“The Prince Appears”
I am a frizzy-haired, washed-out princess looking for a prince. Some ordinary prince on a limping horse, to carry me off to his leaking, rented castle, to share his beans and salt pork and lie beside him in his bed. No one special; after all, I am nothing fancy. At thirty I have never established residence with a man, and those I have rubbed bellies with have been no better than I was willing to settle for. Concerned as I am with reality, I don’t get my hopes too high; just a third son of a minor king.
Which search is the reason I had this morning in my radio station still another prospect, this one a writer down from Connecticut, here on a grant at the historic J. Frank Dobie Ranch. Which meant that for shelter he got an old farmhouse and for inspiration a field, a creek, and a view of the neighbor’s cows.
I love to interview writers, as they are not fettered by facts. Thrusting characters and parrying plots spin from their fingers onto the yellow pad as slickly as spider webs. Silently inside their heads herds thunder and doors slam with a reverberation that we in the world of sound can only envy. Each time I coax a writer to open his vocal cords on my show I expect sudden magic; expect verbal rabbits snatched from the top hat of his subconscious.
Of course, I am habitually disappointed. Last year’s Dobie Fellow, hungrily surfacing from under Los Angeles’ thick sky, had spent six months staring through the barbwire fence at the milling livestock, his vocabulary locked in constipation. On the air, so full of his oneness with the land and its manure, he had had the opposite problem. I purposely omitted mention of his work in progress, lest it never progress.
I had high hopes that this year’s visiting writer would be better. For one thing he possessed the irresistibly German name of Gruene Albrech; for another, his brooding voice, accepting my invitation to appear on my interview show, had suggested a prodigal son come home to confront an archetypal father—to kill or to forgive him (depending on the size of the Dobie grant).
Now, considering him through the pane of glass, he didn’t look as I expected. He was not brooding at all; in fact, he seemed eager as a kid on his first day of school all decked out in new clothes, which he was—board-stiff jeans, creased Western pearl-snapped shirt, hand-tooled glossy leather boots. Even, sticking from his back pocket, a red bandana with the price tag still on it.
Right off I could see he was no German. Looking closer at his wide face whose skin stretched across high cheekbones tight as a drum, I decided he must be Slavic. His deep almost golden tan gave him a general yellow wash that appeared to color even the whites of his eyes and his teeth, and darkened to copper his bow-shaped mouth. In the manner of symmetrical faces, his chin was cleft in the center, Czech, there was no question.
That charade was all right with me; I was used to that. Things are seldom what they seem. None of us are as we present ourselves.
The old men in this fenced-in town in Central Texas, named for Prince Solms, the nobleman who brought their ancestors from the old country inland from the coast to this rolling edge of a ring of weathered hills, purport to live in a German-speaking hamlet.
In fact, they dream of a remembered past; today they make up less than half the town. Beer-bellied, polka-dancing Mexicans, heirs of the original land-grant holders, now outnumber the beer-bellied, polka-dancing German descendants of the prince’s immigrants. Nor is this the lush verdant farmland they claim to their grandsons, hoping to keep them close at hand; only the thinnest veneer of grass and scrubby shrubs cover the rocky soil of this insular place whose factions shut themselves off from their neighbors as surely as its rivers cut apart its three hills.
We aren’t what we claim either, here on my beloved Mole in the Tunnel. Our very show pretends one thing as it delivers another. KPAC, a remote broadcast station, sells itself as Pasture Radio, down home sound brought to you from the land of the Aberdeen Angus and Poland Chinas. Actually, although we pipe our audience the picking sounds of country and western’s finest, we sit ten miles out of town on a rise so that we can beam our advertisers to the Porsche drivers and politicians in both San Antonio and Austin. We are no more authentically rural than Neiman-Marcus custom-cut bluejeans.
Otto, my sidekick, who gives the news and weather in heavy German accent, is really a forty-five-year-old Mexican, with Pancho Villa mustache, who works afternoons (out of his lederhosen and into his stiff black suit) as the cemetery sexton.
Nor am I, Avery Krause, the cowgirl my faded jeans and blue work shirts would imply. I am, rather, as my mama is, a Swede sitting like a burr in the saddle of a large German family. A corn on the sole of the old grandfather’s foot.
For twenty years in the coal-burning state, as Papa in his German way called the black, gutted mountains of eastern Kentucky, Mama and I were mistaken for any other Appalachian towheads. Which angered Papa into deep silences over his journals and ledgers. I so like the other schoolgirls with blue eyes pale as watercolor—all of us blanched, bleached, with peaked faces—made faint impression on the eye. We were Polaroid shots not yet developed. Now, come back here last year to bury Papa and replant ourselves, Mama and I are set apart from the Germans we married or were born into by our near-white curls, our wide thighs, even our sweet Swedish smiles.
