Visiting the sunny off-season shores of Nags Head, North Carolina, with your family, you become convinced Pulitzer-prize-winning author Steven Millhauser is staying in the rented house next to yours. It’s a conviction not easy to have in a house where nobody knows who Steven Millhauser is and wouldn’t care if they did and it is.
“I think that’s Steven Millhauser,” you say.
“Steven who?” they ask.
“Millhauser. He won the Pulitzer prize.”
“Huh,” they say and shrug.
You see him first, on the dunes where no one’s supposed to walk, snapping pictures of sea and sand and beach sitters, but don’t mark him as such until you see him later that afternoon, in a white wide-brimmed hat with a black band, a light denim-blue Oxford, buttoned at the cuffs but open at the throat, and light cotton Dockers, in the surf, working a sea rod with two more planted in white tubes behind him. There’s something in the way the man handles the rod that makes you think of writing—perhaps it’s just the idea of fishing, for fish or words or whathaveyou, that does it—and from there, taking in the moustache and the glasses and the thinning hair and fair skin, you arrive at Millhauser. He is the best-dressed fisherman you have ever seen and he belongs to the water in a way no man in waders and a baseball cap, with beer or bearded, ever will. The blue of his shirt and the white of his hat and the tan of his pants match perfectly those of the sky and the clouds and the whitecaps and the sand. The writer of miniatures, of automatons and secret underground worlds, of department stores that sell everything and a man who married a frog, of a lovestruck boy who follows the moonbeam up into the sky and over his hometown, maintains his rods with a painstaking diligence and clarity of purpose, with a quiet elegance, his motions both fluid and mechanical as language. If you could write as beautifully as he fishes, you think, you would be truly great.
The house reminds you of Millhauser as well: it’s small and squat and sunk down in the brush; the porch is wide and welcoming with a clutch of rocking chairs; the scene in the kitchen, when you see it one night through the glass doors off the porch, is awash in a warm light that makes you think of coffee and pie, John Hiatt and Hemingway, old friends and time gone by; there’s a birdhouse out front high on a wooden beam made to look just like the peoplehouse beside it; there’s a bucket and hose by the stairs; there’s an old lantern hanging from a hook; there’s a clothesline with Millhauser’s black dress socks out to dry.
It takes you a couple of days to connect the younger man you see each day sitting alone on the beach facing the sun with the house from which Steven Millhauser comes and goes, but when you finally do, the fact of these two men’s existence together fits as neatly as the front and back ends of a good book. It’s obvious the younger man is gay: not too many men who aren’t spend as much time alone in the sun as he does. You do, of course, but you have never exactly counted yourself among everyday men, gay or straight. He’s probably in his early-to-mid forties, thin, works out, clean shaven, close-cropped hair styled on top, good looking, sunglasses, floral print swimming trunks, reads as he sits and suns. You come to think of him as Steven Millhauser’s Gay Lover, even though Steven Millhauser is married and his wife is in that house, too. Not that that means anything, but it’s pretty ballsy, isn’t it, to bring your gay lover to the beach for a week with your wife? Whether he is his gay lover or not aside (or on the side), looking in at the kitchen at night and seeing what you do, you find another place in their lives for this man. People who can create the kind of ambience that can be felt, as you feel it one night, through glass doors and the span of a porch and the distance between one house to the next and two floors up, have old dear friends all over the world and this man is one of them. But when you watch him one mid-morning eat a Danish and coffee, alone on the porch and in sunglasses and a muscle shirt (Yep, you think, definitely gay), you have another thought: He’s not Millhauser’s gay lover at all, but his son. His gay, considerably better looking, son. You don’t know which story you like better: the gay lover, the gay houseguest, the gay son.
“There goes Millhauser,” you say each day when Steven Millhauser, always in blue shirt, tan pants, and hat, takes to the surf.
“There goes Steven Millhauser’s Gay Lover,” you say sometime later when Millhauser’s son takes to the sand and sun.
What you never say, however, is “There goes Steven Millhauser’s wife,” because she doesn’t take to anywhere. She stays in the house and occasionally steps out on the porch but that’s pretty much it. Only once do you see her go further, to the end of the walk built over the dunes that connects the house to the steps down to the beach, and it results in Millhauser, calling it a day, coming upon her and pausing her before she can turn back and taking her picture with the camera he keeps in a backpack and carries with him everywhere. She laughs, smiles, strikes a pose; he snaps the picture; she goes back to the house; he follows.
Then, toward the end of the week, Steven Millhauser puts on a ballcap, and just like that, Steven Millhauser is gone. His Pulitzer-prize winning superhero costume hangs from the clothesline, but the magic—poof!—is gone.
“I guess he isn’t Steven Millhauser after all,” you say to your family.
“Who?” they ask.
“Just some writer,” you say, as you watch the roiling ocean take one more tiny increment of shoreline away.
Cliffton Price’s work has appeared in The Barnstormer, Ruminate Magazine, Little Patuxent Review, Lunch Ticket, Waccamaw, Rio Grande Review, Ray’s Road Review, Artichoke Haircut, MARY, Love Poems and Other Messages for Bruce Springsteen, Inside Higher Ed, and r.kv.r.y.
Photo Credit: Amy Sanford