Writing as Sheldon Lord
This is for
LARRY and SUE
and for Prudence as well
I THOUGHT SHE’D BE asleep by the time I got home but she wasn’t. I didn’t find out this intriguing fact until I was inside the door. Our apartment doesn’t have a window facing out on 100th Street where the building entrance is and I hadn’t taken the time to walk around to West End Avenue and have a look at our window. Even with a light on she could have been asleep anyway.
I opened the door with my key and I saw her. She was sitting in the armchair in front of the television set but the late late show was over and done with and she was staring at a test pattern. I’m not sure what time it was but when it’s too late for the late late show it is very late indeed, from what I understand. I’m just going on guesswork, as it happens, because as far as I’m concerned television is just one of those conveniences of modern living which I am in the habit of asking the bartender to turn off.
But anyway, you get the picture. It’s late, I’m coming in quietly, and my dear wife is still up.
I said Hello because it seemed to be the most nearly logical thing to say.
She got up from the chair and turned around to look at me. Her face was perfectly composed but I could tell that the composure was about as genuine as a giveaway show. When you live with a woman for over eleven years you can tell when she’s faking. There were little lines around the corners of her mouth and the redness round her eyes didn’t come from peeling onions. She had been crying, and this made me feel like the first-class Grade-A bastard which I was. She’d been crying because of me, and it figured.
I smiled. I walked over to her and I took her in my arms and I kissed her. She was wearing a nylon nightgown with nothing on under it and she was soft and warm and irrepressibly and undeniably female, with soft short brown hair and velvety brown eyes.
But the kiss was a short one. At first she clutched at me desperately; then she straightened up and twisted away. I didn’t attempt to hold her because I knew she didn’t want me to.
It figured. When a woman lives with a man for over eleven years she can tell when he’s faking. And I was faking. And she could tell. I wanted to kiss her about as much as I wanted to kiss a pig and she knew it.
“How was she, Jeff?”
I looked away. I didn’t say anything because there wasn’t much to say.
“I don’t like her perfume, Jeff. Did you know that you reek of her perfume? I can smell it on you. You ought to take a shower or something after you—”
She broke off and for a minute or two I thought she was going to start crying again. But she grabbed hold of herself and turned around so that she was facing me. Her mouth was closed and her lips formed a thin red line. When she spoke she talked slowly, carefully, as if she was afraid she wouldn’t make it without breaking down unless she pronounced each word meticulously and took her time between words.
“Let’s sit down,” she said. “We’ve got to talk this out, Jeff. It’s no good the way it is.”
“What’s there to talk about?”
“There’s quite a bit to talk about.”
I gave a half-hearted shrug and went over to her. She sat down on the sofa and I took a seat next to her. We just sat there in perfect silence for what must have been at least three or four minutes.
“I suppose it happens all the time,” she said softly. “It always happens. You go on being a good wife day after day and finally your husband finds another girl and she’s more exciting and more beautiful and more interesting, and she’s new and different and all of a sudden he’s sleeping with her and you sit home alone and stare at the damned television. You sit home alone rubbing your knees together like a teenager because you want him so much you could scream and all the while he’s with some nameless bitch and the two of them are doing all the things you used to do and—”
“Don’t interrupt me!” Her face was drawn now and she was rummaging around with her hands the way she always did when she wanted a cigarette. I got a pack out of my shirt pocket and gave her one and took one for myself. That emptied the pack and I crumpled it up in a ball and heaved it at the wastebasket on the other side of the room. It sailed through the air, bounced off the wall and dropped into the basket.
“Two points,” I said.
She didn’t say anything.
“They tell me women live through this,” she said. Her cigarette was lit and she had taken two or three deep drags on it. She was calmer now.
“Women live through this,” she went on. “It’s supposed to happen all the time. After a man’s married so many years he gets hungry for something new and the wife goes around with her eyes shut and her mouth shut and waits for him to get tired of the new one and come back home to mama. Then things are all right again.”
I got my cigarette going and took a long drag. It didn’t taste good and I blew the smoke out in a long thin column that held together all the way to the ceiling. I stared at the damned smoke with the fascination of a catatonic staring at a blank wall.
“I tried pretending, Jeff. I’ve known about her for … oh, I don’t know how long. I half-guessed it when you began being too tired to make love and knew it when you started having to work late night after night. But I can’t stand pretending. I just can’t take it any more.”
She took the cigarette between the thumb and forefinger of her right hand and stubbed it out in an ashtray. She put it out so viciously that she almost knocked the ashtray off the table. She hadn’t smoked more than a quarter of the cigarette.
“Is she that much better than I am?”
I sure as hell didn’t attempt to answer that one.
“She couldn’t be that much better,” she said. “There’s not that much to it. You just lie on your back and spread your legs and show some life. Maybe she knows something I don’t know. Maybe that’s it.”
Outside it was starting to rain. The rain fell in a steady pattern and the wind was blowing it against our window. It provided a sort of background to our conversation.
“Who is she, Jeff?”
“You wouldn’t know her.”
“I suppose that’s some consolation. I’d hate it if it was somebody we both knew. I … Are you in love with her, Jeff?”
“I don’t know.” It was the truth.
“Are you going to go on seeing her?”
I closed my eyes. I just sat there with my eyes closed and my heart beating much faster than it should and I didn’t know what to say.
“Jeff, can’t you stop seeing her? Don’t you see what you’re doing to me? Can’t you see?”
My cigarette had burned down to a stub about an inch long. I put it out.
Lucy was saying: “Jeff, don’t I mean enough to you so that you can give up that little bitch? Please, Jeff. I want you. I want you so much I don’t think I could go on living without you. Can’t you give her up?”
“Can’t? Or don’t want to?”
She shrugged, defeated. “I don’t know,” she said. “We’ve been married eleven years and for all that time I haven’t stopped loving you. I love you right now and I hate you, too, and I just don’t understand it. Don’t you love me any more?”
“I don’t know.”
She was smiling now but it was a very sad smile. She shook her head and when she started talking it was as much to herself as it was to me. “We should have had another baby,” she said. “When Timothy died we should have had another baby right away instead of waiting. If we had a baby maybe this whole thing wouldn’t have happened.”
Timothy had been born prematurely about six years ago. He lived a grand total of four hours and then gave up the ghost. The whole thing didn’t hit me the way it struck Lucy—hell, he didn’t live long enough for me to have any real feelings about him one way or the other. It was different for her. She had carried him for over seven months, and she loved him with that instinctive mother love that they write and preach about. It broke her up so that, after the doctor said she was in danger of repeated miscarriages, we decided not to have any more kids for awhile.
“Maybe it’s better this way. If we had a child and then you ran off with another woman it would ruin things for the child. Maybe it’s better this way, Jeff.”
I kept my mouth shut.
“Do you want a divorce, Jeff?”
I let my mouth stay shut.
“If you want it you can have it. Not right away because I love you too much to let you make a mistake. But if you want it in another month or so we can get divorced.”
“Is that what you want?” I put it to her straight as she was the one who had brought it up.
“What does it matter?”
I waited for her to go on.
“What I want,” she said, finally, “is for everything to be the way it was at the beginning. What I want is for this other bitch to stop existing and for us to love each other. But I guess that’s impossible.”
Deep and all-pervading silence. I listened to the rain outside for awhile, and then I listened to the faucet in the kitchen trying to compete with the rain and made a mental note to put in a new washer as soon as I got a chance. I listened to the clock a little but it was pretty boring, and then I was listening to Lucy again.
“We can go on like this for the time being,” she said. “You sleep here on the couch because I don’t want you in the same bed with me if you don’t deserve me any more. If you give her up I’ll take you back; and if you decide you want a divorce I’ll give you a divorce. That’s all I can do, Jeff. Whatever you want you can have. I’m not much at driving a shrewd bargain. I’m not a sharp Yankee trader or anything of the sort. I’m just a woman who happens to love you—like crazy.”
She stood up then. She turned around slowly to face me and I saw that there were tears in the corners of her eyes. Her face was dead serious and she was like a little girl poised on a high-wire at a circus.
“Look at me, Jeff.”
I did. She slipped the nightgown over her shoulders and it fell to the floor. There was nothing under the nightgown—no, that’s not quite true. There was plenty under the nightgown, plenty of soft and lovely womanliness, plenty of warm flesh and soft curves.
“I’m not that bad to look at, am I?”
She wasn’t. She was very good to look at, as a matter of fact, and it didn’t require any effort for me to keep my eyes on her.
But at the same time she was simply somebody to look at, just a naked woman who deserved a certain amount of attention because of the view she presented to the eye. She wasn’t a woman to take to bed, wasn’t a woman to want.
Just something easy to look at.
“It’s not as if I was ugly,” she said. “Or flat-chested. I’m not flat, am I?”
She was cupping her breasts with her hands, holding them from underneath as if she were presenting them to me as an offering. The gesture reminded me of the poem by Garcia Lorca on the martyrdom of Saint Eulalia, with the last line that goes something like: And as a passion of manes and swords is shaking in confusion, the Consul bears on a platter the smoky breasts of Eulalia. It was that type of scene.
She ran her hands over her body, touching herself everywhere, showing me that everything she had belonged to me and to me alone. And it didn’t do a thing to me. It didn’t move me, and all that I could do was sit there and stare at her and hate myself.
She took two small steps and then she was standing inches in front of me. She had evidently taken a bath within the past hour or so and I could smell the fresh after-bath smell of her soft skin.
She reached out a hand and touched me.
I didn’t move.
“No response,” she said, that same sad smile coming back to her face. “No reaction, no excitement, no interest, nothing doing. You just don’t feel like having some loving with your wife, do you?”
No answer from me.
“Look what I’m doing to myself,” she said. “I know you’ve just come from her, and I know you don’t want me, and I still ache for you so much that I can hardly stay on my feet. You know what it’s like, Jeff? It’s a genuine physical ache.”
With her hand she showed me where the pain was.
She shook her head, then stopped and picked up the discarded nightgown and stood up and put it on again. I sat there like a mummy while she got dressed and sat down next to me on the couch.
She was sitting closer now. She leaned toward me and slipped one arm around my neck. Her other hand rested on my thigh and she was stroking me gently, her little mouth at my ear.
“You bastard,” she was saying, but saying it gently, sexily, her voice all throaty and hot. “You dirty bastard. I love you, you bastard.”
I couldn’t move.
Her lips went up and down the side of my neck, kissing me. Her hand was doing weird and wonderful things and I felt myself responding in spite of myself. It was impossible not to. I wanted to get up and get the hell away but I couldn’t.
“You beautiful bastard,” she said. “You’re going to have me tonight. You’re going to take me if I have to do all the work myself. I won’t mind it. I just want you. Oh, and you want me too. I can tell. Isn’t that nice? It’s nice that you do.”
The room began to revolve in slow circles.
“This damned zipper,” she said. “There … there we go. I’m very clever with zippers. I knew I’d manage it after awhile. Oh, goodness, you want me quite a bit, don’t you? Don’t you, Jeff?”
With the hand that had been around my neck she peeled the nightgown off again. Then she leaned against me harder and a second later I was lying on my back and she was on top of me. She forced her mouth against mine and pried my lips apart with her tongue and then my arms went around her. She was soft and warm against me.
She couldn’t wait any more.
That made two of us.
It was a new kind of lovemaking, a love born of mutual desperation. I was too excited to control myself and she wanted me so much that she had less than I did. We made love but it was not love; it was brief and fast and furious, and at the very end she screamed my name at the top of her lungs and the whole big beautiful world came apart at the seams.
We didn’t lay very long in each other’s arms. We didn’t hold each other and say the sweet things that lovers are supposed to say.
We weren’t lovers.
When it was over I was limp and weak and exhausted and entirely disgusted with myself. I was Jeff Flanders and at that particular moment Jeff Flanders was somebody I hated.
A few hours ago I had been with Candy. A few hours ago Candy and I had made the whole world turn upside-down and inside-out, had loved each other and had made love to each other.
So Jeff Flanders, bastard that he was, had promptly come home and knocked off a quickie with his wife.
Which was one hell of a note.
I was sitting on the couch getting my clothes back on and Lucy was sitting at the other end of the couch and not moving. I was sitting there thinking of the several varieties of bastard that Jeff Flanders was, when suddenly a great revelation came to me.
I damned near jumped.
Lucy read my mind and she laughed. It wasn’t a happy laugh or even a vaguely humourous one. It was harsh.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I know you didn’t use any protection but it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to worry, Jeff. I planned it all very carefully.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Yes,” she continued. “Yes, I planned it all. It didn’t work, did it? I don’t know—I thought if we did it spontaneously it might turn out that you wanted me after all and you only wanted her because she was something different. But that’s not how it was, is it?”
“I won’t do it again,” she said. “I’ll be a good girl, Jeff. I’ll be a good sweet loving wife and I’ll be very certain never to seduce my husband any more.
“But it was fun, Jeff. Even if it didn’t work it was fun. You’re the only man in my whole life and I still love it with you. You know that, don’t you?”
She got up from where she was sitting and scooped up her nightgown from the floor. She didn’t bother to put it on this time but held it cradled in her hands as she walked to the bedroom. She didn’t turn around, didn’t say goodnight or anything like that. She just walked, very quickly and very steadily, out of the livingroom and into the bedroom. The door closed behind her and I sat for ten minutes staring at the closed door.
By the time I got bored with staring at the silly door it was time to take my clothes off again. Putting them on hadn’t made much sense in the first place, but most of the things I’d been doing lately didn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. I got undressed and turned off the lights and stretched out on the couch with an afghan wrapped around me and a goofy little sofa pillow under my head.
Thirty-four years old. White. Male. Married. No religious preference. Employed as assistant vice-president at the Murray Hill Branch of the Beverley Finance Company. The position wasn’t as important as it sounded, because the assistant vice-president was third in command in a five-man office, and the Murray Hill Branch was the only branch there was of the Beverley Finance Company. The title was there for the express purpose of impressing prospective clients, which wasn’t a difficult matter to begin with.
A good Joe with a decent job and a beautiful wife. An average sort of jerk who had suddenly managed to louse up everything. A certain idiot who was in the quiet and gradual process of turning his life into a reasonable facsimile of the lower depths of hell.
The sofa was less suited to sleeping than it had been to the previous activity. The silly little sofa pillow was about as comfortable as a sack full of dirty laundry and I was tired without being sleepy. I had a cigarette after searching around for five minutes for a fresh pack, then crawled back onto the sofa and tried to sleep.
It didn’t work.
So I lay there thinking instead. And, because there was nothing much worth thinking about except the strange and absurd mess I was in, that is precisely what I thought about.
It went something like this:
I WAS SITTING at my desk using a bottle of Dr. Brown’s Cream Soda to wash down a pastrami sandwich on rye when she came into the office. When I looked at her I almost choked on the cream soda, which is a hell of a thing. As it was I managed to miss my mouth with most of it and spilled it all over the front of my shirt.
Joe Burns and Phil Delfy, president and vice-president respectively of Beverley Finance Company, were out to lunch. Their positions entitled them to be out for lunch. That left three of us, the three lucky ones who stayed at our desks for lunch. Les Boloff was staring rather intently at the visitor’s chest, Harry Grimes was concentrating on the pelvic region, and I was looking at all of her.
She picked me.
She came over and every movement was a lesson in how to walk. Her hair was blonde and either her own or the world’s greatest dye job. She wore it long and she didn’t play games with upsweeps or chignons or any fancy nonsense. It fell right down around her shoulders. Her sweater was a white cashmere job and it takes a hell of a lot of guts to wear a white sweater without a bra. This one was tight and you could almost see her breasts through it.
Her skirt hugged her so intimately it could have been arrested for public indecency. It was a black job and that plus the white sweater plus the blonde hair was an indescribable combination. This added to the face of a sixteen-year-old who had spent all those years in the most cloistered of convents added up to a positive symphony of sex. I felt myself drooling into my cream soda.
She sat down in the chair next to my desk and gave me a sort of wary smile. Then she crossed her legs at the knee and I thought the skirt would split into atoms. I hoped it would.
She said hello and the voice matched the face. Soft and sexily virginal, if you know what I mean. She could have played the lead in Baby Doll.
“Can I help you, Miss—”
That’s a standard. Corny, but you get the name right away, and you have to push in this game. The finance company racket is legalized usury and nothing more. A whole batch of very clever dodges make it possible for a finance company to haul in close to thirty-five percent interest on loans to people who can’t get loans from banks. That high rate makes it worthwhile to trap any poor sap who isn’t an obvious ex-convict. What the hell, it’s better than taking in washing.
“—Cain,” she supplied. “Candace Cain. And you can help me. I want money.”
I gave the standard smile and the standard Who doesn’t? and wrote Candace on one of the forms and asked her how to spell the last name and she spelled it for me. Then we were ready to move on to bigger and better things.
“How large a loan did you have in mind, Miss Cain?”
“A thousand dollars.”
“Well, our limit on individual loans is five hundred—”
“Five hundred, then.”
“—but in some cases we can make an exception.” Some cases. Yeah. Like any cases that happen to want five hundred more than the limit.
I asked her where she lived and she gave me an address in the west Forties, a hotel in the theatrical district. When I asked her how long she’d been living there she told me less than a month. Before that she was somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania.
This immediately is not good. Despite the Shylock nature of Beverley Finance, the company would go broke quickly if we didn’t watch who we loaned money to. The idea behind the operation is that of loaning money to people who have first demonstrated that they don’t really need it. The bulk of our customers could probably get bank loans if they worked hard at it. But it’s easier working through us, and interest rates don’t soak into their thick heads.
If a prospective borrower has been living steadily at the same place for a length of time, has held a job—the same job—for a period of several years, owns property of one sort or another, or has the president of the Chase Manhattan Bank as a co-maker, there’s no problem.
But a local yokel from the Pennsylvania hills with one month in New York and, as it turned out, no job and no references and no property, had about as much chance of squeezing money out of Beverley Finance as a homo has of fathering a child. I explained all of this to the gal and her face didn’t fall while I told her. She just sat there perfectly impassive, with her breasts standing up, and I had trouble keeping my end of the dialogue straight. It reminded me of the gag about the guy who asked the stacked airlines clerk for two pickets to Titsburgh.
“That’s about it,” I wound up. “I don’t see how we can accommodate you, Miss Cain.”
“Call me Candy.”