If my appearance was the same in Kentucky, so was my manner of dealing with the world. I was a drama teacher, which, if you think about it, is not too different from what I’m doing now. In both settings I present illusions as real. In both theater and radio the audience is let in on the hoax; together we share the thrill of belief suspended. Here, by consent, coconut shells pound into horses hoofs and squeaking doors signal mysterious entries and ominous departures. There, small white faces grew bold with greasepaint and eager hands slew dragons with broom handles.
So it was fine with me if today’s prince was after all a golden impostor, faking his German birthright; I too make my living by delusion.
As I stared at his large dark head and wide palms which seemed designed to compensate for lack of height, he flashed a hesitant grin of greeting.
Wanting to get the feel of him before we went on the air, I put on the easy sounds of Willie Nelson’s “Remember Me” and left the control booth to Otto, who was assembling the good tidings of local news and the usual bad tidings of local weather.
“Good morning, I’m Avery Krause. We talked on the phone.”
“I’m here early.” Gruene Albrech rose, short in the leg as I had perceived.
I shook his firm hand, deciding that the touch was worth coming out for. “Would you like a cup of coffee?”
“If it’s no trouble. I left in a hurry. It looked farther on the map. I thought it would take me longer to get here.”
“You were good to drive out at eight o’clock in the morning.”
“I’ve never been on radio.”
Which must explain the scrubbed look. People always forget we on radio see only with our movie-making minds.
“We’re very informal,” I tried to put him at his ease. “I’ll ask a few questions, play some music. We’ll let the listeners call in their comments. They like to feel they’re taking part in the show.”
Which in fact they did. The weekday interview hour was now the station’s most popular feature, and the high point of Otto’s and my shift. This was satisfying to me as last year, returned home and job hunting, I had sold KPAC’s managers on the idea that visiting dignitaries and celebrities from San Antonio and Austin, and even stammering ordinary citizens from Prince Solms, telling their versions of daily events, would create a wider advertising market than followed their existing mix of country sounds, news, and weather.
“You can ask me about my book,” the writer told me. “That’s why I’m here.”
I was more interested in him than in his proposed translation of himself into fiction, but, guessing he wanted a dress rehearsal, I asked, “What is your novel about?”
He cast about as if he hadn’t thought of it before. “It’s about these people.”
Clearly he needed to warm up. Some writers obviously grew tongue-tied in the morning. Leaving his work, I moved to him, a matter of more concern to me anyway.
“How long have you been away from Texas?”
He studied his cup. “Uh—since I left high school. Several years.”
“Do you have family back here?” The Dobie grant as I recalled had to be bestowed on a native Texan.
“Uh—that’s right. My mom’s folks are from Veramendi.”
He looked relieved, as if the business of disguises bothered him. “How could you tell?”
“Long practice at observing dissembling.”
“I guess I do that. Writing, I mean.”
“Is Albrech your real name?”
“Actually it’s Billy Wayne Williams.” He looked sheepish at this admission.
“Why did you change it?”
“Who reads books by Billy Wayne Williams? If your name is Gruene Albrech they take you seriously. They give you a grant to the Dobie Ranch.” He grinned. “They ask you to appear on radio shows.”
“So they do.” I smiled my blondest smile.
“Besides, I thought the German name would prepare me to tell my story.”
“About these people—” I chided him.
“I’ll tell about it when we’re on the air. I don’t want to waste myself now. I’m saving up for when it counts.”
“Is that the way you write?”
“Keeping it all inside until it goes down on paper?”
“I guess so. I never thought about it.”
His crisp just purchased clothes must also be a way to get into his tale and into this part of the country again. They did not look like the tweeds and Shetland sweaters I imagined for Connecticut. “How do you like being back here?” I asked.
“That’s part of what we’ll talk about.” With that, he went back to the guest chair and turned his attention to waiting. Moving his knees apart and planting his feet squarely as a peasant, he simply sat.
It came to me I was observing an actor, off stage, getting into his role. A fine development, and one that I had missed.
Most people did not know that when the first sounds gave the cue that the curtain had gone up, we were on our invisible stage. Most people played to me, thinking me their audience. Most gestured to me, looked to me for confirmation, took my silent nods as answers. Most people did not believe that anyone was Out There; it would be grand to work with an actor again.
It took me back to another actor who had seemed, for a time, to be a prince of a fellow. An actor with a fine hairy belly against which I slept for five years of weekends. Remembering that earlier tale (or perhaps a later one) made me wonder about the writer before me—did he make love as the Czech rodeo rider or as the moody German?
