and do what he needs to do as soon as possible. If he was going to bum around and shoot the breeze till he kicks the bucket, then so be it. As soon as he was discharged, Sawyer threw himself in the epicentre of a bohemian world of drinking and gambling till dawn. He felt you need to enjoy your life; it is after all the only one you get, to live for pleasure and live to avoid pain and hell with everything else. Have it the way you want it.
He believed deeply that the good American was a self-sufficient individual. And as a self sufficient individual, a cowboy if you will was doomed to wander between the lands as there is no home to go back to. He figured a home to have ways of corrupting a man’s true nature. Sawyer had a soul that was dark, and he had gotten use to that and made it work for him.
For the most part he could not shake off his heritage; he possessed the regal bearing and manners of a genteel prince. He was refined. It had been the values and mannerisms that had long been stomped into him. He had been a choir boy at some point in his life. But this he could use. He could quietly draw people to him. He was an attracting force that magnetized scenarios into manifestation, he’d operate behind the scenes, quietly pulling the strings and playing the innocent lamb that charms absolutely everyone to perfection. Always keeping his intentions guarded, always keeping his playmates in a continual state of guessing, getting them to play their hand before revealing his own. His talent was to something authentic, something he was born with, and something that was his and his alone.
He had an ability to wing it and roll with the punches; never staying put and never growing attached to person or place. Being free was a kind of empowerment. He lived the night life and lived it well, regularly squandering the money on whores and making sure he'd never wake up rich. Money had no value to him. It was just another form of sex. When he did win money he would drink himself into unknown territory, waking up in odd or unbelievable places. He could be wonderfully generous too, giving his last dollar to the poor and homeless, knowing he was always a few shades away from being one of them.
In the summer he started running cold when what he needed was a hot streak. He still had a lot of money, but only enough for expensive drink. And when he drank, he would look back at all the things he could not do, that he never had the courage to attempt or try. He had all the chances and all the opportunities, but he never took them, just swept them under the rug. He’d realise he wasted a lot of his life on all the wrong things. And these thoughts would take him prisoner.
It was during these nights he felt a deep sense of aloneness, the feeling of being unwanted and abandoned and in a scenario he no longer controlled. He hated the night with a passion, it was a reminder of that utter darkness mans gotta’ face after death, condemned to a slow burning fire. He’d try to cheat the night any way he could. He slept during the day out of exhaustion, fatigue and acceptance of oblivion. His dreams weren’t any better. One very hot evening, he figured he’d drink himself to death and end it all. He didn’t want to be here anymore and knew it; he wanted to lose everything because he had nothing.
When he woke up the next morning, Virginia Paige was hovering above him, checking his pulse. She assured him that she had been walking past his house and heard sounds of him screaming. He soon realised he was naked, cut-up and bruised in an old dilapidated house. It was his old house, the one he ran away from years ago, his home. He’d somehow ended up back in Durant. His body exhausted and crippled, he still had enough strength to pour himself a glass of gin to finish the job. He looked at her. She was for him the only woman who met his gaze with equal intensity. She was sweet and voluptuousness with an aura of innocence or neediness. She was wearing an understated but feminine summer dress, the kind that accentuates the breasts and neck. He was overcome and speechless with desire. She wondered off outside, something had caught her eye. Coming back inside she made a bet that he could not grow out the garden, to breathe life back into the flowers and plants. Once he made up his mind, James took that bet. He was after all not a man to say no to a pretty lady. And then, she was gone. 
All through that summer it was hard but he saw it through. He was determined to win. Incredibly, he came out the other side and he started going to sleep happy with the progress he made. Often, the sun shone while he worked and it would be warm and pleasant. A great day would be followed by another great day, and it was always wonderful in the morning. As time went on, James thought he probably dreamt her up, that she was some kind of angel guiding along to greener pastures, or perhaps a devil-woman. Whoever she was, he was forever thankful that he could wake up feeling safe and exhilarated.
By late summer, James Sawyer had a well-appointed garden and had won the bet. Though he clearly never did it for the money, he only wanted to sincerely show her he could. It seemed all the wins he encountered through his life were a mystery. Sometimes he’d win a lot quickly, sometimes he’d win without trying, and sometimes the more he’d tried to win, the more he lost. The bird birds sailed through the sky and James felt the biggest of breezes. The sun was no longer silent and he could feel the tenderness of the summer sunlight.
The garden had been given all things absent from his own life, and before long he went indoors to the house he had lived in, and found the place needed some work too. By staying he’d be taking a big risk, but that’s what he did best, he loved playing for high stakes. Despite a crushing defeat, the cowboy dances.  The sun was no longer silent and he did a little jig. He looked stupid, but since when did he care. It was a big step for the man with a penchant for mixing alcohol with chorus girls.