The only thing to do at that point would have been to call her Candy, which seemed slightly on the moronic side. I just sat there and waited for her to do something.
“Mr. Flanders,” she said, which made me wonder why I should call her Candy if she was going to call me Mr. Flanders, “isn’t there some way I can get the money?”
“Well—” I said.
“I mean I really have to have it.”
“Well, if you had a first-class co-maker—”
“What,” she wanted to know, “is a co-maker?”
“Someone who’ll make good the money if you don’t.”
“Oh, but I’ll make good the money.”
I nodded vacantly. “We need more than that. If you can dig up somebody who knows you well, who’s willing to co-sign the loan application, who’s been employed at the same job and lived at the same address for a considerable length of time, who’s draft-free, who’s married—”
“I don’t know anyone like that.”
“Oh,” I said. The next thing I should have said was good-bye, but the helplessness of the gal kept me from giving her the brush-off. Well, it was partly the helplessness. The view I was getting of her sweater wasn’t helping matters any.
“Mr. Flanders,” she said suddenly, “how long have you been working here?”
“A little over three years.”
“Are you married?”
God alone knows what I was going to say after that but.
“That’s it!” she squealed, clapping her hands like a kid who had just won a game of jacks.
“You can be my co-maker or whatever it is.”
I stared at her blankly.
“Won’t you do it for me?” Her face looked as though someone had just told her that there wasn’t a Santa Claus and she wasn’t sure whether to believe him or not.
“Well,” I said, “I don’t see how I can.”
“I don’t even know you.”
“That’s nothing,” she said. “You can take me out to lunch and you’ll get to know me and then you can be my co-maker. Would that be all right?”
“Come on,” she said. She got up from the chair and smiled at me. “I can really use a dinner. I haven’t had anything to eat in days.”
There was only one thing to do at this point. I should have snarled at her, told her I hoped she starved to death and ordered her off the premises of the Beverley Finance Company, never to return.
That would have been the smart thing to do.
Needless to say, I did nothing of the sort.
I got up from my chair, walked around the desk and took her arm. I informed Les Boloff that I would be back eventually and he gave me one of those man-to-man winks that was positively obscene.
And away we went.
Ahfen Yahm is an Arabian restaurant on 38th Street just east of Fifth Avenue. The food starts with that thin Lebanese bread that’s great for scooping up yogurt with if that happens to be your cup of tea. It runs a course through the usual run of shishkebabish dishes and winds up with this far-out pudding that’s on fire when they bring it to your table.
I had just finished my pastrami-plus-cream-soda lunch and I wasn’t especially hungry, so I drank my lunch while Candy Cain polished off everything that the waitress put in front of her. The waitress was a big fat sow of a woman and her uniform looked as though it had been specially designed for her by Omar the Tentmaker. She watched Candy devour the food with a very sympathetic smile on her cowlike face.
It was about this time that I realized that Blondie’s name was Candy Cain, which was like the things they hang on Christmas trees. I clued her in on my brilliant observation and she let me know that this had gone through her parents’ minds when they named her. They thought it was cute. I, in turn, thought she was cute.
“Candy,” I said as I drank my third Gibson, “why do you need a thousand dollars?”
“To live on.”
“I don’t have any money, Jeff. I came to New York with very little money to begin with and now it’s all gone.”
“Why don’t you get a job?”
“Can you type?”
She shook her head.
“Wait on tables?”
She shook her head again.
She shook her head a third time and I began wondering how in the world anybody could be unqualified for something so elementary as slinging hash. Then she explained herself.
“You see,” she said, “I don’t want a job.”
“Why on earth not?”
“Jeff,” she said, as if she was spelling things out for an idiot, “if all I wanted was a job I could have stayed in Gibbsville.”
“I want to be supported,” she said.
“Looking to get married?”
“Possibly,” she said. “Or kept.”
I was, to put it mildly, floored. I tried to match the baby face and the baby voice and the incongruous words that kept coming out of the pretty mouth. They didn’t match.
She sipped her Turkish coffee and I slurped my Gibson and we stared at each other. She didn’t smoke but I had a cigarette between my fingers and I was flicking at it nervously. Up to this point, no thought of cheating on Lucy had entered my thick head. It was strictly a look-but-don’t-touch type of fling, but I was suddenly beginning to realize two things.
One—I could have this babe if I wanted to.
Two—I wanted to.
“Jeff,” she said gently, “are you going to be my co-maker?”
I opened my mouth to say God knows what but she didn’t give me time.
“If you’ll be my co-maker for a thousand dollars, I’ll let you.”
“Let me what?”
Yeah, I knew. But I had a feeling she was a little gone in the head and I wanted to hear her say it, so I asked her to explain what she had in mind.
“If you are my co-maker for a thousand-dollar loan,” she said slowly, “I’ll let you have what you want—anything!”
You figure it. I’m damned if I can. Here I was, a happily married joker with a spotless record as far as adultery was concerned, a guy who loved his wife and got along with her in bed as perfectly as two people can. Not an inexperienced guy, because while I was married at twenty-three, there were a lot of women before then. But no skirt-chaser.
There I was. And there, also, was Candy. Nineteen years old and built for boffing. Here we were, just the two of us, and she wanted me to pay a mere thousand dollars in return for which she would be my ever-lovin’ mistress.
Yeah, pay her a thousand dollars. Being co-maker was absurd—she had about as much intention of ever repaying that loan as Hitler had of settling for half of Czechoslovakia. It added up to paying her the grand, which I preferred to do than sign for her anyway, all things considered.
While I sat across from her being dumfounded she regaled me with details of how good she was in bed and what a hot number she was. It was impossible to believe those grown-up words were being spoken in that little-girl voice.
“I’ve got the hardest and firmest breasts of any girl I know,” she told me. “They’re big, too. You can see how big they are.”
I could see how big they were.
“And I know lots of tricks. I’m real good at it, and it’s not as if I did it with just anybody.”
“How many men have you had?”
“One doesn’t count,” she said, “because I was only sixteen then and he got me drunk on applejack and I didn’t know what he was doing. Another one only half-counts because we didn’t really.”
I asked her what in hell she meant and she told me. The explanation of just what it was that the two of them did would have made Krafft-Ebing blush.
The other two, as it turned out, counted. Mentally I tripled the figure—the gal must have been had by everybody in the rollicking town of Gibbsville. But somehow this did not make me one whit less anxious to see what sort of bomb was ticking inside her.
“Candy,” I said, “I can’t be your co-maker.”
She made the no-Santa-Claus face at me again and it was so sad I felt like helping her cry. But I didn’t. Instead I did something that changed her expression, and I’ll be damned if I know why I did it. Perhaps it was the fact that three Gibsons were enough to cloud my brain. Maybe it was just that I was born with an addled brain.
Whatever it was, I said: “I’ll loan you the money myself.”
I had a savings account at the Bowery Bank with a little over three grand in it. It was a nice quiet account that Lucy knew of without having the vaguest idea how much was salted away. The account fluctuated anyway—occasionally I dipped into it if I had a good tip on the market and occasionally I added to it if the tip came home. I drew a cool grand out of the account and solemnly presented it to Candy.
“You won’t regret it,” she assured me.
Her hotel was a reasonably good one and as we went inside I wondered how much rent she owed them. The elevator was self-service and on the way up I stopped wondering about things like rent because I was all wrapped up in Candy. That may sound like some kind of pun but I don’t much care. I had those knockers of hers drilling happy little holes in my chest and that innocent little mouth pressed against my not-very-innocent big mouth. Kissing her like that was like drinking her, except that you can’t drink Candy. You can eat Candy. That came later.
“I really like you,” she told me on the way into her room. “It isn’t like I was just doing this for the money. I need the cash but you’re so nice I probably would have done it with you anyway.”
I didn’t say anything to that. As a matter of fact neither of us said a hell of a lot after that. We were too busy doing other things.
She was right. Her breasts were hard and firm and huge. I couldn’t keep my hands off them and she didn’t want me to. She was one of those girls with remarkably sensitive breasts and she went absolutely wild when I touched her. It really had her jumping.
And she liked to be touched there, too.
And the other thing she said was true as well. She was wonderful in bed, except any adjective like wonderful is entirely inadequate to describe an experience like Candy. She was just that, a totally new and perfect adventure.
She was not Love. She was almost anything other than that. She was, if anything, Sex. She was the complete personification of sex, and she acted as if it was the only thing in the entire world that mattered.
Maybe it was.
I didn’t get back to the office at all that afternoon. It was a Friday and since Friday is traditionally payday it was a slow day. The morons who borrow money usually do it on a Monday after having blown their paycheck over the weekend. So I could stay away from the office on a Friday afternoon without the world falling in.
Except that the world fell in. Not at the office. The world fell in a room at the Somerville Hotel on West 44th Street where Candy Cain and a bastard named Jeff Flanders made sex all afternoon. Note the terminology. We did not make love. We made sex.
And we did it very well.
I’m sure Lucy didn’t suspect anything that first night. She couldn’t have because I know my guilt couldn’t have shown. That’s what bothered me the most—that I didn’t feel guilty. I wound up feeling guilty about not feeling guilty, and that’s as nutty a one as I’ve ever come across.
She couldn’t complain about any lack of attention on my part that night either. As far as I was concerned the chapter with Miss Candy Cain was over and done with, the most expensive roll in the hayloft that I had ever had, but one which was almost worth it. I never figured to see the girl again and I made up to Lucy that night by making desperately passionate love to her.
And Monday afternoon Candy called. The conversation went something like this:
“Don’t you want to see me?”
“Can’t afford it. How come?”
“I just feel like it.”
I called Lucy from a booth outside, told her I had to work late. Then after work I went up to Candy’s room. And the bedsprings squealed in protest for hours.
The pattern was on—there was no way to stop it. I saw her every other day, then every day. Before I entirely understood what was happening I was addicted to her as sure as a junkie is addicted to heroin, and I had about as much chance of breaking the habit as a junkie does. She hooked me in the traditional manner—at first it was free until the habit had built itself up gradually. Then, when I couldn’t live without her, it started to cost.
The price was not high. All she wanted was security—her rent paid, her meals bought, a small allowance for clothes and amusements. She was happy seeing two movies a day and eating hamburgers, and all I had to do was give her seventy dollars a week and I could have her whenever I wanted.
I earned roughly a hundred and eighty at Beverley. The pay varied with the volume of loans I landed, but it worked out in that neighborhood. It was a very livable salary, but chopping seventy a week out of it cut it down one hell of a lot.
But the savings account was there. I could dip into it for a long time before it ran out and I had to figure out a new way to support my edible little Candy.
So here I was with my wife in the bedroom and myself on the couch and the pillow under my head feeling for all the world like a sack of dirty laundry.
And the savings account, as of that morning, was flat as a flounder.
WHEN I WOKE UP it was Saturday. If you want to be technical, it was Saturday when I went to sleep as it was after midnight, but that sort of outlook never gets you anywhere. When I woke up it was Saturday, a little after ten in the morning, and the apartment was empty.
If you want to get technical, the apartment was not empty. I was in it, for one thing. So was the furniture and the confounded television set. But Lucy was not in it, and therefore the apartment was empty.
So I took a fast shower and put on some clean clothes and cast a baleful eye at the couch. My back seemed to be missing a few vertebrae and I felt as though I had spent a night on the rack, but when I counted vertebrae I couldn’t avoid admitting that they were all present. I brushed my teeth with a vengeance and got out of the house and had a disjointed breakfast of hot wheaties and cold coffee at a luncheonette on Broadway. Don’t ask me why the wheaties were hot. I’d guess that they were hot for the same reason that the coffee was cold, but the reason escapes me.
It was Saturday and Beverley Finance was mercifully closed and shuttered. This left me with a morning on the town. There I was, all alone in the big city. I wandered around like a lost soul for a little while, then found my way to 96th and Broadway and let the IRT float me south to Times Square. There I climbed out of the soot and stench of the subway system back into the soot and stench of New York. It was fun.
I took a mid-morning stroll on 42nd Street between 7th and 8th, just sort of relaxing and enjoying the sights. I gobbled a hot dog at Grants, gulped a cup of battery acid at Bickford’s, and wandered over to Eddie’s place to watch people buy pornography. The store was empty except for Eddie, one of the clerks, and a scrawny red-necked kid who was reading the latest novel by Alan Marshall with one hand plunged deep into the pocket of his dungarees.
Eddie and I exchanged a few words and smoked a couple cigarettes. He told me how lousy the pornography business was, and I told him how lousy the usury business was, and we felt sorry for each other.
After Eddie and I said good-bye he wandered over to the bar next door for a drink and I drifted off in the other direction. The street was generally dull and I was at the point of giving up when it happened.
In case you haven’t figured out by now why I was wandering around 42nd Street like a star-struck tourist, let me draw you a picture. Candy lived two blocks away. I was very carefully getting within two blocks of her and stubbornly refusing to go over to her apartment. I was making a last-ditch attempt to assert my independence, and I was managing it, and for this reason it was inevitable that I would meet her right on 42nd Street.
Which, of course, is precisely what happened.
It wasn’t quite so much of a coincidence as it might have seemed. She went to at least one and generally two movies a day, and the cheap movie houses are all concentrated into one or two blocks on 42nd Street. The fact that I was standing right in front of the Liberty when she popped out of it was pretty coincidental, but I suppose it had to happen if I hung around the street long enough. If you want to play Freud, I suppose I knew this to begin with, and that was why I was hanging around the street in the first place.
“Hello,” she said brightly. “Were you waiting long?”
“Weren’t you waiting for me?”
I explained how I just happened to be there and she said that it sure was a small world.
“Come on,” she said, taking hold of my arm. She looked so cute and young and sensual that I felt like having her right there on 42nd Street. Come to think of it, it wouldn’t have been such a bad idea. Everything else happens on the street. Some of the tourists might even have thrown us a few coins if we did a good job.
“Where are we going?” I asked, as if I didn’t know.
“My place,” she replied unnecessarily.
She gave me a little hip action then, bumping her hot little fanny into me. It was fun and I bumped her back. She was wearing a yellow blouse the same color as her hair and a pair of slacks in that loden green color. How many females do you know that look good in slacks? This one did.
“To hold hands, silly. Why else do we go to my place? I’m in the mood for it.”
She wasn’t the type of girl who whispered. I hurried her along, but I still managed to catch a look at one old buck who overheard the last remark. He had a look on his face which said silently that either Armegeddon had come or he had.
I know just how he felt.
We got to her hotel. The Somerville, a relic of forgotten days, days when it was a first-class hotel. It was still a good forty degrees away from the cockroaches-and-bad-plumbing category but things were looking down.
As I said, we got to her hotel.
We did not get to her room.
It was the elevator, you see. There should be a law against self-service elevators. They’re damnably dangerous. Why, a man with evil intentions could trap a woman in an elevator and lord only knows what might happen.
Then again, the reverse could be the case. That morning the reverse was. As soon as we were in the elevator and the door had slid shut, her arms were around me and her tongue was looking for my tongue like an old friend after a five-year separation.
With one of her hands she took hold of one of my hands. She unbuttoned her blouse with her other hand and then stuck my hand inside the blouse and pressed it against one of her breasts. I took it from there and we worked a few variations on that theme for awhile. She started panting and with a tremendous effort pushed herself free of me and threw some kind of lever. The elevator squealed in mechanical agony and stopped on a nickel, and there we were in the middle of nowhere.
“What’s wrong, Jeff?”
“What did you do that for?”
“There’s no point in waiting until we get to the room, is there? I’m ready.”
“And,” she said, “you’re ready, too. Let’s do it right here in the elevator.”
“Maybe it’s dangerous,” she said. “Is that what you’re thinking? I suppose it is. Maybe the car will fall and we’ll wind up getting killed when it hits the basement.”
“Just so we finish first I wouldn’t mind so much. Come on, silly.”
Afterwards in her room she took off her clothes and sprawled out on the bed. I stripped, too, and sprawled out next to her. We just lay like that for a long time, not touching, and not saying a word. Once she reached out a hand and stroked the side of my face, but that was all.
I must have dozed off. When I woke up maybe a half hour later she was still lying next to me, a far-away smile on her face and a lazy look in her eyes. “I wish it could always be like this,” she whispered. “I wish we could have each other all the time.”
I didn’t say anything because I thought she was just making the idle sort of conversation of which she was eminently capable. I gave her a lazy smile to match the lazy smile that she was giving me.
“It’s a shame,” she was saying. “It’s really a terrible shame.”
“That we can’t.”
“Oh, you know.”
I didn’t know. “Candy,” I said, “what in the name of bejesus are you talking about?”
I reached for a cigarette, set fire to one end of it and put the other end in my mouth. That’s the standard procedure for me. Sometimes for the hell of it I put the lighted end in my mouth, but I don’t seem to get as much smoking pleasure that way.
“Candy,” I said, trying valiantly, “let’s take it from the top. What in hell are you talking about?”
“Us,” she said, standing pat.
“Well, what are you trying to say about us?”
“It’s a shame.”
“What’s a shame?”
A strange gleam of comprehension came into her innocent little eyes. “Oh,” she said very slowly, “I forgot to tell you about it. I meant to tell you but I guess I forgot. In the elevator and all it just got shoved out of my mind.”
“What I was going to tell you.”
“What were you going to tell me?”
“Well, what in hell was it?”
“You don’t have to shout,” she said, pouting. “I’m going to tell you right now if you’ll just give me a chance to get the words out. Honestly, Jeff—sometimes you’re so darned impatient that a girl doesn’t have a chance to speak out about what’s on her mind.”
I gritted my teeth, then relaxed and took a drag on the cigarette. Whatever it was couldn’t be especially important, and there was no point in letting the failure in communication between the two of us get too deeply under my skin. The little sexpot managed to build everything up—the vital information she had for me was probably as dynamic as to tell me she had a hangnail on her little toe, or something equally astounding and significant.
“I’m waiting,” I told her.
“I don’t know how to start.”
“Just plunge right in,” I advised. “Take a big jump and spit out what you’re going to say.” That wound up as a fairly strangled metaphor but she didn’t know what a metaphor was in the first place so it didn’t make a hell of a lot of difference.
“Well, all right, Jeff, I’m going to plunge right in and spit it all out.”
“Good idea,” I said. “Clever of you to put it that way.”
She bit her lip, then leaned on one elbow so that she was looking right into my eyes.