However, I knew that such thinking was unproductive. After all, I had only taken one guest to bed, and he was no prince. Still, you had to consider it again each time; otherwise you ceased to take the risk that goes with looking.
Otto wrapped up his good tidings of local news with, “It vill be a goot day, as ve shall see.” Popping his alpine suspenders, he plugged in a public service cartridge and signaled for me to take over.
“Pronounce my name Green.” My guest spoke up suddenly. “That is the German way.”
Then back in the booth the sorcery began again; we were crackling out over the air waves into the waiting ears. “Hello out there, this is Avery Krause on KPAC, Keep Peace, the station which brings you morning. Our guest today is that distinguished novelist Gruene Albrech, returned to the land of his forefathers in search of an ancient tale. You at home refill your freeze-dried and you in your economy cars move closer to your FM while we listen to his story. It isn’t every day we get a real live word wizard on our show, so stay tuned and be sure to call in your own questions for him.” At home in my eyeless world, I beamed myself to my unknown intimates.
“Tell us, Gruene, how does it feel to be back here in your homeland coming to terms with your past?” I fed him the cue.
With the first answer he was before the floodlights. His hands led him; his planted stance anchored him. He was Everyman, struggling to find himself and, in the process, each of us. As he talked he brushed his brown hair continually away, as if brushing aside deception or falsehood.
In the heavy tones of a Günter Grass he shared the anguish of going home again. He was the tortured expatriate, returned to wring the truth from the meager lives of his ancestors.
“And what is your novel about?”
“My book is a fable of a grandfather blinded by his villagers. It is a parable; for we are all that grandfather, the world is that village. Do you know the works of —?” He plunged into a comparison of himself and a little known but powerful German writer, exiled from his home soil, writing of alienation.
Now I was not thinking of him in bed, but with his pencil and pad. Wondering if he wrote as this fine actor, the tormented Albrech, or as the golden cowboy. Most of all wondering did he write well?
“Do you write from your own experience?”
“I am everyone I invent, but they each transcend me.”
“How do you know when your writing is good?” This was something I had never understood, as the actor is dependent on immediate response. The kids would put on a tablecloth, a bandit’s cape, and ride their chairs backwards, and it was a good performance if their watchers shouted and clapped. And if they didn’t, it wasn’t. But for a writer the lapse from entrance to applause required a far vaster attention span to approval.
“Not until it’s read. And then, if it comes from your deepest level of consciousness, you can only hope it will speak a truth to the deepest level of the reader.”
He spoke then not of theater but of a message in a bottle, of himself stolidly gathering clams until the tide went out and came in again. Nodding my admiration of such patience, as well as such fine answers, I gave us both time to catch our breath and myself time to answer the blinking red phone that flashed a listener’s call. Putting on John Prine’s bittersweet ballad of “Donald and Lydia,” I spoke into the off-air-receiver. “Good morning, Keep Peace.”
“How would you like to interview me tonight?” It was the all too familiar voice of the mayor of San Antonio. I felt a flush rise to my face. Wasn’t it enough that I was still engaged in a shabby affair with this burgher in white socks; did he have to intrude himself into my ear as well on that ultimate invasion of privacy, the telephone?
“I can’t talk now, Sterling, I have a guest.”
He drew in his breath. It excited him to call when I was on the air, knowing he couldn’t be heard by the audience but knowing it rattled me. He liked getting a reaction from me whenever it appealed to him—the usual attitude of a man to his mistress. “I can be at the cabin at a quarter to seven.” Breathless, aroused by his call, he proffered the weekly rendezvous.
“How long will you have?” I did not relish the drive to our hideaway, a trip that took me more than an hour.
“I don’t have to be at the reception until nine. Plenty of time for what I have in mind.”
“I’ll try to come.”
“See that you do.” He laughed titillated by the double meaning. He knew I would appear; after a year it had become a foregone conclusion.
After a year he knew that he could count on my weekly treks to hear how things were going with his boys. He had surmised that whatever thrill the clandestine provided him, I was willing to settle for the feel of a man again.
As the music faded and Otto stroked his mustache in disapproval of the call, I invented a final question for our writer. “How long have you had this story in your mind?”
Through the pane of glass he acknowledged my invention, meeting my eyes above my flushed cheeks. “The blind old man surrounded by others,” he concluded, “represents the primal scene of my life. I have never been without it.”
If he writes badly, I admitted, I cannot bear it.
“Thank you for being with us, Gruene Albrech, and now stay tuned while Otto brings you news of the outside world from our fertile field among the mooing Angus.”
Out in the front, I shook the writer’s hand in thanks.
“Otto is Mexican, isn’t he?” he studied the newscaster through the glass.
“His name is Ramirez. He’s the cemetery sexton.”
“He does a good imitation of the language.”