Autumn

In the autumn outside the town, where the fields were brown and yellow was a creek whereby a deep blue stream ran through the Morgan ranch, rich with all the textures and colours of the trees with small leaves. Morgan’s sun-hardened ranch was about twelve acres of wide-open land and it was all his and his alone.
Morgan would start his day a few hours before daylight, and before long was busy doing as many chores as humanly possible. When he was done for the day, he liked to sip his whisky and sit outside and feel the current of air, that sudden change of temperature on his skin. He loved the sunset breathing down his neck. Morgan relished these simple pleasures. He did not have to live a life in search of higher truths or higher platforms of pleasure, he had everything he needed and constantly worked towards keeping it that way. His world was rough and sweaty and always exhausting. But he loved it.
The war had affected Morgan. He’d no longer felt a man could express himself in words, but in actions. Words had let him down, almost as much as people. He was convinced that he just wanted to be left alone and away from all the noise, the competitive rituals of city life. In his heyday he was capable of mood swings and violent rages. But the ranch life had calmed him. He could be his own man, rejuvenated.
He was fond of strolling and wandering through the heavenly meadows of early autumn and drink in the sights and fragrances. He believed in the simple work of stacking logs, and sawing wood, smoking a pipe, the richness of Italian coffee in the early hours of dusk, the feeling of crunching down the earth, or rolling around in the mud with the pigs. He liked waking up knowing what he had to do with the day. It was work that was satisfying to the soul and it was all that mattered to him. It was his paradise.
He was content with how his ranch had been growing and could be very protective of all the calves and horses in the horde, making sure they grow up big and strong. The horses were dark and black, strong and powerful, and he liked put them one by one in a lunge line.  Despite possessing a stoical approach towards pain, Morgan collapsed helpless with exhaustion. It had been just another reminder that he was just one man.
In that autumn he got a knock on the door from Virginia Paige, and she asked if she could help out around the ranch in exchange for a place to stay. Although she was dressed shabbily, he thought she had an honest and likable face and spoke intelligently and with good grammar. She claimed to have grown up on a wheat farm in Kansas, just a couple miles outside Dodge City and was accustomed to chores like milking and collecting eggs, feeding the stock and harvesting. He figured her to be on the run, as she always seemed nervous, though would regain confidence once she was working. Nevertheless he welcomed her into his home. It was odd for a man who never did anything casual, but he was not one to turn down a woman in need.  Morgan figured Miss Paige as a girl with a very active mind. She had such a helpful, and tender and self-effacing way about her, she observed her life from a distance, always mentally taking down notes. Her face was a landscape of calm and collected emotions, and deep inside she hid a sensitive and fragile being. Morgan appreciated her company and they started to live a quiet, orderly existence.
For Virginia, John was as down to earth as an old pair of shoes. Honest and true, he was never bombarded by worldly ideas. Though he spoke sparingly, sometimes with just a “yep” or a “huh”, he was intentionally vague and simple and would turn his head to one side in one direction, his eyes sparkling with vivacity.  When he wasn’t vague, it would be in monologues, and what he said meant something. He would have the eagerness of a youngster and describe his honest and truthful impression of a thing or place. Though, he seemed to carry a lot of burden on his back and shoulders, he carried it demonstrating perfect bearing and poise, moving purposely through the fields, a rock of strength and calmness.
A couple weeks into her stay he fell off one of the horses with such impact that he was comatose for several days. As he could hear the sound of horses’ hooves he’d lay in bed recuperating and feel helpless and weak, Virginia helped around the house and kept the wheel was turning. During that time she heard the terrible silence of a house that was once lived in and she got the feeling that perhaps he’d lost some family in the war.
Having successfully treated him of a fever, she refused to reveal how she had acquired her knowledge of the medicine. In time he made a full recovery.
From then on, they communicated through their actions and what they did for each other, always careful not to graze or touch one another. For her endless kindness he offered whatever money he had but she refused. Her kindness and niceness intrigued him and he wondered how a woman could be so generous to a grizzled old man.  He grew to show his warmth and thankfulness in the most irregular and precious ways, promising he’d protect her from all the storms. She liked his protective nature as it put her worrying at ease. John started to feel like his old self again.
But in the morning it was all over. Autumn turned into winter and the air was colder. In the time she spent there she never abandoned him; she did the work and left like she said. He said nothing, retired back to the ranch, and got his hands dirty. It was a quiet night.

A couple days later, it had started to rain hard, and ground turned to mud. Morgan staggered into Durant, where in the cafe he found three familiar faces. Their collision seemed inevitable. That night they reminisced about the times they encountered. 
It was a time of great insecurity, whereby they fought to renew their old lives and days of old. They found their dreams and innocence had long been smashed and they long carried within them ruined places of exiles, crimes and ravages from which they took refuge from. At the end of that night, they celebrated being alive and back, and went their separate ways, no longer bitter or aimless, recalled to life. Virginia Paige was an inexplicable riddle. In an age when nothing was safe anymore she had the rare strength to make a man feel truly safe. Her presence became a mere footnote in a time that no longer belonged to them. She had been the forbidden fruit that led to consciousness, she had smashed through each of them with a force that resembled fire or water and made them strong again.
After the war, they had lived a beautiful and shiny dream, and now they were ready to accept pain back into their lives, ready to return to the fray, and experience the game no matter how traumatic it got.
The sense of separateness was gone. It was possible to forget themselves and their desires and give themselves wholeheartedly to the work. Their hearts bound to be broken and bent, and their dreams may run dry and die, but they were no longer lost at a sea, their conclusion uncertain, they beat on, ready to face the winter with a quiet strength.


THE END


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