“Jeff,” she said, “we can’t see each other any more.”
“Have another stick.”
“I’m serious, Jeff.”
“I assume it’s sticks,” I said. “I never noticed any needle marks on your arms or legs. Of course, you could be taking a shot under the nail of your big toe. They tell me lots of women junkies load up that way.”
I reached for her toe playfully. She jerked her foot away unplayfully.
“I’m serious, Jeff.”
About this point I realized that she wasn’t kidding.
“Maybe I’m stupid,” I said. “I’ve never been much in the way of being a mental giant, but I don’t understand what in hell you’re talking about. We can’t see each other any more?”
“Jeff,” she said solemnly, “what kind of a girl do you think I am?”
Since she had asked the question, I answered it. This may not have been the ultimate in tact, but tact has never been my special strong point. Look at it this way—when you’ve just finished plowing some fertile earth in a very earthy manner, you do not have to talk with kid gloves on.
Or something like that.
Anyway, I told her what I thought she was. I used a four-letter and highly unprintable word.
“Jeff,” she said, “you’re being vulgar.”
“Jeff,” she said, “yesterday after you left I went for a walk. I walked over on the East Side in the Fifties. Do you know what I saw?”
“Women walking dogs,” she went on. “Women in mink coats and sable wraps walking poodles with their hair cut all funny. The dogs’ hair, I mean. I took a good look and some of them were kind of pretty, but they weren’t as pretty as I am. They looked better, what with the mink coats and sable wraps and all that, but underneath they weren’t any better looking. And I bet they weren’t any better in bed than I am. I’ll bet good money on it.”
“And you know why those women were out walking dogs? Do you know why?”
“Maybe they dig dogs.”
“They were being kept, Jeff.”
“By the dogs? I don’t see—”
“By men, Jeff. Men with a lot of money were keeping them in fancy apartments and paying them loads of money so they could afford the dogs and the mink coats and sable wraps and probably even have lots left over to send home to their folks or put in the bank or whatever they wanted. And there were all those women that weren’t any better in bed or any nicer to look at, and here I was with a ratty little room in the Somerville and no money and no dog—”
“If you want,” I put in, “I could pick up a mongrel for you at the dog pound.”
“Don’t try to make funny jokes,” she said, “because it just won’t work. I’m not kidding now, Jeff. I like you and all that and I really love to do it with you more than I ever loved it before, but we can’t do it any more. You earn around $200 a week and you can’t even afford what you give me as it is, and if I wanted to, I bet I could find some man who would pay me as much a week as you earn and maybe more. And I won’t find a man like that unless I work at it, so I can’t spend my time with you. So I guess what I’ve been trying to tell you is that we can’t do it any more.”
She said all of this in one gigantic rush of words, and when she was done she broke off quite suddenly and gulped for air. I sat there on the edge of the bed looking down at her and I’m not sure just how to describe the way I felt. It’s very hard to get it across. Here she was—the girl who had monopolized my thoughts and my time and my money and my spermatozoa for the past too-long, and she had just finished telling me that as far as she was concerned I could go do biologically impossible things with myself. Here was I, sitting there and looking at all of her lovely body, and thinking that the obvious course of action was to plant a kiss on her little rump, get into my clothes, give her a parting line out of one of Swinburne’s choicer epics, and take leave of her for the rest of eternity.
There was more to it than that. I didn’t want her, not physically or even emotionally. The elevator interlude had quenched that particular thirst. But I knew that as soon as I was capable of getting excited again I wouldn’t be able to live without her. That’s the way it was—our relationship was sex and nothing but sex, but I knew that when I was deprived of her and when I needed her again I’d go absolutely nuts without her. It was an aggravating type of scene.
I said: “You developed expensive tastes in a hurry, didn’t you? A little while back you were happy with hamburgers. What’s the big switch all about?”
“It’s not a big switch,” she said very seriously. “I decided even before I left Gibbsville that I was going to get kept by a millionaire or somebody close to it. If I hadn’t met you I probably would be a millionaire’s mistress right now.”
“Why was I so lucky?”
Her eyes were very wide, very soft for such a tough little number. She was baby and tiger all at once and it was hard to remember what a complex character she had.
“Jeff,” she said, “I like you.”
“Sure. Like Macy likes Gimbel.”
“Like the Armenians like the Turks.”
“I’m not kidding.”
“Like Cain likes Abel. That’s you—Candy Cain. And I’m Jeff Unable. Did you ever look at it that way?”
“Jeff,” she said, with deadly logic, “if I didn’t like you I wouldn’t have let you love me in the first place.”
“There was a small matter of a thousand bucks—”
“I could have gotten it some other way. And I didn’t have to call you a second time, did I?”
“No,” I admitted. “You didn’t.”
“I like you. I like doing it with you. I’d rather do it with you for the rest of my life than do it with some musty old millionaire. But I see all of those other women and I want what they have. Why should they have more than me? Why should they live where they live while I live here? Why should they be the lucky ones? I’m as good as they are.”
She had a point there.
“Believe me,” she said, “I’d rather do it with you any time. I’d like to do it with you forever and ever, over and over, until we were both seventy years old, and we’d still do it three times a day. I wish you were a millionaire, Jeff. Then everything would be just perfect.”
“But you aren’t. You can’t even afford the seventy dollars a week that you give me—why, your savings must be about gone now, and you’re going to have to scrape to support me. That’s no good.”
She fell silent. The funny thing is that the little bitch was depressed now. She wanted the moon—me plus a million bucks. And she was sorry she couldn’t have it. She was lying on her back with her legs parted slightly and her breasts pointing at the ceiling and her eyes were half-closed. I stretched out next to her and touched her without really wanting to. It was an unconscious sort of thing. I put one hand on one of her breasts and I began to squeeze the firm flesh, manipulating it gently. I slid the hand downward and caressed her flat stomach, then rubbed her warm thighs.
Now I wanted her. Not as urgently as I had wanted her in the elevator, but I wanted her.
“Candy,” I said, “I can get a divorce. Lucy’ll give me a divorce if I ask for it. Then there’ll just be the two of us and if I hustle I can haul in a steady two hundred a week. That’s not peanuts, not when there’s just two people living on it. That’s good dough. That’s ten thousand dollars a year and on that we can have a hell of a good apartment and—”
She made my name sound like a cave in Antarctica. Her tone was so cold I stopped in mid-sentence.
“On ten thousand dollars a year,” she said, “we cannot buy Candy Cain a sable wrap.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Or a mink coat.”
I remained silent.
“Or live on Sutton Place.”
I started stroking her again but she pushed my hand away. I picked up my hand and looked at it. I wanted to cut it off at the wrist. There was something else I wanted to cut off as well. It would have made my existence a good deal simpler, if less exciting.
“It would be nice otherwise,” she said dreamily. “I really like you. You wouldn’t even have to have a million. If you had around a hundred thousand or something like that we could just go off and run away together. That would be nice, and I’m awful sorry it can’t happen that way.”
“But it can’t. That was the last time before, and even though I can tell you want to do it again, and I want to do it, too, I won’t let it happen any more. I don’t suppose it sounds nice to say, but I can’t afford to waste my time with you.”
It didn’t sound very nice at all.
We both sat up and our behinds touched. “Jeff,” she said earnestly, “I’m sorry it turned out like this. But you have a wife and a job and you’ll be all right. All you have to do is get me out of your system.”
“That’s easy. I’ll just open my veins and let the blood run out.”
“I mean it,” she said. “Just get me out of your system. Just forget you ever met me.”
SOCIOLOGISTS HAVE MANY TERMS which sum up life very well. Veblenisms lead the list, in my opinion. Conspicuous Consumption, for example, which means spending money to prove that you have it. You drive a Caddy instead of a Plymouth not because a Caddy is worth the price difference, which it isn’t, but so all the world will know that you can afford a Caddy. Conspicuous Leisure, which means that instead of lying around the house guzzling beer you go out and take your yacht out for a spin so everybody can watch you relax.
My own particular favorite is Pecuniary Emulation, which means that you spend money which you don’t have because you really wish you had it. It’s a term I’ve always liked, and it may serve to explain why I was drinking straight shots of Old Bushmill’s in Macmahon’s at the corner of Third Avenue and 37th Street rather than tossing off tumblers of bar rye in a Bowery gin mill. I wanted to be a millionaire at that particular moment more than I had ever wanted to be a millionaire in all my thirty-four years, and if I couldn’t be one I could sure as hell drink like one.
Macmahon’s is the right place for it. High ceilings with crystal chandeliers. Luxurious wood paneling on the walls. A bartender with a soft British accent. An eminently well-dressed clientele. Service with an unobtrusive smile. Good liquor behind the bar.
The whiskey I was drinking was costing me eighty cents a shot and was worth every last farthing of it. I had enough money with me to get as drunk as a skunk without counting pennies, and this is precisely what I intended to do. I was drinking like a gentleman and I even looked like a gentleman. From Candy’s lopsided little love nest in the Somerville, I had scooted back to my own apartment and changed into my best suit, my best shoes and my best tie.
Just get me out of your system.
I glared at the Bushmill’s, wrapped my fingers around the heavy shot glass and tossed the liquor down. It warmed me, and that made me think of Candy all over again. She warmed me, too. She did a damn good job of it.
The bartender refilled the shot glass, took a dollar from the disorderly pile of change and bills on the bar in front of me and returned my two dimes a moment or two later. I didn’t throw the shot down this time but sipped off about a third of it and followed it down the hatch with a sip of the water chaser.
Just get me out of your system.
Uh-huh, that’s what the lady said. Except it wasn’t all that easy. I had her inside of me like an infection, and perhaps the best way to get rid of an infection is to douse it liberally with alcohol.
Down went the rest of the shot. Slosh went another ounce of good Irish whiskey into the shot glass. Whoosh went the bill, clang went the cash register, clinkle went the two dimes that came back home to me.
Glub went the shot.
Just forget you ever met me.
Yeah, tell us another one. Did you ever see a picture that played 42nd Street under the magnificent title of The Giant Gila Monster? It was a picture-and-a-half, one of those horrible horror flicks with a gila monster a good four hundred feet long made out of rotten papier-mache. It kept sticking its little pink tongue out and making sick sounds from somewhere in its abominable abdominal region as it knocked over freight trains and devoured herds of cattle. You get it now, don’t you? Yeah, one of those pictures.
It’s hard to say just what was the high point of the picture. For one thing, it was also a rock-’n’-roll epic and one of the numbers was entitled The Gila Monster Crawl. But even better was a little sequence that went something like this between the county sheriff and the oily juvenile lead:
Oily: But how on earth could a … a gila monster grow so large?
Sheriff: Nature does strange things. Why, I was reading just the other day about a woman in the Ukraine who gave birth to a baby who weighed a hundred pounds by the time he was three months old and was taller than his mother before he was a year old.
Oily: Golly gee!
Sheriff: I suspect this is the case with our gila monster, son.
Oily: Leaping lizards!
Sheriff: You said it. But don’t worry, son. Put the gila monster out of your mind. Just go to the dance and have yourself a good time.
Now you’ve got to visualize this. Here’s this son of a bitch of a gila monster a mile long and two miles wide with a boundless appetite and a great passion for eating people. Oily and his girl friend are right in the middle of all this nonsense. And here’s this moron of a sheriff telling the kid to relax and have a good time at the dance. Just forget the gila monster, that was the general idea.
Now can you picture Oily forgetting the monster?
Or, by analogy, can you picture me forgetting my own private monster, my blonde monster with a mind like a steel trap?
Just forget you ever met me.
I couldn’t forget and I knew that I would never forget. I pictured her putting out for some fat millionaire and my stomach started to leap through the top of my head. I pictured anybody else, any nonentity with a blank face and a shapeless body, doing to her the wonderful things that I had done to her and my gorge rose in my throat.
I thought of me, Jeff Flanders, with anybody else, without Candy.
I had another shot.
My eyes jumped open like startled sentries. I was still on my stool at Macmahon’s but I must have dozed off for a moment and the bartender was shaking my shoulder gently but persuasively. It’s the same the whole world over, I thought groggily. At a posh place like Macmahon’s they call you Sir instead of Mac or Ya bum ya, but the pervading philosophy remains an eternal constant.
Drink all you want.
But don’t get drunk.
I kept my dignity. I wasn’t drunk, just a little light in the head, but I knew that it was time to bundle myself up and go elsewhere. I smiled agreeably at the bartender who smiled back, scooped up my bills and left him my change, and headed for the door. I did not stagger. I walked very well, all things considered, and when I was out the door and walking downtown on Third Avenue, my arms swinging militantly at my sides and a half-formed whistle on my lips, I possessed the utter serenity of the well-oiled.
That’s what I wanted for Christmas.
Or for Thanksgiving.
Or to help me shoot off firecrackers on the Fourth of July.
Or at any other special occasion.
Or at any ordinary occasion.
That utter serenity was fading. By the time I hit 34th Street it was gone. By the time my feet, which were growing steadier by the minute, had carried me west as far as Fifth Avenue, any trace of serenity had long since vanished.
It was late—I had drunk my dinner at Macmahon’s and it was probably nine or a little after by now. I flagged down a cab at the corner of 34th and Fifth and gave the hackie my home address. Then, after we had gone a few blocks, a thought found its way into my empty head and I changed my mind.
“Times Square,” I told him.
He nodded without saying anything and I leaned back in my seat and relaxed. I couldn’t close my eyes without seeing Candy, seeing her dressed or naked, seeing all that beautiful flesh, seeing the two of us in bed, seeing us in the elevator, seeing anything and everything. With my eyes open I didn’t see her. Instead I saw the wart on the back of the cabdriver’s neck. This got to be a bore by the time we hit 38th Street so I turned my attention to the placard next to the meter which told me that the driver’s name was Ignatz Bludge. There was Ignatz’s picture on the placard over his name but I couldn’t tell if it was him. It was a mug shot and I couldn’t see whether or not the guy in the picture had a wart on the back of his neck.
I got off at 42nd Street and 7th, tipped Ignatz a buck to preserve the pecuniary emulation, and drifted around until I found a grubby hotel. I settled on one located at 45th Street and Eighth Avenue, a palatial mansion where the roaches scurried across the register while I was struggling to sign my name. The room had more roaches than the lobby and less space, but it had a bed and a washbowl and that was enough.
I sat down on the bed, set fire to a cigarette and asphyxiated three roaches with a single puff of smoke. Roaches weren’t what they used to be. These little bugs took a deep whiff of the smoke, clawed the air vacantly, and fell from the wall to the floor, where they lay on their backs and wiggled all eighteen legs. I got to feeling sorry for them and stepped on them. Then I remembered that I had taken off my shoes and socks and I got hold of a towel and wiped scrambled roach from my bare feet.
I finished the cigarette and lit another one from the butt of the first. The walk and the ride and the walk had taken the edge off that the Bushmill’s had given me and I just felt tired. I was glad I had decided on a hotel instead of going home. I didn’t feel like facing Lucy. Not that night. Not with Candy clogging my brain and Bushmill’s still swimming around in my bloodstream. Better I should sack out on a lumpy bed in a lumpy hotel and fight the roaches for breathing space.
At least it gave me a chance to think.
I did a lot of thinking. The drinks had loosened me up and now that I was practically sober again I was able to relax, to look at things almost dispassionately. It gave me a fresh outlook on the blonde sexpot who went by the name of Candace Cain.
Not a woman. A disease. Something that could kill you as quickly as triple pneumonia. Something that left you dead with a smirk on your fat face.
I had had her, possessed her, had her again and again and still been unable to get enough of her. I had Candy with a Bushmill’s chaser, and this reminded me of Ogden Nash’s little poem that goes—
“Candy is dandy
but liquor is quicker”
I had had her; now I couldn’t have her any more. I wanted her so badly that I even offered to divorce Lucy to marry her, even was ready to give up a woman who loved me, for one who was only interested in money. I thought about Lucy and a little jolt of guilt jabbed me in the navel. It was a physical thing and I felt sick to my stomach about the whole thing.
Oh, I could have Candy. All I had to do was get my hands on something in the approximate neighborhood of one hundred thousand dollars, that’s all. Then we could hop a plane to Acapulco and live together in sin and harmony for the rest of our unnatural lives. Well, maybe not that long. But at least until the money ran out.
Now where in hell was I going to get my hands on a cool hundred grand?
The answer was obvious.
I lit a third cigarette from the butt of the second, stood up and paced the floor of my humble abode. Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home. And this was no place like home. I paced the grubby floor four times and killed five roaches en route. Then I dropped the cigarette on one of the roach corpses and ground it out. I flopped on the bed and closed my eyes with my dumb head buried face down in the pillow.
I just lay there, not thinking, not moving, with my mind a big continuous void. When I sat up again I could think very clearly. There were, I saw, two possibilities.
Possibility Number One—I could get hold of a hundred thousand dollars and hustle Candy off to Acapulco.
Possibility Number Two—I could live without her. And, because what the two of us had was not love but sex, I figured that I could do it.
Lucy. Lucy was my wife, my woman, a woman who had been mine first and who had never had anybody else. I remembered the first time when neither of us could wait any more, how we registered under phony names in a little hotel, how we went to the room together, how she was shaking with fear and how I was trembling with love for her.
How we undressed with the lights out, how the light filtered in from a street lamp through the window and how beautiful she was, how soft and warm her body was when I pressed myself against her.
How our love grew, swelled up higher and higher with the passion of our two young bodies moving together. How it happened, happened incredibly; first for her and then for me, instants apart, how we lay in each other’s arms and said quiet words to each other. How we slept.
How we were married, married with both of us very young and very much in love, how we found out that it was even better when you were married.
How we lived together.
How the years passed.
There is something wonderful that happens when two people live together for eleven years. There is something very good about knowing one other person inside and out, back and front, knowing how that special person’s mind and body work, knowing what every gesture and every facial expression means. They tell me that married couples who grow old together get so they look alike and this is something which I find it fairly easy to believe. There was a telepathy that had developed between Lucy and me, a different kind of telepathy from that nonsense with Doc Rhine’s ESP cards. She always knew what I was thinking; I could always say the very thought that had just come into her mind before she said it.
We loved each other.
We knew each other.
We had each other.
And I had been ready to throw it away for a sexed-up bitch who wanted to lay for a millionaire! It was hard to believe that Candy had such a great hold on me, but it was a hold I was suddenly determined to break.