“None of us is really German, are we?” I looked about the studio where we had each performed in costume. “Not to the grandfathers, anyway.”
“I guess not.” He looked away.
I studied his face, not knowing how to proceed. I had never known how to make overtures to men. If they wanted you then you either said yes or you said no, but it was their question before it was your answer. I had never learned how to move things along with the ones who didn’t ask.
In Kentucky where I taught drama there had been a school principal who supported me in my attempts to get the mountain children to loosen their bodies, to wrestle a smile to the floor, or to pretend to be a caterpillar crawling in the dirt. He was one of those rumpled, dedicated men you always mean to end up with, conscientious and underpaid. Educated but with some flaw visible as a rip in his jacket which meant he had settled for a poor rural school in a backwater. In three years we never got past his encouragement and my redoubled efforts in the classroom. We never got past ending up at the same lunch table with our sacks of sandwiches and apples.
The one who finally did ask, the extravagant actor, had also, as Gruene had, rechristened himself. He had given himself, as he liked to pun, three given names. Called himself Charles Henry David in a take-off on the famous whose parents give them three surnames at birth (Custer Lincoln Grant). To his delight, people could never remember whether he was Charles David or David Charles. I called him Henry; I never knew his real name. At least this time, with the writer, I had got that far.
“Do you have time for another cup of coffee?” I asked, finally. “We could go watch the cows eat grass.”
“Sure. I set the morning aside from my work.”
We took our refills outside and leaned against the fence. There were no Angus in sight, nothing in the rolling green fields but air waves whispering messages.
“What did Billy Wayne do to eat in Connecticut?”
“How do you mean?”
“Nothing deep. English faculty?”
“Uh—yeah. The usual stuff. Teaching. Writers’ workshops.”
“Does Texas seem changed to you?”
“Everything stays pretty much the same down here.”
I tried another tack. “When we were on the air, who were you talking to?”
He cast his eyes about, as if trying to visualize. “Just someone out there, I guess. Someone I don’t know.”
“I beam myself to a woman who is clearing a table, grabbing her things, getting into her sports car to go to work, taking me along with a fresh cup.”
He considered. “I couldn’t imagine anyone specific like that. If I did I would get involved in where he was going to work and what kind of car he had and then I would get into his wife and kids and their fights and that personal business and then I couldn’t talk to him. I guess I was talking to the same person I write to: just someone out there.”
“How long do you have at Dobie?”
“Six months. Isn’t that standard?”
“Sometimes they give the grant for a year—”
“I figure if I can’t get my book started in six months then I can’t do it anyway.”
“Do you write every day?”
“The research is what slows me down. I thought I knew my people but it is taking me longer than I planned.”
It couldn’t be going slower than my research on him. I could only guess that he had put on the new country clothes in order to leave behind the world of the teacher and method act his fictional villagers. “You made your tale very convincing to our listeners.”
“I have never been on radio before.”
Which was where we came in. Stymied, I watched as his hazel eyes focused on some scene out there past the fields.
Unexpectedly, he asked a sudden question of his own. “Who were you talking to?”
“I told you. Just a woman in her car—”
“I mean on the phone. When you made up that question for me.”
“Oh.” I felt the red come back again. “The mayor of San Antonio. A friend of mine.” Which I guess spelled out the whole thing for him. But I didn’t know what else to do but tell the truth; I did not bill myself as what I was not.
“You got opaque.”
“How do you mean?”
“You closed up.”
“I may do that a lot.”
“That’s not good for you.”
I shrugged. Some things it was better not to stay open to. “It’s self-defense.”
“I know about that,” he said.
“Around here you have to—” But he must remember all that.
“—Well,” he said.
I asked one parting query. “Do you write in those clothes?”
“I never wore these before.”
I didn’t press further. Maybe he wrote in turtlenecks and corduroys, or, emulating the grandfather, in an old man’s nightshirt. Maybe he got up every day and sharpened all the pencils in his cigar box, in the nude. Maybe I would never know.
We emptied our cups and scanned the horizon—toward Prince Solms and the lavender hills to the north, toward Veramendi and distant Mexico to the south. I had run out of inquiries. If not out of all I wanted to know, at least what it was possible to ask. Holding out my hand one last time, I called it a morning. “Thank you for coming. Otto will have to move onto ag news and polkas if I don’t rescue him.”
“Here—” He tugged the bandana from his back pocket and stuck it in my hand. “I don’t need this.”
I tried to leave things open. “Stop by on your way back to see the folks in Veramendi.”
He left them closed. “Right now I’m working out the village in my head.” Getting into a car as new as his name, his Levis, and his performance on my show, he backed out onto the unpaved access road.
I tied the bandana on my tow head. Sometimes you had to make do with souvenirs.