What was the difference between them? Candy was good in bed; Lucy was as good. Candy was beautiful; Lucy’s looks were more subtle but no less attractive.
I tossed off my clothes, crawled under the covers and let my head submerge itself in the dumpy pillow. My mind was made up. In the morning I would go home, home to my wife. Somehow, God knows how, I would make it up with her. I would put myself on a diet and there would be no Candy on that diet, none at all.
I thought about it—how good it would be, how life would become sane again and the world would stop turning upside-down and giggling at me like a schizoid hyena. I thought about Lucy, my wife, my love, and my eyes closed and my body relaxed and I slept.
I got up, washed with the weird red water that came out of the rusty tap, put my dirty clothes back on again and got the hell out of the hotel. I didn’t bother about breakfast; I wasn’t hungry. Only one thing mattered now. I had to get home, had to get back to Lucy, had to get everything straightened out again.
The elements conspired against me. The subway took a long time coming. It waited at 72nd Street for ten goddamned minutes while I sat on my hands and some clods did things with the tracks. Finally the train limped to 96th Street and I got out and managed to get home.
I ran all the way, jumped into the elevator and got off at my apartment. I unlocked the door with my key and went inside.
I didn’t see Lucy.
Ah, I thought. It’s still early. The poor dear must be sleeping.
Her bed was empty.
Ah, I thought. It’s not that early. The poor dear must be out shopping.
And then I saw the note.
The note was propped up on the dining room table right where I couldn’t miss seeing it, which, of course, explains why I had missed seeing it. It was hand-written in Lucy’s perennial childish scrawl on a piece of her blue note-paper. I unfolded it, switched on the light, and read it.
This is what it said:
I have taken as much as I can take. I don’t care how good she is, you didn’t have to spend the night with her. I’m going to Mother’s and I’ll be there when you read this, and after that I’m going away from there and I’m not telling you where I’m going. Maybe someday we can be together again but not now because I just can’t take it any more and you’ll be better off without me.
I still love you and I always will.
I read the letter once standing up, then sat down and read it through a second time and a third time after that. It didn’t make sense, I told myself; it just didn’t add up at all. I yanked out a cigarette and wasted three matches before I got the damn thing lit—then after two puffs it tasted terrible and I dropped it on the floor and stepped on it.
I had come home to her. I was back, through with Candy, wanting only to be with my wife forever.
But Wifey doesn’t live here any more.
Wifey done gone home to Mama.
Wifey done left.
I lit another cigarette. If I’d only had the brains to come home the night before, it would have been all right. But no—I had to stay out, and Lucy had put two and two together and came up with five.
So I put out the cigarette and snatched up the phone and called her at her mother’s house in Brooklyn. Her mother croaked nastily at me and hung up, but before the phone went dead I heard a familiar screech in the background. I called back and this time Lucy answered.
“Look,” I began, “I have to see you.”
She said: “No.” She said it as though she meant it.
“I wasn’t where you think I was last night.”
“I don’t care where you were. I don’t care if you did it in Macy’s window with a crowd of two thousand watching you. I don’t care—”
“I was alone last night.”
“Go to hell.”
“I mean it, Lucy. I was alone all night.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Lucy, I love you. Lucy, honey—”
“Stay away from me,” she said. “And don’t call me again, because the next time you call I won’t be here any more. I’m going away, I think I’m going out of the state, maybe I’m going to Nevada to divorce you. I don’t know.”
“Lucy,” I broke in. “Honey, it’s all over. I’m through with the girl, you’re the only one who matters, I—”
“What’s the matter—did she throw you out?”
That one hit me in the head. I wondered for a split-second whether I would ever have been saying these things to Lucy if Candy hadn’t broken things off.
“Go chase yourself,” she said.
Because it was Sunday I called my landlord at home. I told him he could have his apartment back and he told me about the lease. I told him he could keep the furniture in return for letting me off the lease, since it only had three months to run before renewal time. He thought it over for a second or two and agreed that it was a good deal, too good a deal, and wouldn’t I be getting a screwing under those terms? I told him I was used to getting a screwing and didn’t mind it a bit and he said he’d have his lawyer draw up papers and send them over sometime during the week. I told him to send them to my office and rang off.
I threw what clothes I wanted to keep in a suitcase, jumped in a cab and gave the driver the address of the fleabag where I’d spent the past night. The hotel clerk greeted me royally and I gave him seventy bucks for a month’s rent on a slightly better room than last night’s roach-trap. This one had a double bed and a john all its own, which was something.
I thought about Lucy for a while. It was over with her; maybe there would be a time to begin again but the decision had to be up to her. It wasn’t a decision I could make for her. Now, with all the will drained out of me, I didn’t much care what her decision was. She had bawled everything up, whether she was right and I was wrong or not. If she had stuck with me for just another week I would have been over Candy and things would have worked out. The hell with her.
I thought about Candy, but after thinking about Candy for a minute or two I got jittery and decided not to think about Candy any more.
So I forgot about Candy.
Sure I forgot about Candy.
I drank a little that night, just enough to get to sleep, and the next morning it was Monday and time to go to work. I got to the Beverley Finance Company, where it didn’t matter if you were a little hungover or not as long as you managed to sweet-talk the marks in the proper manner, and I threw myself into my work and forgot completely about the existence of a sexy little blonde named Candace Cain.
Sure I did.
The first mark of the morning got scared off by the interest rates. The second was a fifty-buck personal loan which I tentatively approved until they checked on his references and found out that he was faking. I threw him out of the office.
Things like this made it easy for me to forget about Candy.
The third prospect was the ideal type of mark—three little kids, a wife, a steady job. And a pile of bills. So my friend the mark swallowed the propaganda in our ads and decided it would be a fine idea to float one loan and pay all his bills. It cost him about fifty bucks more this way but he didn’t stop to think about that part. I didn’t give him time, just stuck the pen in his hand and showed him where to sign. One quick call to his boss and he was walking out of the office with the money in his hot little hand.
The fourth boy’s references stank and I told him to find himself a good co-maker, the same line I had handed Candy.
She’s the girl I had forgotten about.
That’s why at precisely a quarter to two that afternoon I picked up the phone and called the Hotel Somerville. The message I got surprised me. I guess I should have expected it but I didn’t.
Candy didn’t live there any more.
I WAS PROCESSING the application of a Miss Matilda Ferkel, a shrivelled little thing who had taught school for thirty-two years, who lived alone in a residential hotel off Gramercy Park, and who wanted to borrow one hundred dollars to give her Siamese cat Lemuel a decent burial.
It’s a genuine pleasure to do business with people like Matilda Ferkel.
Processing her application was just so much paperwork, just a matter of form. There was about as much chance that Miss Ferkel would default on her loan as there was of the Washington Senators winning the World Series. Matilda Ferkel just didn’t come on like a crook.
Besides, her story had touched the strings of my heart. Her cat Lemuel had been her constant companion for almost twelve years, which is evidently quite a distance for a cat, and then poor old Lemuel just sort of dried up and died, and now that Lemuel was in heaven it didn’t seem fitting and proper to consign his corporeal remains to the incinerator.
Hence the loan, and it was for a good cause. It was also for a cunning twenty-five percent interest, but that is neither here nor there.
Anyway, here I am processing Miss Ferkel’s application when my faithful co-worker Les Boloff ups from his chair, meanders over to my desk and leans on it with his face sort of hanging. He looked sad.
Hell, he always looked sad. Les was one of those unfortunate bastards who always seems to have recently emerged from a Turkish bath. It can be twenty below out and he is still swimming in his own sweat. He’s a soft, fat guy to begin with, the type of guy you know after one glance to be a real sweet slob, a nice Joe who’ll do anything for you, and a guy who has never made much of anything out of his life.
I tried to smile but it hurt. It was tough enough raising my head the way I felt, let alone smiling. So I just looked up at him with an expressionless expression on my poor face and waited for him to say something.
“What gives, Les?”
“Let’s have lunch together.”
I shrugged. “That’s all?”
“Yeah, I figured it might be nice to go out together to get a bite instead of ordering food up. About noon or so?”
“Okay by me.”
“Fine,” he said. “There’s a Chink place around the corner that gives you a good meal for a buck or so. I used to eat there once, twice a week.”
He turned to go.
“What’s the bit?”
He hesitated—just for a split-second, but enough so that I knew there was plenty that wasn’t right in the world. “Nothing,” he said. “We’ll talk about it at lunch.”
I went back to Miss Matilda Ferkel and her dead cat but my heart wasn’t in it. Something was wrong, something that was deeply disturbing to my good friend Les, and to make things just that much cooler I was hungover to beat the band. The band that I wanted to beat was the one that was playing funereal rhythms inside my head. I didn’t mind too much that the drummer was pounding my cerebellum or that the cat on trumpet didn’t have the decency to use a mute—this was par. But if the bastards would only have played something cheerful, things would have been rosier.
I glanced around the office and saw gleefully that it was empty of customers. This isn’t normally an occasion for rejoicing but I had something special in mind. I opened the bottom drawer of my desk, unearthed a bottle of rye and took a hearty guzzle from the bottle.
The band was playing happy music now. And the trumpet genius had a mute on his horn now.
You see, I didn’t mind the band as such because I was used to it, used to a morning hangover as part of the daily routine, used to drinking myself quietly to sleep every night in my revolting little room in the Kismet Hotel, used to waking up every morning with the boys jamming in my skull. It was all part of the game, and the fact that the game was not worth the candle is a fact everybody should kindly refrain from mentioning.
One solid month.
One month without seeing or speaking to my mistress, one month without knowing where she was or what she was doing or if I would ever see her again.
Oh, it had been one hell of a month, let me tell you. Things had settled down to a monotonous routine that was almost comfortable until you stopped to think about it. A room at the Kismet Hotel complete with a liquor store across the street. A job at the Beverley Finance Company complete with a bottle in my bottom drawer. A couple drinks during the day to take the edge off. A few quick belts at the bar around the corner the minute I got out of the office. A dinner of sorts at a lunch counter and a bottle to take to bed.
What else could I take to bed?
That left me with a bottle.
Which was better than nothing at all, I suppose.
One night it got bad enough for me to go whore-hunting, and for that it has to be very bad indeed. But the bottle was no great soulmate that night and I got up, put on a suit and tie and got the hell out of the hotel. The whores had switched their location since my last visit to Whore Row, which wasn’t particularly astounding. I hadn’t needed to go on a whore-hunt in the past eleven years.
They used to be on Eighth Avenue between 42nd and 48th. Then the city had a clean-up campaign and for all of a week, I guess, they went into hiding. Now they were on Seventh Avenue between 47th and 52nd, which is as good a place as any. They stand in doorways and say nothing, and little men dressed very nattily stop occasional passers-by and exalt the charms of the various whores.
Dressed nattily. That reminds me of the old vaudeville bit that went something like:
Do you like to dress nattily?
No, but I’d like to undress Natalie.
Oh, well. So I found my whore next to the Brass Rail and we repaired to a hotel that was, if possible, worse than the Kismet. It made the Somerville look like something Hilton was saving up to buy. No roaches in this place—they were afraid of the big bugs.
So we checked into the hotel as Mr. and Mrs. Mordecai Sledge at a cost of a hot two bucks and checked into bed for another ten. The girl told me her name was Mildred and she was no bargain. She wouldn’t have been much of a bargain at fifty cents in Gimbel’s basement, and at ten bucks I was really getting a screwing.
Which had been my object to begin with, so why fight it?
But she was really pretty awful. I got undressed and sat down on the edge of the bed while she peeled off a cruddy red dress with nothing under it. There should have been something under it—she would have looked a hell of a lot better.
She had big breasts but they were the type that could put you off breasts for life. To say that they were not firm is like saying that the ocean is not dry. They drooped like wet noodles.
So did I.
Breasts—hell, she could have slung them over her shoulder. I was half expecting her to grin at me and tie them in a bow or something.
So there we were, both of us naked and both of us on the bed and both of us equally bored with the whole procedure. I didn’t even mind the ten-spot at this point; I just wished I was home in bed with my bottle. My lack of enthusiasm must have been evident because she asked me what was the matter.
I started to tell her that what I really wanted was a piece of Candy, but I don’t think she would have understood. Instead I told her it was all a horrible mistake and I’d better get home to my bottle.
“Here,” she said, pushing me back down on the bed. “I know what’s wrong. You’re just a little tired is all.”
“You been drinking?”
I nodded miserably.
“That’ll do it. Here, you just lie down like this and I’ll see what I can do to help you. I’ll make it real easy for you.”
“I’d rather you made it hard for me.”
She laughed at that one. They stopped laughing at it forty years ago at Minsky’s but she was in a happy mood.
“Lie down,” she said. “Relax.”
I tried to.
“Close your eyes.”
I closed my eyes. Ah, it was better already—I didn’t have to look at her.
“Now,” she cooed. “Now I just know everything’s going to be all right. You just wait and see if I don’t know what I’m talking about. Everything’s just going to be all hunkydory now.”
If there was ever a speech less flawlessly designed to get a man in the mood …
But the gal knew what she was doing. Her hands were soft and she put them to good use. They were all over me, touching, caressing, squeezing, pinching, fondling, and doing all these diverse tasks with the utmost in competent professionalism.
Hand and lips, teeth and tongue.
Her mouth warm and demanding. Her hands quick and certain.
Her hungry mouth.
When I got home I took three showers and still felt dirty. I drained the bottle dry and collapsed in the chair and slept for six hours sitting bolt upright.
The Chinese restaurant, coyly called the Hoy Polloy, got rich on buck-a-plate lunches by cramming the tables close together, so close that you could gobble up somebody else’s chop suey if your own moo goo gai pan wasn’t to your liking. Les and I had a table in the back that we got to by air-lift. He ordered two dishes from number something and one from number something else and I drank a double rye with a little soda while we waited for our slop to come. The rye was good and I lapped it up like a camel after a long trek across the Sahara. Les stared balefully at the rye until it had all been transferred from the glass to my gullet, which is where it obviously belonged. Then he took the cigarettes that I offered him and lit them both with the lighter his wife gave him as a birthday present.
“Jeff,” he said. “I don’t know how to say this—”
I let him try again.
“Look, Jeff—Joe and Phil are right guys, wouldn’t you say?”
He meant our bosses, Joe Burns and Phil Delfy. “Yeah,” I agreed. “Thieves, too. Crooks, undoubtedly. Loan sharks, inevitably. But I’ll go along with the notion that they’re right guys.”
He pouted. “They always treated me decent.”
“They aren’t tough to work for, Jeff. They don’t make a guy hit a time clock or work like a galley slave like some of the bastards in the business.”
“Hell,” I said. “We work on an incentive basis. A time clock would hurt them as much as it would aggravate us. It’s only to their own advantage—”
He held up a hand. “I know it,” he said, “but a lot of momsers wouldn’t see it that way. Joe and Phil give the pair of us a pretty straight deal.”
I nodded. I wanted to find out what he was getting at. “Jeff,” he said. “You’ve been with Beverley how long?”
“Four, five years. Something like that.”
“You figuring on going somewhere else soon?”
I just stared at him for a minute. It took me that long to make sure that he wasn’t kidding.
“No,” I said. “No, but—”
“I don’t like to be the one to say this,” he cut in, “but if you don’t straighten out soon you’re going to be out on your ear. If—”
“Hey, hang on a minute!”
He held up the hand again. “Jeff,” he said pleadingly, “it’s not my idea. Believe me, to me you’re a nice guy. I want you working in the same office with me forever. I mean it—it’s not that we know each other so closely because we don’t, but I like working with you and by me you’re all right. But the way you’ve been going at it lately—”
“Like that,” he said, pointing to the rye. There were two more ounces in it now—I’d managed to catch the waiter’s eye while Les was talking. “You’ve been drinking like you heard rumors of another Prohibition.”
I swallowed the rye.
He looked hurt. “Jeff,” he said, “believe me, by me you could drink oceans and it wouldn’t bother me. But—”
“Phil and Joe?”
“Look,” I said. “Phil and Joe are hardly saints. You don’t find saints in the finance business. You rarely find saints in the respectable banking business, for that matter. And Beverley Finance is as far removed from the respectable banking business as—”
I had a good image cooked up but he cut me off. “Jeff,” he said, “let me say two things. First of all, no matter how crooked Phil and Joe may seem to you, their operations are strictly within the letter of the law. Our clients are not pulled off the streets and nobody makes them borrow. They come to us—remember that. They come to us because we fulfill a legitimate need.”
I shrugged. There was room for argument on that score. You might say we created the “legitimate need” with our coy little advertisements. But I let him finish what he was trying to say.
“Second,” he went on, “neither Phil nor Joe expects anybody working at the place to be a plaster saint. If a man beats his wife they don’t care. If a man takes dope they don’t care. But if it gets in the way of the business they do care, and for that who can blame them?”
I held up the empty glass and nodded at it. “Does this get in the way of the business?”
He looked unhappy. “You keep a bottle in your desk—twice yesterday you took a drink while there were clients in the office. You smelled of liquor and the clients can tell this. You slur your words from time to time—maybe you haven’t realized this but I’ve noticed it. You—”
“Honestly. You put through one application that it was lucky Miss Glaser caught because he was in the book as a deadbeat. All you had to do was look in the book and you would have known it, but you got careless.”
“Which one was that?”
“Harwell, Farwell, I forget.”
“Carwell,” I said. “Herbert Carwell. Hell, he seemed perfectly okay. I didn’t bother—”
“They always seem okay. Normally you would have checked the book, you always check the book before approving an application. This time you didn’t.”
“Jeff,” he said, “I’m not trying to get on your back. I’m just trying to say that you’d better straighten out before you get fired, and I’m trying to say this as a friend. Is there something bothering you that maybe I can help you with? Is it money or anything like that?”
It was a hundred thousand dollars that I didn’t have, two women whom I didn’t have, a whole life that I didn’t have. But I didn’t tell him this.
“Is there anything I can do for you?”
I shook my head.
“Will you try to lay off the liquor? Look, it’s not just the job. My wife’s brother, he started drinking once five years ago and he hasn’t stopped yet. It can sneak up on you and all of a sudden you can’t stop or you don’t want to stop or I don’t know what. My wife’s brother, he’s a mess now. An alcoholic. A bum. Once a month he’s over to the house begging for a handout so he can buy a drink. What can I do? He’s my wife’s flesh and blood, I can’t turn him down. But before he started drinking he was a doctor with a practice that brought him in about thirty gees a year. A rich man, Jeff. Not rich like Rockefeller, but richer than either of us’ll ever be. Now he’s a bum. You see what I mean?”
“Try,” he said. “Just do me that favor. Favor—it’s a favor to yourself more than a favor to me. Just try to take it easy and cut down on the drinking.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll try.”
I don’t know whether I meant it or not. I was just sick of listening to him, sick of hearing about his goddamned wife’s brother, sick of the whole sermon and the whole do-gooder bit he was playing. There was no question about his sincerity, no question but that he was one hell of a good guy trying to help me out.
This didn’t make me one whit less sick of listening to him.
We let it lay there and we started to eat the slop on our plates. He was plainly embarrassed—the two of us never talked much and now he had given me a straight-from-the-shoulder bit and he was worried about it. I could understand that.
We finished up, lit cigarettes and sipped coffee. The waiter glared at us, wishing we would get out already so he could fill the table with two other slobs.
We got back to the office, worked through the afternoon. Les and I didn’t say a word to each other for the rest of the day, which was easy because it was one hell of a busy afternoon. I had a good twenty people in the first two hours and things were hectic.
I kept wanting to reach for the bottle, kept wanting one little shot to make the afternoon go a little faster. But I left the bottle where it was.
Evidently what Les had said had made some sort of impression on me. Hell, I didn’t want to be out of a job. I joked a lot about Beverley Finance and I had a fairly cynical attitude for the whole mess, but it was a pleasant place to work and it paid a lot better than most occupations I was suited for.
That was only part of it. The other was that damned sermon about his wife’s brother, the doctor with the big thirst. I didn’t want to wind up in some gutter. I didn’t want to be an alcoholic, and I didn’t need Les to tell me that I was well on the way to that happy state.
One time I had the drawer open and sat there looking down at that beautiful bottle.
But I left it there. It wasn’t easy, but I left it there and closed the drawer again.
I got through the afternoon. Somehow, due to the grace of some unknown and mysterious god, I got through the afternoon. It was tough but I made it.
And then it was five o’clock and I walked out into New York, gobbled a plate of chili at the Alamo on 47th Street and washed it down with cream soda. Beer is perfect with chili but I stuck to cream soda.
I left the restaurant and went for a stroll.
And then the world flushed itself down my toilet.
THE ALAMO CHILE HOUSE, the only place I’ve ever come across where it is possible to get a really good plate of chile con carne, is situated on 47th Street between Sixth Avenue and Seventh Avenue, directly across the street from the Hotel Rio. I left the chile house a few minutes after six, wandered across the street to exchange pleasant words with the clerk on duty at the Rio, and wandered back out to the street a few minutes later.
From there I wandered over to Sixth, glanced around balefully at throngs of tourists from Wisconsin, and headed uptown. The damnedest thing was that I kept passing bars. There are roughly four bars to a block in midtown Manhattan and you never notice them quite as inevitably as when you have decided to cut down on your drinking. I passed Lippy’s Bar and Hogan’s Bar and the Left Field Bar & Grill and the Goldfish Bowl. I passed Alcoholics Unanimous and Ye Olde Cornere Saloone and Raoul Dufy’s Tavern. I passed one dyke bar, three fag bars, and any number of heterosexual establishments. I passed posh bars and crud bars, patrician bars and plebian bars, bourgeois bars and proletarian bars.
Each bar beckoned to me. Each bar murmured whorishly that one drink would make all the difference in the world. Hey, called each bar in turn. One drink ain’t gonna hurtcha, fellow. Just a lil nip to take the edges off. A taste of the stuff to rub off the corners. Whaddaya say, fellow?
I said to hell with it.
At 57th Street I made a right turn and walked east, figuring that if worse came to worst I could always go swimming in the East River. What the hell, I was having a nice walk. It was a nice evening after an essentially horrible day and I was just good old Jeff Flanders out for a stroll.
I crossed Fifth, sniffed appreciatively at the healthy smell of money that permeates the Avenue, and kept on walking. I looked at people and decided that they were all ugly. I looked in store windows and decided that there wasn’t anything I particularly wanted to buy for myself. I walked quickly past the bars and pretended they weren’t there.
I crossed Madison.
Nice Street, Madison.
I kept going.
I crossed Park.
Nice Street, Park.
And I kept going.
Another right at Lex, straight for a couple blocks, right again at 54th and back toward home.
Almost across Madison.
But not quite.
Because there she was.
I almost missed her. She didn’t look like Gibbsville anymore, didn’t look like nineteen years old or like the Hotel Somerville.
She looked like money.
A black jersey dress that fit her like a second skin. An ermine stole that dangled around her lovely throat like it belonged there. A braided leather leash that connected her hand with a simpy-looking brown dachshund.
My first reaction was one of shock. I hadn’t forgotten her, of course. She was not the type of woman you’d forget any more than you’d forget you’re dying of cancer. Every day I remembered her, thought about her, ached physically and emotionally for her. But if someone had predicted that I would run into her on the street I would have laughed in his face.
But the bit was this—I thought of her as something out of reach, something I would never get hold of again. Once I called her and all I got was an Annie-doesn’t-live-here-any-more answer. I figured from then on that wherever she was she was out of my world. Our two worlds collided.
She was walking toward me, her and her two-bit gold-plated puppy on a string, and I saw her before she saw me. I also saw her discover me, which was a rather interesting experience. Her eyes went wide for just the briefest fraction of an instant; then they turned away and she hurried on, hoping she could pass me without my seeing her.
I waited until she was next to me on the sidewalk; then I shot out a hand and caught hold of her elbow. I have to give her credit—she didn’t lose any of that perfect composure, didn’t jump or get startled or let out a scream or anything. She turned her head and looked at me and said in a very soft and very level tone: “Let go of me.”
I let go of her. But when she started to walk on I grabbed hold of her again.
“Look,” I said. “I’ve got to see you.”
The question caught me intellectually flat-footed. I didn’t say anything for a minute.
“Jeff,” she said softly, “you don’t have to see me. We don’t have anything to talk about.”
“I have everything I want,” she said. “Without you.”
I looked at her clothes, her hair-do, her dumb little dog. It looked as though she was right.
“Land your millionaire?”
“What’s he like in bed?”
She smiled—a sick little Mona Lisa smile that said she knew more than she was telling.
“I’m happy,” she said. “I’m as happy as I could possibly be.”
“Don’t you ever want me?”
She thought that one over for all of three seconds. “I used to,” she said. “I told you that I’d rather get tossed by you than anybody else. But a girl has to make certain sacrifices.”
“You talk fancy,” I said. “You talk a lot more precisely.”
She smiled again. The same smile, the one that let me know I was in the dark on some salient point.
“Candy,” I said. “Baby, I need you. I need you more than I ever needed anything or anybody.”
“You have your wife, don’t you?”
I told her about that.
“I’m sorry to hear it,” she said, and she said it as though she meant it. “I really am, Jeff. But what do you expect me to do about it?”
I told her what I expected her to do about it.
“Jeff,” she said, sadly. “Jeff, you can’t possibly think I’m going to leave the person who’s supporting me and go back with you, do you? I’ve got exactly where I always wanted to get and you expect me to throw it all up? That just doesn’t make any sense.”
“You’ve got where you wanted to get, huh? Just where the hell are you?”
“In the lap of luxury.”
“You’re a kept woman,” I said. “You’re the same thing as a whore except a whore is more democratic. A whore does it for anybody and you do it for just one customer, but you’re still the same thing.”
She didn’t say anything. The words seemed to roll right off her.
“You think you’re happy, Candy? You’re not happy. You’re sick.”
“If I’m sick,” she said, “I can go to an analyst. I can afford it now.”
“Do you realize that some analysts get fifty dollars an hour? If I went to one of those five days a week it would cost fifty dollars more than you earn. Think about it, Jeff. Think that part over.”
“Candy, a man who makes ten thousand dollars a year is hardly a poor man.”
“Or a rich man.”
“Jeff,” she said, impatiently, “just what in the world do you want?”
“I want you to live with me.”
I took a breath. “Then … then go to bed with me just one more time. Just once—it won’t hurt you and it sure as hell won’t hurt the bastard who’s keeping you. And I’d … appreciate it.”
It sounds ridiculous now; it must have sounded equally ridiculous to her at the time. The only person to whom it seemed sensible and logical was a grade-A moron by the name of Jeff Flanders, and it even seemed pretty silly to him a second or two after he said it.
“No,” she said, which was a relatively sane thing for her to say.
“I’ve entered into a business arrangement,” she said. “You don’t seem to understand that.”
“I have a code of ethics. Part of the arrangement was the stipulation that I remain true to the bastard who’s keeping me, as you put it. Therefore—”
“Stipulation,” I echoed. “Pretty big word for a hick from Gibbsville, wouldn’t you say?”
She frowned at me.
“Candy,” I pleaded. “Just once—”
She turned away from me but I caught her arm again and she turned reluctantly to face me.
“Remember what it was like? Remember the time in the elevator, the time on the floor, the time we took a bath together?”
She remembered—it was plain to see in the shadow of a grin that crossed that beautiful face. I barely heard her when she murmured It was nice in a very soft and infinitely sensual whisper.
She remembered—but she chose to forget. In a second she was all business, all frigidity, all coldness. She shrugged away from me and her eyes were hard as diamonds as she stared at me.
“I’m going now,” she said.
“Let me come with you.”
“You may not come with me. I want to walk alone and I do not want you with me.”
“I’m coming anyway. I’m damned better company than that silly-looking hound.”
“If you don’t leave me alone,” she said, the Gibbsville creeping back into her voice, “I’ll call a cop—and there’s one right on the corner.”
Candy was not the brightest girl in the world. She had never been remarkable for her intellectual prowess and she proved it that fine evening.
I let her alone. But when she was half a block away I started following her and she didn’t so much as turn her head to see if I was around. Maybe she took it for granted that I would disappear from her life as she had tried to disappear from mine. That was the type of uncomplicated mental activity of which she was capable. When things didn’t fit for her she ignored them, and now she was trying to ignore me.
That was her way. It made life with her or without her equally impossible, but it also simplified the job of following her. Tailing a person is not the hardest poser in the world when the person being tailed is unaware of the presence of the tail. You simply walk after the person. That’s all. You don’t dodge into alleyways or duck behind parked cars or any other moronical games that private eyes play in motion pictures. You just walk, and the person that you’re tailing also walks, and it’s lots of fun all around.
I was a natural-born detective. She walked and I walked—over 54th to Madison, down Madison to 53rd, five doors down 53rd to an imposing brownstone where the doorman opened the door for her and in she went.
A nice short simple walk, uncomplicated except for a moment when the damnable dachshund urinated on a lamppost. That was the sole interruption.
So there I was, Jeff Flanders, the defective detective, standing on the street in front of an imposing brownstone in which lived my erstwhile lady-love.
Ah, of course. Now I had to find out which apartment she lived in. I reached back into my bagful of fictional-private-eye lore and took a ten-dollar bill from my wallet, planning to bribe the docile-looking doorman. That was the way the guys did it in the movies. Lord, do they throw money around! A good doorman must get five yards a week in bribes alone.
Then something struck me, something which may well have never occurred to Mike Hammer or Ellery Queen or Hercule Poirot or Shell Scott. Hell, I didn’t have to stick ten bucks in the doorman’s grubby paw.
All I had to do was look on the mailbox.
I walked bravely past the doorman, entered the plush little vestibule and turned an inquiring eye upon the row of mailboxes and doorbells. I found what I was looking for in a hurry—Candace Cain in raised script on a little white card over the bell for apartment 4-B.
I considered taking the elevator to the fourth floor and knocking on Candy’s door. After seven seconds of careful deliberation I figured out what a prime example of human stupidity that would be. She would toss me out on my rump, maybe call in the law. She had made it relatively plain that she didn’t want to be bothered and if I showed up knocking on her door I was only asking for trouble.
So the natural thing to do was to go home, pick up a bottle and start in where I had left off before Les Boloff had so rudely interrupted me. To hell with Les Boloff. To hell with Joe Burns and Phil Delfy and the Beverley Finance Company. To hell with Candace Cain, raised script and ermine stole and funny dog. To hell, for that matter, with Jeff Flanders.
That was the natural thing to do.
In case you have not already mapped this much out for yourself, I have not made a life’s work out of doing the natural thing.
I got on the elevator and instructed the lackey operating the car to deliver me safe and sound on the fifth floor. Mark that well—the fifth floor. There I got out of the car, wandered around long enough to discover the precise location of apartment 5-B, and rang again for the elevator. I rode back down to the ground floor and left the building.
Clever subterfuge, eh? By this shifty means I managed to figure out what part of the building Candy’s apartment was in. Through such nefarious plotting I could determine which window to peer through if I wanted to set eyes on Candy.
I wanted to set eyes on Candy.
The doorman gave me a funny look on the way out so I gave him an equally funny look right back to put him in his place. I walked around the side of the building where he couldn’t see me and stood like an oaf staring up at Candy’s window. It was a nice window. It even had curtains.
And, more important, it had a fire escape.
Get the message? The situation was made-to-order for Jeff Flanders, boy detective and ace second-story man. All I had to do was mount the fire escape, climb helter-skelter to the fourth floor, and make like a Peeping Tom.
Kindly refrain from asking me at this point just why I wanted to do these things. I would be hard-pressed to explain it to you. A psychiatrist might say I was suffering from temporary insanity. A psychiatrist who knew me well might say that I was suffering from permanent insanity. The hell with it. I hate psychiatrists.
The fire escape posed a minor problem. The last section of it didn’t reach to the ground. The notion behind it evidently was that the last section was lowered from above in the event of fire, but remained up in the air otherwise to discourage clods like me from using it as a stepladder to success. This does make a certain amount of sense—it’s a good deal better than the jackass of a fire escape on the hotel I lived in, the cockeyed Kismet, where the fire escape drops you off in a blank alley. You can spend the rest of your life trapped between four dull buildings if there’s ever a fire in the Kismet.
As I observed, the fire escape posed a minor problem. It might have been enough to deter an ordinary mortal, but not a rare bird like Jeff Flanders. Hell, no. I backed up a few paces, took a running start and leaped high into the air. I missed the first time and fell on my face, sort of. The second time I did better and caught the bottom rungs of the fire escape with both hands.
There was a hellish instant or two while I dangled in the middle of the air. Then I managed to haul myself up and I was perched on the fire escape like a poached egg on a slab of burnt toast.
There was no place to go but up.
So up I went.
I’m not a natural-born Peeping Tom, so I passed up any view I might have had of happenings in apartments 2-B and 3-B. I didn’t know, or care, what has been happening in those two apartments. For all I know there could have been an old Roman orgy in progress, or a marijuana party, or an auction of rare coins, or a singing of twelfth-century hymns, or any one of a number of events pleasant to contemplate and fascinating to consider.
But on I climbed until I was at the window of apartment 4-B. Candace Cain’s apartment.
I do not know what I expected to see any more than I know what prompted me to look. Perhaps I expected to observe Candy herself. Maybe all I wanted was a good look at that stupid mutt of hers. Then again I might have expected a squint at a bald and paunchy gentleman to whom the fine body of Miss Candace Cain now belonged.
Whatever my sick brain expected, it was definitely not what I saw.
I kneeled by the side of the window, which, as chance would have it, was the window of the bedroom. The lights were on but the room was empty. My nose was at sill level so that I could watch while keeping as little of myself visible as possible. I waited patiently for somebody to appear.
It was Candy and she was naked and at once my body responded with tangible evidence of my interest in the girl. She was even more lovely than I remembered her. Her golden hair trailed down over those perfect shoulders. Her breasts were big and high and proud and beautiful, and I wanted to reach a hand through the window to touch them. Her whole body was exercised in feminine pulchritude. She was a vision.
She walked to the bed, threw the covers back and stretched out on a pale green sheet. The color of the sheet served as a fitting background to that body of hers. The light was a glareless bowl set in the ceiling and it suffused the room with a soft gentle glow that made the magnificent body on the pale green sheet just that much more lovely.
She sprawled on the bed, her head on a pillow, her eyes looking up at the ceiling, her hands at her sides and her legs parted slightly. There was a vaguely expectant half-smile on her face.
She looked as though she was waiting for someone.
Which made a certain amount of sense, because, logically enough, she was waiting for someone.
That someone was shorter than Candy, which was as I had more or less expected. I figured on a short fat guy with a bald spot, but in this figuring I was wrong. The short part jibed but the rest didn’t.
The person who entered was not fat. The person who entered was slender and almost boyish in build.
The person who entered was not bald. The person who entered had jet black hair combed in what dissident youth calls a duck’s ass haircut.
And, most important of all, the person who entered was not a guy.
I almost fell off the fire escape. This would have meant a plunge of thirty feet or so onto hard pavement and might well have killed me.
Damn it, I should have fallen.
But I didn’t.
The woman with Candy was, I guessed, around my own age. She was a rotten lesbian and she was with my girl and I hated her on sight, but I still had to admit that she was damned attractive. It was a good thing she was never going to have a baby because any child she might have had would have starved if it depended upon her breasts for nourishment. They were so small they almost weren’t there.
But the rest of her was nice. Her face was just a trifle hard, a trifle mannish, but if you met her on the street you wouldn’t peg her as a man or as a lesbian and you might well want to take her to bed. Her waist was narrow and her hips were nicely rounded and she had a nice tight little behind, neat and trim. There wasn’t an ounce of fat on the woman.
I should have left. Whether I fell off that fire escape or whether I got up nonchalantly and clambered on down, I should have left. But I didn’t—I stayed, and I watched, and I could not have left just then if my life depended upon it. Not then.
The woman walked to the bed. She was naked as a jaybird and so was Candy and it was easy to see they were not there to play tiddly-winks. She lay down on the bed next to Candy and their bodies touched, and the woman said something which I couldn’t hear and Candy answered something that I couldn’t hear either and they both smiled—that same sick Mona Lisa smile Candy had handed me on 54th Street.
I got slightly sick.
The woman took Candy in her arms. She ran her hands through that gorgeous blonde hair and pressed her lips to that gorgeous red mouth. A sisterly kiss it wasn’t. Her tongue went between Candy’s lips and Candy’s arms went around her body, holding her close.
They went on like that, which was horrible, and I went on watching.
Which was also horrible.
For this I hadn’t had a drink since lunch. For this I walked past every bar on Sixth Avenue. For this I played detective, climbed fire escapes, peeked through windows. For this nausea.
The nameless dyke finally gave up the breast-kissing routine and got down to brass tacks.
One hell of an etc., believe me.
The girl obviously loved the whole thing. Girl? She wasn’t a girl and she wasn’t a man. She was a wretched middle-of-the-roader and I hated her like poison.
Candy was also obviously enjoying herself. I couldn’t hear the noises she was making but I could imagine them. I remembered the noises she used to make with me.
Yeah, everybody was enjoying the bit.
Everyone but me.
I watched it until it was over, watched in stricken fascination, and when they had finished and lay there holding each other and cooing like doves, I stood up and gripped onto the railing of the fire escape and let go. My stomach turned itself inside out and the vomit sailed through the air.
The sight of it made me nauseous and I puked again. It was a great night for puking.
Somehow I got down from the fire escape. I passed apartments 3-B and 2-B, again without a glance, and dropped down to the pavement. I headed west, headed for Sixth Avenue with my eyes half-shut and my stomach still feeling as though someone had stepped on it, someone who weighed five hundred pounds and wore lead underwear.
I crossed Madison.
I crossed Fifth.
I reached Sixth.
Remember Sixth? That’s the street I strolled down in the beginning, the street with all the bars, all the temptation that I so bravely resisted the first time around. Resisted—and for what? For a disgusting view of the most desirable woman in the world doing the most nauseating act in the world and loving every minute of it.
Well, I made up for it.
This time I didn’t pass those bars. I hit every one of them, all but the three fag joints and the one dyke joint, hit the Goldfish Bowl and the Left Field Bar & Grill and Hogan’s Bar and Lippy’s Bar. Hit Alcoholics Unanimous and Ye Olde Cornere Saloone and Raoul Dufy’s Tavern. Hit posh bars and crud bars, patrician bars and plebian bars, bourgeois bars and proletarian bars.
And I couldn’t wash the foul taste of what I had seen from my mouth or drown the memory of it.
HANGOVERS COME IN seven different varieties. They also come in an infinite variety of degrees, from chicken crap mildness to sulphur-and-brimstone severity, but this is a matter for specialists.
The seven fundamental varieties, on the other hand, should be familiar to every hard-drinking layman. Just as the invalid ought to get thoroughly acquainted with his malady, the sot should know as much as he possibly can about the various aspects of the Morning After.
He owes it to himself to do this.
It doesn’t ease the hangover. For this there are as many remedies as there are modes and manners of getting fried in the first place. Hangover remedies range from tomato juice with Worcestershire sauce through raw eggs in warm milk all the way to the most physiologically logical notions of doses of Vitamin B-1 or doses of the hair of the dog in the manger. A shot or a pill—either one—usually comes closest to bringing back a semblance of order.
But, without further ado, let us enumerate the seven varieties of the hangover.
First and most common and trivial is the headache. In its uncomplicated form this variety is indistinguishable from mild eye-strain. You wake up and your head hurts. You take two aspirins with a water chaser, wait for time to pass, and with the passage of time the headache goes back to normal. If you’re one of those sad sacks who was born with a lifelong headache, or if you’re married to one, you can have this form of hangover without knowing it.
Hangover Number Two is the Long Thirst. With this type of affliction you feel fine. You get out of bed, wander over to the sink and down six tumblers of water in quick succession. You’re still feeling fine so you get dressed, brush your teeth, shave, and drink another six tumblers of water. This goes on for as long as the hangover stays with you. It’s one of those hangovers that make perfect sense and as a result you don’t resent it. You realize that the alcohol has dried up your blood and your body craves water to wet your blood down again. So you drink constantly and urinate almost as constantly and after awhile everything’s all right again.
Hangover Number Three is located in the stomach. The stomach, poor thing, has a habit of rejecting anything that is placed in it. When you try to take aspirin you vomit them back up, which is disconcerting to say the least. With this type of hangover you play a waiting game, hoping that it stops before you die of starvation.
Number Four is a variation of Number Three. The stomach rejects your hopeful offerings in yet another manner by kicking everything out through the back door. I’ve yet to discover the right method of coping with this nonsense, although an acquaintance strongly recommends a good cork.
Number Five is pain, soul-shattering pain, ear-splitting pain. You wake up wearing somebody else’s head and the head doesn’t fit. Your arms ache and when you close your eyes you can see your nerves twitching. I don’t want to talk any more about this one. It’s terrible.
Number Six is Number Five with a hangover of its own. You see things and you hear things and even your hair hurts. The only way to lick this one is to join it. You have to go out and get drunk all over again, praying for an easier time the following morning.
Number Seven is seventh heaven or seventh hell depending upon your point of view. The nicest thing about it is that it does not hurt. The nastiest thing about it is there is nothing you can do about it. It is a very complex problem and the novice is likely to suspect that he isn’t hungover at all, that the world is simply set at the wrong angle.
This hangover deserves careful consideration. It goes something along these lines: you don’t ache but you can’t move. Well, you can move, but it is an enormous effort and you do not really want to. You just want to sit and think about things.
Time passes very slowly. Your mind works at a staggering pace and you think with the speed of light. You can’t concentrate on anything in particular but you can see things very clearly and very logically within your limited perception.
This is a dilly. In a weird way it is almost fun, which is fortunate in that it is with you for the duration of the day. The only thing that eliminates it is a good night’s sleep and even that has been known to fail. You have to resign yourself to sitting in one spot and doing nothing for a good sixteen hours.
I woke up, in case you haven’t guessed it, with Hangover Number Seven.
I woke up, probably, at seven-thirty.
Probably, because I really have no way of knowing. I woke up, opened my eyes, and lay there on top of the bed waiting. Waiting? Yeah—for Godot, or for Lefty, or for Christmas, or for something else. God alone knows what I was waiting for.
But I do not know what time I woke up. I do know that it was a few minutes after eight when I looked at the clock. It seemed several hours that I lay there without taking the trouble to look at the clock.
A few minutes after eight. Plenty of time to get up, change clothes, eat a hearty breakfast and get to work at Beverley Finance Company.
Who in hell wanted to perform this array of jolly little tasks?
So there I remained. I lay there with my eyes open and thought about the voyeuristic activities of the previous evening, with a nameless dyke doing nasty little things to my former mistress. It was hard to take the whole thing too seriously at this stage of the game. Not that I wasn’t furious with Candy, not that I didn’t want to beat the crap out of the gal who was keeping her.
It was just that I couldn’t bring myself to feel too strongly about anything.
It was nine-thirty when the phone rang. I can be sure of this because I remember glancing at the clock on my way to the phone. The phone rang a good minute before I picked it up. It was an extension of the hotel phone rather than a private line and it gave one long continuous ring. I took a lot of time walking over to the table where the phone was, sitting down in the chair beside it, and lifting the receiver to my ear.
I grunted. Anything else would have required more effort than I was willing to give it. “Les, Jeff. You coming in today?”
I grunted again.
“Jeff? It’s nine-thirty. You sick or something?”
A long pause.
I shrugged. I don’t suppose he could hear the shrug over the telephone but I didn’t have anything to say.
“You drunk, Jeff?”
Another long pause. His tone, when he spoke, was one of infinite patience. He sounded like a father explaining an eternal truth to a lost child.
“Jeff,” he said, “this is Les Boloff. It is nine-thirty in the morning, Wednesday morning, and you were supposed to be at work half an hour ago. Your name is Jeff Flanders and you work here at the Beverley Finance Company.”
I knew all these things so I didn’t say anything.
“Coming in, Jeff?”
“Don’t feel like it,” I said, simply.
And I hung up on him.
It was my day for phone calls.
“My name’s Hardesty,” a voice assured me. “I’m serving as attorney for your wife. She wants me to institute divorce proceedings.”
I grunted again. I wasn’t particularly surprised; I had been wondering when Lucy was going to get around to making our separation legally binding.
“Do you plan to contest the divorce?”
“Mrs. Flanders is planning a Nevada divorce on grounds of extreme mental cruelty. As you may know, the sole grounds for divorce in New York State is adultery, which makes for a rather embarrassing situation. False evidence and all that.”
I didn’t say anything. He wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t know so I didn’t bother answering him.
“That’s why I advised a Reno divorce,” he went on. “I felt it would be better for all concerned.”
It was decent of the old bastard.
I gave another grunt.
“Mr. Flanders, divorce is a sideline with me and it’s something I’m not particularly fond of. I’ve sounded out Mrs. Flanders and I’m quite certain she’d be willing to try a reconciliation if you’d meet her halfway. She’s coming to my office early this afternoon and I thought that if you’d drop up to the office it might work out for the two of you. I may be costing myself a fee but I’d rather see it turn out that way.”
He said some more things that I didn’t listen to. I gave the notion a whirl in my mind. I’d wanted a reconciliation; hell, I would have given my right arm for it. Lucy and I together could push all the bad part out of the way and start fresh. Maybe we’d even have a kid this time—that might be good for us both.
“Where’s your office?”
He said it was way downtown in the financial district. I thought about going all the way down there, thought about getting out of bed and changing my clothes and taking a subway downtown and walking around and …
“Hell with it,” I said. “Let her get the divorce.”
And I hung up on him, too.
Gee, I thought a good half hour later, it’s a shame that lawyer couldn’t have brought Lucy over to the hotel. Then the two of us could have gotten together and everything would have been sweetness and light again. Funny how little things like the location of a law office can make all the difference in the world.
Like a rubber crutch.
Like a wheelchair without wheels.
Funny. This is the way your mind works during a seventh grade hangover. Not that I spent all my time on such trivia as the way my life was going. I took a good hour figuring how many shots could be poured from a fifth of liquor, how many shots if the bartender was shorting you and giving you one-tenth of what you should have been getting, how many if he was filling the glass the same amount over the line.
Now these are important questions and I had to give them a great deal of thought. I gave all sorts of important questions a great deal of thought while the time crawled by on little cat feet, and I went on sitting and thinking and, occasionally, smoking, went on in this manner until it was midnight and I was tired enough to sleep.
This may be hard to believe. It should be hard to believe unless you have had the privilege of living through just this variety of hangover. But I actually sat in that chair for better than fourteen hours and did nothing more active than smoke.
Well, I made a few trips to the bathroom. And there was one time when I stared out the window at a woman who was parading around half-naked. But only for a minute or two because I remembered my last experience at window-peeping and decided it wasn’t worth it.
It seems impossible. In retrospect it seems thoroughly impossible because, looking back on it, it seems as though I didn’t even do much thinking during that time. I should have taken notes but it didn’t seem to be worth the effort at the time.
At midnight I went back to bed, my stomach empty because I hadn’t eaten anything, my body ready for sleep more because of the weakness caused by lack of food than because of any tiredness or desire for sleep. But I went to sleep quickly and slept very soundly for eight solid hours. If I dreamed any dreams I cannot remember them.
When I woke up I felt as though I could eat a horse. Or a box of candy.
I got undressed—I never did manage to undress the night before—and I took a hot shower and followed it up with a cold shower, and I brushed my teeth and shaved my beard and combed my hair and got some clothes on.
I felt wonderful. It seemed positively indecent to feel that good, but that’s how I felt.
I took the elevator downstairs and went across to the Alamo for breakfast. Chile may not sound like the most sensible breakfast in the world, especially on an empty stomach, but it was delicious and I surprised myself by downing two plates full of the stuff. I washed them down with two bottles of ice-cold ale, which sounds nauseating now that I think about it, but which was great at the time.
And then, a spring to my step and a whistle on my lips, I walked briskly to my office.
There I was informed, without undue ceremony, that I was no longer an employee of the Beverley Finance Company.
Joe Burns did the honors. Weasel-faced Joe Burns with a gigoloish moustache and a perpetual sneer. He was waiting for me like a spider for a fly, leaning against my desk and sneering at me. It was a few minutes to nine when I walked in but both he and Les were already at the office, Joe sneering and Les looking very very sad.
“You’re through,” Joe Burns said.
I must have looked surprised. I should have. I was surprised.
“Clear the bottles out of your desk and get the hell out,” he said. “Your mustering-out pay’s in the top drawer. You were a good man but you sure went to hell in a hurry.”
I also left Beverley in a hurry. There was nothing in my desk that I wanted except for the pay; Joe and Les could fight over the nearly-empty bottle of rye in the bottom drawer. I didn’t want it any more than I wanted the picture of Lucy that still reposed in its cheap metal frame on the top of my desk.
So out I went from the office. So down I went in the elevator. So back I went to my room.
There was plenty to brood about and if I hadn’t felt so god-damned great that morning I really would have felt terrible. God knows there was plenty to feel terrible about. No wife, no woman, no job.
But things didn’t seem that bad. I had been pulling down around two hundred a week for some time now with no expenses outside of food, liquor and rent. I had a lot of money in my wallet and a lot of money floating around the room so I could get by for a while without working. I couldn’t live like a king on the dough I had but I wouldn’t starve either, and if I felt like it I could get unemployment compensation. For that matter I could get another job on a moment’s notice. Legit loan sharks are like used car salesmen—they spend their lives floating from one outfit to another and they don’t need glowing recommendations from former employers in order to get work. Both businesses are too much on the border between respectability and thievery for employers to care much about their workingmen’s characters.
So, a member of the ranks of the unemployed after years of job-job-job, I felt positively great.
So great that the Candy problem seemed to be no problem at all. Hell, I was a reasonable man. The world was a reasonable world.
Why shouldn’t the dyke be a reasonable dyke?
It seemed simple. I would get hold of the dyke, get her off in a corner somewhere and explain to her just how much I needed Candy. I would also tell her that her sex life was twisted and convince her of the error of her ways. She would break down, cry a little, give Candy back to me, and go out to find a man and raise a family.
I would snarl a little at Candy, get her to beg me to take her back, then pet her and kiss her and slip her a quickie on the rug or something. Then we would be thicker than thieves and life would be a bowl of cherries again.
Simplicity itself. I gave myself a mental pat on the back for being such a logical member of the human race, able to view the world and its problems with enviable objectivity, clear-headed and always on hand to come up with the right solutions to any pressing difficulty.
Shrewd old Flanders.
One in a million.
Genius in spades.
I got carried away at this point and delivered a weird monologue on the way down in the elevator, informing the elevator op what a lucky Joe he was to have me in his car. He must have figured I was stoned again because he nodded very sagely and didn’t open his mouth.
I walked to the dykery, my own private name for Candy’s current love-nest. I passed all the bars and remembered the time I had passed them before and the trip back when I hadn’t passed them. That was the beauty of it—I could remember the whole scene, the whole evening, and I found the House on 53rd Street without any trouble.
I took the elevator to the fourth floor this time and found Apartment 4-B without any trouble. I stood outside the door for a minute, getting myself ready for the master salesmanship pitch, and then I buzzed the little buzzer.
The door opened.
I’D HAVE FELT a lot better about the whole thing if she hadn’t been such a damnably attractive woman.
Black toreador pants were tight on her slender legs and tighter still on her hips and tail. She had the right type of figure to be wearing them as well as the right sexual outlook on life and they looked fine.
She also had the right build, or lack of it, to be wearing a man’s shirt. This particular man’s shirt would have been out of place on any man unless he was as queer as she was. It was pale green and it was tucked neatly into the pants which were secured by a yellow alligator belt. How the devil they got that belt will ever remain a mystery to me. When did you last set eyes on a yellow alligator?
The shirt had a button-down collar and I was willing to bet there was a button in the back as well. She came on real ivy league, even to the dirty tennis shoes on her little feet. Her eyes peered at me through severe black glasses. The eyes were a pale blue, the shade they call steel-blue. The look she was giving me was a steely one, too.
“Good afternoon, Miss—”
“Not Miss,” she said. “Mrs.”
That damn near floored me. I couldn’t picture the bloody dyke married to somebody. But you live and learn, so I said Mrs. and paused valiantly, waiting for her to come through with the last name.
She didn’t come through.
“Look,” she said, “whatever you’re selling, I strongly doubt that I want any.”
“I’m not selling anything.”
“Neither am I,” she said. “I’m neither selling nor buying, and if you’ll excuse me I’d like to shut the door. With you on the other side of it.”
I was beginning to get the idea that she didn’t like me.
“Hang on,” I said, “My name’s Flanders, Jeff Flanders. I’m a friend of Miss Cain.”
“Oh,” she said.
“I wanted to—”
“You’re not a friend of Miss Cain,” she said. “Not a friend at all. I don’t think she likes you.”
“I don’t think she wants to see you any more.”
“In fact,” she said, “I think I might tell you that I’d rather you didn’t see any more of Candy.”
I scratched my head. “Funny,” I said, hilariously, “but that’s what I came here to tell you.”
Her forehead squinched up and she didn’t know exactly how to react. The door opened wider and I entered the apartment; then she gave the door a shove and it closed. She waved me on inside and pointed a tired finger at a chair for me to sit in. Then she wandered over to another chair and plopped herself down into it.
On my way over to the chair I took a good look at the apartment, at least at the room I was in. This was what Candy had peddled herself to get and by the looks of things she hadn’t done badly. The room reeked of money. The carpet reached from one wall to the other wall and it was thick enough to get lost in. The furniture was so modern they must have designed it a couple of days before but it wasn’t poorly chosen. It was Swedish modern in design and it cost a fortune. That much was easy to see.
There were a few pictures on the wall, original oils that I didn’t want to recognize. Big splashes of helter-skelter color that looked like something out of a bad dream.
I didn’t recognize the pictures. But I did recognize the signatures in the lower corners of the pictures.
Mrs. Whoevershewas was rolling in dough.
“Mr. Flanders,” she said, pronouncing the name as if it was one she could easily learn to detest. “I have the feeling that you are going to pose a problem. I strongly doubt that the two of us are going to see eye-to-eye.”
I agreed with her in stoic silence.
“I’m not sure where to begin, Mr. Flanders.”
“You might tell me who the hell you are. That’ll do for a conversational opener.”
“I hardly see—”
“It’s just that I like to know who I’m shouting at.”
“Caroline Christie,” she said. “You may call me Mrs. Christie.”
That was decent of her.
“You’re here to make trouble,” she said. “Aren’t you, Mr. Flanders?”
“On whether or not you’ll cooperate.”
“In what manner?”
The conversation was beginning to get me down. “Mrs. Christie,” I said. “I want Candy back. Candy and I were together and I want her back.”
An eyebrow went up. “That’s touching.”
“I need Candy,” I said.
“You don’t need Candy,” she told me icily. “You need stuffing. You’re a unique specimen and you ought to be displayed somewhere. But you do not need Candy.”
She was amused now. “Do you love Candy?”
I only hesitated for an instant but that was enough for the bitch. She crinkled into laughter and smothered the laugh daintily with the palm of her hand.
“Of course not,” she said, answering her own question. “You don’t love Candy, Mr. Flanders. You couldn’t possibly love Candy.”
“But you can?”
“Hardly.” This time there was a trace of bitterness mixed with the amusement. “How in the world could I love Miss Candace Cain? She’s not the type of woman one loves, Mr. Flanders. She’s desirable and I desire her. She’s enjoyable and I most definitely enjoy her. She’s pleasant company and a tigress in bed.”
She didn’t have to tell me this.
“Enjoyable and desirable,” she went on. “But not lovable. Some people are capable of being loved; others are capable of loving. Some are capable of both. Candace Cain is capable of neither. That’s all there is to it, Mr. Flanders. You do not love her and neither do I.”
“Do you, Mr. Flanders?”
I gave up trying to figure out that subtlety and took refuge in lighting a cigarette. I offered her one but she took one of her own. I reached out to give her a light but she lit it herself.
“I want Candy, Mrs. Christie.”
“You want polishing, Mr. Flanders. You want polishing rather desperately because you’re quite rough about the edges. Haven’t you understood a word I’ve said?”
I must have looked blank because she didn’t wait for an answer.
“To Candace Cain,” she said, “who is of course the focal point of our conversation, only two things are of any real importance. One is security and the other is sex.”
This much I knew, too. “You figure you can give her more security than I can?” I asked. “I suppose you’re right, if you’re thinking of security in material terms.”
“Why not? That’s how Candy thinks of it.”
I nodded, agreeing in spite of myself. Caroline Christie was right on that score. Candy had strictly a dollars-and-cents mind and I couldn’t come close in that department. The furnishings of the apartment, hell, the furnishings of the living room alone would come to more than I earned in a good year.
“That’s security,” I said. “How about the other angle? You’re certainly not suggesting that Candy’s as satisfied sexually with you as she would be with me.”
Caroline Christie sighed. “Men,” she said sadly. “You’re all so stupid … and so proud of yourselves. If you had any idea of the pleasure Candy and I bring to each other—”
I had a good idea. I had a fire-escape memory to keep me warm.
“Men,” she repeated. “Do you actually think that simply because you possess a male organ you’re so much more skilled at pleasing a woman?”
“You’re a fool, Mr. Flanders. I am a woman and Candace Cain is a woman.”
I was beginning to get a little bit angry. Not everybody calls me a fool so readily. Not everybody belittles maleness so readily.
“Candy’s a woman,” I said. “I’m not so sure about you. For my money—”
“Your money? What money?”
While I was digesting that one she flicked her cigarette disdainfully at an ashtray and took up where she left off. “I am a woman and Candy is a woman,” she repeated. “Each of us knows just what caress will bring just what response. Each of us is able to bring the other to a complete and delightful fulfillment that no man could ever understand. Each of us truly understands the other’s body. Each of us … oh, let’s forget it, Mr. Flanders. You may want Candy but you don’t stand a chance in hell of getting her. Why don’t you leave now and stay away from both of us?”
I took another tack. “You said your name was Mrs. Christie,” I said. “What does Mr. Christie do?”
“He rots, Mr. Flanders. He rots in his grave. I assume this, that is, because I’ve never even considered exhuming his remains to determine what state of decay he is in. But it’s more than likely that he’s rotting.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Don’t waste your sorrow on my husband, Mr. Flanders. It was his decision. He took an overdose of sleeping tablets and slept his way to his grave. You need not feel sorry for the man, no more than I feel sorry for him.”
I was beginning to get the picture. “I see,” I said. “You married him for his money and then he found you were a lesbian and it killed him.”
She laughed so hard I thought the terrible pictures were going to fall off the walls.
“Mr. Flanders,” she said finally, “while it’s hardly necessary to acquaint you with the facts, I can’t pass up the opportunity to give you a verbal face-slapping. To begin with, my husband and I were equally wealthy when we were married. My maiden name is Lipton, the Boston Liptons. So you need not say that I married Howard for his money.”
The Boston Liptons have more money than God.
A good deal more money than God.
“Secondly,” she went on, “Howard knew I was a lesbian when he married me. If I had not been a lesbian he would never have married me in the first place.”
I didn’t get it.
“I don’t get it,” I said, naturally.
“Howard,” Caroline Christie said, “was a fag.”
Nice people. Real nice people. A fag and a dyke and my little Candy. The apartment on 53rd Street was beginning to make my stomach crawl.
She stood up. “I could say it’s been nice, Mr. Flanders. But that wouldn’t be true, would it? It hasn’t been nice at all. It’s been amusing, but amusing and nice are not the same thing and it has most certainly not been nice. You do not like me and I do not like you and I hope we never see each other again.”
“Wait a minute, Mrs. Christie—”
“I’ve waited a good many minutes as it is, Mr. Flanders. I let you in here to begin with because I thought you might have something interesting to tell me. Instead you’ve taken up a good bit of my time and you have bored me stiff in the process. Now, if there’s nothing more that you want from me—”
“But there is.”
“You can’t have her, Mr. Flanders. She’s mine, and this is not merely my decision but Candace’s as well. We’ve discussed you, you know, and we both agreed that there’s no point in Candy wasting her time on you. If you pretend to understand Candy you could see that much yourself. Now it’s time for you to leave. If you were gentleman enough to wear a hat I’d hand it to you. Do you understand what I’m trying to say, Mr. Flanders?”
“I’m not that thick.”
“Of course you are,” she said. “That’s irrelevant. Now if you’ll kindly get out of this apartment I’ll appreciate it no end. In an hour or so Candace will be returning and we’ll have a long talk about you. Then Candace and I shall retire to the bedroom where we shall prove quite satisfactorily that we are sexually compatible. Good day, Mr. Flanders. Don’t come again.”
I was out of the chair and I got almost to the door before I turned around. I don’t know and will probably never know just what kept me from going out that door and down the elevator and away from The House on Fifty-Third Street. But something did.
I whirled around.
She was a few feet away from me. If she had looked the least bit surprised or stunned or worried I would undoubtedly have turned once again and walked out that door.
But she didn’t.
She was as cool as a pickle. Her steel-blue eyes through the black-rimmed glasses were looking at me with a mixture of humour and contempt.
And that’s what did it. I had to take care of that amused reserve once and for all, had to show her that she couldn’t laugh or sneer or smirk at me.
But it was more than that. That breastless chest, those slim hips, that aristocratic face …
And that twisted psyche.
Damn it, I wanted her. I hated her and wanted her at once, and I could no more stop what I was about to do than I could hold back the flood by sticking my finger in the dike.
So I hit her.
I hit her in the stomach, naturally. If you’re going to be cad enough to hit a woman you might as well hit her below the belt and that is precisely what I did. I hit her as hard as I could and I am not a small man nor am I a weak man. I know how to throw a punch and I threw this one with all my strength.
She doubled up in pain. Her hands went to her stomach and her knees buckled.
Her glasses fell off and settled on the carpet. I stepped on them and ground the lenses to dust.
I tangled my hand in her short hair and jerked her to a standing position. I held her like that with one hand while I slapped the hell out of her with the other, slapped her across the face again and again until her cheeks began to bleed from the force of the blows.
Then I hit her again.
In the stomach.
She puked all over the carpet and it was messy so I hauled her a few feet further into the room. By this point I was getting confused. I didn’t know exactly what to do so I hit her again.
That did it. She crumpled up and fell on her face and she didn’t move.
I had to hand it to her. She didn’t utter a sound all the way through, didn’t moan or scream or cry or anything. She was a twenty-four carat bitch and I hated her from hell to breakfast but she had guts, even if I had been trying to kick them out of her.
I rolled her over onto her back and looked down at her. Her face was contorted in an expression of horrible pain and when she spoke she spoke through clenched teeth.
She said: “Just what do you propose to do to me, Mr. Flanders?”
So I told her.
You have to hand it to her. You really have to give the bitch credit. The old amusement and contempt came back into those steel-blue eyes and the old quiet fury returned to her voice.
“You may proceed,” she said.
I ripped the buttons getting the shirt off. But I did get it off and there wasn’t anything underneath it. Candy didn’t need a bra because her breasts were firm enough to get along without one; this bitch didn’t need one because she didn’t have anything to put in one. Her chest was as flat as a flounder.
I had a tough time with the pants. But I got them off and tore off the panties she was wearing under them. I tore off her tennis shoes and socks as well, although there wasn’t much point in it. They wouldn’t have gotten in the way. But I wanted her completely naked, naked and defenseless.
When she was naked I got my own clothes off. I hooked my hands under her armpits and pulled her to her feet, and when I let go of her she sagged against me like a rag doll with half the stuffing gone.
God alone knows where she got the strength, but when she came up off the floor this time she came up fighting. Her hand came at me nails first and her razor-sharp nails lashed my forehead and drew blood. She heaved a knee that would have played havoc with my virility but I swivelled a hip and dodged the blow.
She called me a nasty name.
So what the hell.
I hit her again.
This time she came off the floor like an irritated rhinoceros and gave me a poke in the jaw that sent me reeling. For a little bundle of fluff she packed a wallop.
I got a grip on her shoulders, put one foot behind her feet and gave her a shove. She obligingly flopped on her cute little tail and I fell forward and landed right on top of her. She made a nice cushion.
I almost couldn’t go through with it. She was fighting me, all right, but when you stop to consider the fact that I outweighed her by a good seventy pounds the fight didn’t seem too fair. I almost got up and left, but then I saw the whole incredible picture of her and Candy in bed together and I couldn’t hold myself back.
I had to even the score.
It was quite an experience. Technically I suppose it was a vaguely enjoyable ride; at least it was something different. But it was sick and sordid and when I was done I felt like cutting my throat with a rusted razor. I stepped away from her and fumbled my way into my clothing while she lay on the floor like a castaway napkin.
“You’re okay,” I said, hysterically. “We’ll have to have another go at it one of these days.”
And for what was possibly the first time in her life, Mrs. Caroline Lipton Christie did not have a snappy answer.
I didn’t ride the elevator because I didn’t want the operator to get a look at me. Not because he would be able to identify me later—that was one thing I wasn’t going to waste my time worrying about. I knew it was better than rubles-to-rickshaws that Caroline Christie would no sooner call the police than she would call me and beg me to do it again.
Hell, that much was elementary. Every juvenile delinquent with enough moxie to live up to the garrison belt dangling from his grimy paw knows that the easiest way in the world to pick up a quick buck is to beat up a faggot. The juvie picks up on one of the gay boys, leads him anywhere at all and pounds the crap out of him.
Now who is the fag going to bitch to?
And who was Christie going to bitch to?
No one at all.
So, among my other remarkable accomplishments, I was now a successful rapist. Somehow I wasn’t particularly proud of myself, and that is why I didn’t want the elevator operator looking at me. Hell, I didn’t even want to look at myself. I felt sick to my stomach.
At the same time I was not without a small glint of triumph. It was with considerable self-esteem that I wondered idly how long it would take Mrs. Caroline Lipton Christie to wash the blood out of her rug. Yes, blood—because Mrs. Caroline Lipton Christie had been a virgin until I altered her status once and for all.
Back in my room I washed off my cut face and took an opening slug from the bottle to dull the hate I was building up for myself. What had the afternoon landed me, all things considered?
Not a hell of a lot at all.
I had raped a lesbian. Raped a virgin lesbian, to be precise. If nothing else, it was something I had never done before. I had had a virgin—my wife, Lucy—but I had never raped anybody, and I had never had anything horizontal to do with a lesbian.
It was a great afternoon for firsts.
But what else?
I was as far away from Candy as before and I letched for her as violently as ever. It was her face I saw at the peak of passion with little Miss Lesbo, and it was the memory of her that had occasioned the visit and the rape in the first place. So where was I?
I was up the creek. Not only didn’t I have a paddle, but I also didn’t have a great many other things.
And on top of everything else the canoe had sprung a leak.
I kicked off my shoes and stretched out on the bed and closed my eyes and thought to myself what a bastard I was. I thought about the woman who was divorcing me, and the other woman who was putting out for the woman I had just gotten finished raping, and there seemed to be more reasons to hate myself than there were stars in the sky.
I let myself sink into a positive abyss of self-loathing which was masochistically delicious. After awhile I went outside and bought a magazine and went back to the room to read it.
And, after awhile, the damned phone rang.
Like a fool I answered it.
THE VOICE ON THE phone was Candy’s voice, high-pitched and thin, a whisper that was as tense as a bowstring and, to me at least, as loud as a siren. She did not waste words, and I remember now that her speech was pure East 53rd Street without a trace of Gibbsville in it.
“I have to see you,” she said.
I started to tell her that I had given her plenty of chances to see me but I didn’t get more than a word out before she interrupted me.
“Meet me at the Astor Bar,” she said. “Right away and hurry.”
And before I could say a word, before I could tell her yes, I was coming or no, and to hell with you, before I could mouth a solitary syllable she had hung up and the phone clicked in my ear.
I looked at the phone, looked at the bottle in my fist, looked at a grease spot on the far wall.
To hell with her. To hell with the woman who was no woman, the lady who was no lady, the Candy who was not sweet at all. To hell with her—my life was enough of a mess now without any more of her. I could spend the rest of my life trying to forget her and the preliminary step consisted of ignoring this phone call right now.
The preliminary step.
And, of course, there would be a lot of steps following that first one. I’d have to get out of New York, get away somewhere where she could never find me and somewhere where I could never run the risk of encountering her again. Out of New York, away from New York, far away from the stinking steaming stench of a city with all its memories. Away from the Kismet and the Somerville, away from 42nd Street and 100th Street and 53rd Street, away from Sweet Lucy and Bitter Candy and Queer Caroline, away from Beverley Finance and all the bars and all the movie houses and all the places where I had spent all my life.
I even had a place in mind. Somewhere quiet, somewhere devoid of people. I thought about a properly isolated island in the Florida keys where a man could live without working and without thinking and above all without seeing another man or woman or child. You bought a boat and a shack and you ate what you caught with a rod and reel. You picked up a few bucks taking parties of tourists fishing and you were your own man, free and independent, secure with the marvellous and rare security of complete and total solitude.
I stood up and took a look at myself in the mirror. My body looked as good as ever but I knew better. What used to be muscle was now mostly flab and what used to be flab was now more like butter that had spent too much time under a sunlamp. My complexion looked like the belly of a fish, a very dead fish, and my lungs were soggy with cigarette smoke and my arteries were alternately dilated by alcohol and constricted by tobacco. I held out my hand and tried to make it as steady as the Rock of Gibraltar and I got nervous inside when I saw my fingers shaking involuntarily, trembling so obviously that I wondered for a minute whether or not I was still in the camp of the living.
I was a mess. No matter how you looked at it I was a mess. It was nothing out of the ordinary—every city dweller is a mess. You ride the subway instead of walking and you eat the wrong things and breathe the foulest air known to modern man. If you stay off the booze you still drink the wrong things—cola drinks that rot out your stomach or coffee that races your heart or lunch-counter fruit juices that poison you with methodical ease.
You not only eat between meals but you eat instead of meals—poisonous hot dogs at corner ptomaineries and candy bars and hamburgers and ice cream on a stick and all the other useless appurtenances of twentieth century urban civilization. And even if you led the good life and subsisted entirely on carrot juice and raw eggs, even if you slept eight hours every night and walked through the park and breathed deeply and refrained from smoking and drinking and losing your temper, even if you did all these things you still lived in New York and breathed New York air and killed yourself slowly.
I was a mess.
Physically I was a mess; emotionally I had Candy on the brain. A to-hell-with-it trip to the Keys, a permanent relocation in a cleaner, greener land could save me.
And there could be no halfway measures. I had to go whole hog, and I had to go at once. Period. End of report. Tan pronto como posible.
Will you believe me when I tell you that I was sipping a dry gibson in the Astor Bar roughly twenty minutes after Candy rang off?
You better believe it.
That’s how it happened.
In the bar of the Hotel Astor the waiters speak softly and carry big drinks. I had a big drink in my fist and it was mostly gin. There was a little bourbon in my stomach to begin with, but not enough to bother me, and the gin combined pleasantly with it.
In the bar of the Hotel Astor the tables are small and chic and set far apart. The tables are made of formica that is made to look as much like marble as is formically possible and the bases of the tables are very heavy. The chairs are also neat and chic with wrought-iron backs and leather-covered seats.
In the bar of the Hotel Astor the conversation is sophisticated without being subdued. The clientele has money but not an enormous amount of money and not old money. The drinkers in the Astor Bar are partly show people and partly business people, with the business crowd largely in the advertising and public relations fields.
In the bar of the Hotel Astor there was a small and chic table with two small and chic chairs. In one of the chairs there was a very attractive young woman with blonde hair, a lovely thing encased in a green sheath dress that she seemed quite likely to burst out of. In the other chair across from the blonde young lady there was a dull-witted guy, a clod with two left hands, wearing a shoddy-looking gray flannel suit. His red striped tie was at a slight angle and so was his jaw. He looked stupid and lost.
He was stupid and lost.
He was me.
“I don’t understand it,” Candy was saying. “I don’t see how in the world you could have done a thing like that.”
“It wasn’t easy.”
“Don’t make jokes,” she snapped. “It’s no time to make jokes. My God, Jeff, how in the world—”
“I don’t know,” I said honestly. “I went up there to talk to her and—”
“Talk to her? Why on earth would you want to talk to Caroline? What did you hope to gain from that?”
I shrugged. “I wanted to convince her to let you go.”
“She hardly had me lashed to a post, Jeff.”
I shrugged again and sipped gin. “I don’t know,” I said. “I went there to talk to her and something snapped inside me. I completely lost control of myself. I know that’s a poor excuse but that’s the way it happened. One minute everything was all right and under control, and the next minute I barely knew what I was doing. Call it temporary insanity, if you want—I suppose that’s what it was. I just couldn’t stop myself until I was finished.”
She looked at me and I tried to read what was blazing gently in her eyes. Whether it was love or hate or fear or whatever was something I couldn’t determine. Her eyes were cool; they were always cool and would always be cool. She was cool and beautiful and I loved her and hated her with an unendurable intensity.
“You had to come up there,” she said levelly. “You had to find out where I lived. You couldn’t leave well enough alone.”
She was right.
“You had to stop me on the street,” she went on. “Couldn’t you understand what I was trying to tell you?”
“Are you? Are you even sorry?”
I shrugged. I’m a great one for shrugging.
“How did you even find out about Caroline? How did you know?”
I told her, told her how easily I had followed her and how I had watched them from the fire escape. I expected a look of horror or disgust on her face and I was surprised when I got an amused smile instead. I couldn’t figure it out until she spoke and then it made its own kind of sense.
“Did you like it?” she asked anxiously. “Did you enjoy it, Jeff?”
“What do you mean?”
“What you watched,” she said. She sounded as if she were pointing something out to a backward child. “Did you get a kick out of watching us? I’ve heard that a man gets awful excited watching two women loving each other up. Did it affect you that way or didn’t it?”
“It made me sick.”
“Honestly. Candy, how could you do anything like that? How?”
Her smile spread on that beautiful face. “I didn’t mind it a bit.”
“You couldn’t have enjoyed it—”
“Of course I did.”
Suddenly I had to know. “As much as you enjoyed it with me?”
She hesitated. Then she said very softly: “Not as much as with you. Never as much as with you, Jeff. Never in my whole life. You’re better than anybody I’ve ever been with, miles better.”
Her face was slightly drawn now and I waited for her to go on, wanted to know what she was trying to say. I didn’t have long to wait.
“Jeff,” she said, “I took a room in this hotel before I called you. Let’s go to it.”
Hell, I was born stupid.
“What for?” I asked brilliantly. And it was the old Candy who answered, the Candy I knew so well.
“I want it,” she said. “It’s been one hell of a long time.”
I suppose the room was quite luxurious but not quite up to the rigourous standards of the House on 53rd Street. I’m only supposing. I never saw the room.
Don’t misunderstand me. If you misinterpret the last sentence and assume that I never saw the room because I lit out of that hotel like a bat out of a belfry and moseyed on down to that dreamy little island in the Florida Keys you have rocks in your head.
I did not do this.
I didn’t see the room—but that is not to say that I did not spend considerable time in it. I did not see the room because I was too busy with other things to devote one iota of my attention to the room or its furnishings. I spent the bulk of my time on the bed, and the bed is the only article of furniture that I can be positively certain that the room contained. No doubt there was a bureau and a chair or two, but I never saw them and they might just as well not have been there.
After I paid for the drinks, Candy led the way to the elevator and we got off on the fourteenth floor. I was jittery in the elevator and I couldn’t forget the last elevator episode in the Somerville. I would have gleefully accepted a repeat performance of that little routine but this elevator was equipped with an elevator operator, a grey-haired and paunchy old coot whose presence annoyed me.
But I didn’t have long to be annoyed because suddenly the elevator had come to a quiet stop and Candy was leading me from the car by the arm. I followed with manners as perfect as the dachshund she had been walking the night I met her on 54th Street. We paraded down the corridor to her room and I stood and trembled while she fished a key out of her alligator bag and played Elementary Housebreaking with the keyhole.
Then we were inside the door and she was shutting it.
Then I was taking her into my arms.
And I realized just what I had been missing.
There was a man once who had but two claims to fame. His name was Hartley Coleridge. Claim One was his father, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a guy who wrote some of the hippest poetry in the English language. Claim Two was one poem that li’l Hartley wrote, just one poem that hasn’t been relegated to the dustheap, with one couplet in it that makes it worth preserving.
Her very frowns are fairer far
Than smiles of other maidens are.
That is how Candy affected me and that one quick embrace proved it to me, proved that I could never run away from her and that no other woman could ever take her place.
When I let go of her I was trembling and so was she. For a moment we stood very still and stared at each other and then we grabbed onto each other again and didn’t let go. I kissed her and it was something I hadn’t done in a long time. Once I quit smoking for a week and when I broke down and took a cigarette the first puff almost knocked me over. It was the same thing now—I kissed her red mouth and her lips opened up and my tongue went between them. Her arms tightened around my back and our bodies were closer than subway air in mid-July. Her breasts against my chest were warm and firm and hard. Her hips pressed into me and my hands cupped her buttocks to press our bodies together even tighter.
Her mouth tasted better than wine. Her warm body smelled sweeter than a faggot’s penthouse. I was beginning to feel like a stallion on a steady diet of Spanish fly.
The kiss went on forever. Maybe it just seemed that way. When it was over we forced ourselves apart and my eyes caught hold of her eyes and drank deep.
She was the most beautiful woman in the world.
“Jeff,” she said fiercely. “Jeff, let’s not rush. Let’s do it slow and careful and make it perfect. It’s been an awful long time.”
“You said it.”
“I want you, Jeff. I want you so much it hurts. I’ve been going crazy without you. I don’t know how I managed to stand it this long.”
I got an ugly mental picture of her and Caroline. I almost said something about it, told her how she’d managed to fend off her hunger for me. But desire flooded over me and soaked me to the ears and I didn’t say anything.
“We’re good for each other, Jeff. We’re good, we’re both good. Nobody can like you can, Jeff. Nobody in the world.”
I blushed modestly.
“Take your clothes off, Jeff. Take ’em off real slow and let me watch you. That’s what I want you to do. I want to just stand here and watch you take off your clothes and I want to keep on watching until you’re naked.”
The tie gave me a little trouble. I got it off, though. I got the shirt off, too, and one of the buttons popped and skittered across the room.
I didn’t care.
I didn’t hang up the shirt or the tie. I dropped them both to the floor and peeled off the tee shirt and dropped it, too.
She was watching me and her eyes were as hot as blast furnaces.
I loosened the belt of my pants and unzipped the fly.
“Slower,” she said. “Make it last, Jeff. Take a lot of time.”
I never had any burlesque experience but I did my best. I dropped the pants to the floor and stepped out of them with the grace of a pregnant hippopotamus. I unlaced my shoes and tugged them off my feet. I got my socks off, too. I don’t know if there is anything in the world as sexless as a man removing his socks and shoes, but Candy seemed to be getting a large charge out of it.
Then the shorts. That, as the feller says, is all there was to it.
“Now you just stand there,” she told me. “You just stand there and watch.”
I stood there and watched. Who was I to argue?
The green sheath dress zipped down the back and she didn’t want any help with it. She reached around behind her to hunt for the zipper and the movement served to emphasize her breasts by pulling the sheath dress even tighter over them. Breasts like hers don’t need any emphasis. They’re emphatic enough just by themselves.
The hunt took awhile—I think she made it take longer than necessary to prolong the suspense—but finally she located the zipper and started to tug it downward. She took her time doing that, too, and I must have looked like a statue of Don Juan as I stood there with my eyes following her every inch of the way.
When the thing was unzipped, she shrugged. That’s the only word for it. She shrugged—then the sheath dress fell away from her and there was nothing there but Candy.
No bra. I don’t think this girl owned a bra.
No stockings—and nobody goes without stockings in the Astor Bar.
Nobody but Candy.
Then she kicked off her shoes and there was nothing but blonde hair and smooth skin and more blonde hair and more smooth skin. I had to catch my breath. It was as if I was seeing her for the first time, as if I had never seen a naked woman before in my entire life.
It was quite a sight.
When I took her in my arms the contact of our naked bodies nearly killed me. It was that exciting. I couldn’t stand up and if the bed hadn’t been next to us we would have wound up on the floor.
We tumbled onto the bed. I heaved myself on top of her and her arms were locked around my neck. We kissed and it was as though a volcano had erupted in the neighborhood. That’s how it was.
For a minute I remembered what she and Caroline had done but now it didn’t sicken me any longer. Now it didn’t matter. It was as though it had never happened.
Then I remembered what I had done with Caroline. This also passed away from me. There was nothing but Candy and myself and the mutual passion that enveloped us and drove through us.
For just an instant the dream came to me. I saw myself alone and proud and independent, alone on an island in the Florida Keys getting back in shape and learning how to be a man again. The dream came and the dream was suddenly gone. It was a good dream, a beautiful dream, and if I had never met Candy I might someday have realized that dream.
Now it was gone forever.
I planted little kisses all over that face. I kissed her throat and the nape of her neck and the softness of her skin drove me out of my mind.
It was a time of discovery, of rediscovery. It was as if I was finding and falling in love with every curve and valley of that perfect body for the first time; simultaneously it was a return to a body I had known and loved as no man had ever known and loved the body of any woman.
“You like this, don’t you?”
“Make it last forever …”
Kisses and caresses and a whirling world. Make it last forever.
I could neither see nor hear nor smell or taste nor feel. I could do nothing but love her with all the strength of my being.
Her nails raked my back and drew blood. My teeth sank into the lobe of her ear; they also drew blood.
She screamed once shrilly. I do not know what word she screamed or if she screamed any word at all.
The scream was very loud in my ears.
Then it was over.
It was over and we lay side by side, our bodies touching, our breathing loud in the silence of the room.
I felt half-dead, weak and drained and empty, used up and ready for the incinerator.
I also felt alive, fully alive for the first time in an eternity.
I had her now. She was mine and I swore to myself that I would never let her go. The time without her, the overwhelming emptiness of life without her, vanished and ceased to be. We were together now and we would be together until death, and whether we were bound by love or hate or hunger ceased to matter.
I broke off my thoughts and listened to her.
“I’m glad you did it, Jeff. For that it was worth it. That was wonderful, Jeff.”
I smiled gently at the ceiling.
“It’ll be tough, Jeff. You did a horrible thing but we’ll get away and everything’ll be all right.”
Something was out of focus.
“I still don’t see how you did it, Jeff. I can understand why you would want to do it, but I can’t see a man like you doing a thing like that. It just isn’t the sort of thing you would do.”
“What you did.”
I was lost.
“What are you talking about, honey?”
“If I knew I wouldn’t ask. I’m afraid you’ve got me running around in circles.”
She shook her head and I leaned over her on one elbow, looking down at her and thinking what a beautiful woman she was. There was a clock in the room somewhere and I could hear it ticking loud and strong, hear it beating out a rhythm as primitive as the one Candy and I had just finished.
I put out a hand and cupped one of her perfect breasts. I stroked the nipple and Candy purred at me soulfully.
“Honey,” I said again, “what were you talking about?”
She pulled me down on top of her and bruised my mouth with a kiss. I returned the kiss and we worked that one out for a while.
“You know,” she said after a while.
“But I don’t know.”
“Your lessie girl friend?”
“Hell,” I said. “I thought we were over and done with that little episode. It happened and it’s finished. That’s all there is to it. I’m sorry about it and all but it just happened and I couldn’t help it.”
She had a very strange look in her eye.
She paused and I got the feeling that the two of us were talking on two entirely different levels of meaning. It was a very strange feeling and, I’ll admit, an eminently distressing one.
I banished it by devoting renewed attention to her breasts, but she didn’t let herself get carried away. She pushed me away and looked deeply into my eyes.
“Jeff,” she said, “either you’re the coldest man I ever met or you’ve got things mixed up.”
She nodded soberly.
I did something to prove that I wasn’t cold and she giggled. Then she seemed to remember what we had been talking about and the giggle broke off sharply.
“Jeff,” she said, “about Caroline—”
“To hell with Caroline. She should drop dead.”
“What’s the matter?”
“You don’t know,” she said. “I can’t believe it. You don’t know!”
“What don’t I know?”
“Caroline is dead,” she said patiently. “You killed her.”
I was only thirty-four years old and the list was already on the impressive side. Those thirty-four years were by no means wasted. Hell, I’d done a lot of things.
But the list was not complete. It lacked one rather intriguing item, one little eight-letter word that would fill in the blank space.
I sat up on the edge of the bed and stared at the wall while Candy filled in the blank spots in my brain. I had, it seemed, a very blank brain. I felt like letting my brain get a little air by the expedient process of knocking a hole in my fat and useless head.
“She was alive when I found her,” the light of my life explained. “She was alive when I went into the apartment and she lived just long enough to tell me what you had done to her. She told me and then she died. I was holding her in my arms and her face went pale and then she just stopped talking and she was dead. She died in my arms, Jeff.”
I got up and walked over to the window. The window faced out on Broadway and I looked through it. The street was glutted with traffic. People wandered back and forth, all in a hell of a hurry to get nowhere in particular.
A heavy-set, well-dressed man with a pretty little brunette on his arm hailed a taxi. He helped the girl into the back seat and got in beside her. The cab headed downtown.
“She’s dead, Jeff. You killed her. I thought … thought you knew what you did to her. But she wasn’t dead when you left so I guess you didn’t realize it.”
The sun was still shining and it was warm outside. I felt sorry for all the office-workers who would mob together in the stinking subway for the long ride home. They were pushing and shoving each other on the street and it would be one hell of a ride on the BMT that night.
I left the window, walked back to her and sat down on the edge of the bed. I couldn’t talk or think or move. I was tense as a wire and limp as a wet rag all at once and my mind responded by shutting itself off. I knew she was speaking my name but I couldn’t answer her.
I turned and looked at her, looked at all of her. I managed to gulp some air, then managed to let it out.
“Jeff,” she was saying, “we’ll have to get out of town. We can’t stay here, not after what you did. The police’ll find the body before long and they’ll probably find out who it was that killed her. Did anybody see you going into the building?”
I thought about the clod at the door, the idiot of an elevator boy, the other people who must have noticed me. You can’t so much as spit in New York without somebody taking notice.
“Somebody must of,” she said. “And then the police’ll pick you up and then what’ll you do?”
She didn’t wait for an answer. “We can’t chance staying in town, Jeff. We’ll have to get out as fast as we can.”
“South,” she said. “We’ll get the first bus or train south and then get out and buy a car and head for the border. If we get across into Mexico everything’ll be all right. But we have to hurry or they’ll figure out and catch us and then it’ll be all over.”
It sounded as though she had it all mapped out. Maybe her plan was a good one and maybe it wasn’t. I couldn’t tell one way or the other. But I couldn’t come up with anything on my own. I was in no condition for long-range planning. I had to follow her lead.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “What are we going to use in the way of money?”
She tossed her head impatiently. “I have money. Caroline always kept a lot around the apartment and I cleaned it out before I left. I’ve got a couple thousand in my purse and some jewelry we can pawn if we need more.”
I asked her how long she thought that bank would last two people on the run. She hesitated, then talked some more until it turned out that the “couple thousand” was nearer fifteen grand.
That was more like it.
“Why?” I wanted to know.
“Why the sudden overwhelming concern for my health and welfare? A day or two ago you didn’t care if you never saw me again. Now you want to follow me to the ends of the earth. Hell, you want to lead me to the ends of the earth. What’s your angle?”
She gave me a pouting look that made me feel lower than the underside of a rattler’s belly for so much as asking. She held the look until I wanted to crawl under the rug, and then told me.
“I don’t have anything now,” she said. “Not a damn thing. I had Caroline but you killed her.”
“And I … I like you, Jeff. I told you that you were the best I ever had and I wasn’t kidding. I’d rather be with you than anybody else.”
I wasn’t sure whether or not I believed her. Maybe it made sense and maybe it didn’t.
“Besides,” she said, “you killed Caroline because of me. I didn’t … didn’t know you loved me that much. It makes me feel kind of funny.”
I nodded slowly.
I looked at her. It wasn’t hard to do—she was as beautiful as ever, more beautiful than ever, and soft and pink and naked and wonderful. And now we were together, inseparably together, lost together and on our way to hell together.
I kissed her.
“We can’t waste time,” she said. She tried to say it briskly and efficiently but a trace of sexy huskiness crept into her voice. She swept on as if she was unaware of the huskiness—or as if she was trying to deny it.
“We’ve got to hurry. We can catch a bus out right away and we’ll be out of New York before they discover the body. Carrie never had many friends and the ones she did have never came to our apartment. She had a town house, too, you know, and she only had the apartment so the two of us would have a place to be together. But there’s a maid who comes in every morning to clean up and the body’ll be discovered tomorrow morning at the very latest. We can’t afford to stay around that long.”
I fumbled for a cigarette and got a match to it. I drew on the butt and blew out a cloud of smoke. I took a second puff, then bent over and ground the cigarette out in the carpet.
“I’ve got one suitcase packed for myself,” she said. “I don’t think we should chance going back to your hotel or anything. If they discovered the body they’ll be waiting for you there and we can’t afford to take the chance. Just wear what you’ve got on and … what’s so funny?”
“I don’t have anything on. Neither do you.”
She giggled, then broke the giggle off in midstream. “You know what I mean,” she said. “When we leave the bus we’ll buy a fresh change of clothing same place we get the car. Same town, I mean.”
“I’ve got money at the hotel.”
“A few hundred.”
She shook her head. “It’s not worth the risk, Jeff. For a few hundred we’re risking your life. There’s no sense doing that.”
“I guess you’re right.”
“Of course I am. Let’s get dressed now and hurry on down to that bus station.”
I looked at her again. I reached out a hand and touched her throat. I let the hand slip down over her body, over her breasts and her round belly.
“Don’t rush me.”
“We don’t have time,” she said. “I told you we don’t have time.”
“Of course we do.”
“We have plenty of time,” I told her. “For some things there’ll always be time.”
I cupped her breast with one hand. Her cheeks were flushed and she was trying to keep from breathing hard. The battle was won.
“Please,” she said. “Jeff, there’ll be time for that later. After we get off the bus, Jeff. And when we get to Mexico we’ll have the rest of our lives. That’s a long time, Jeff.”
“Not long enough.”
She couldn’t sit up any more. She was lying down and her breathing was out of control.
So was mine.
“Jeff, Jeff, Jeff. Oh, you fool. Jeff, we have to get out of here. We have to—”
I stopped her mouth with mine.
I was touching her everywhere and her whole body was responding like a fish to a lure.
I didn’t take her. I kept handling her, kissing her, fondling her, working her up to a pitch so that if I stopped it would have killed her.
Then, when she was panting so loud that they must have heard it in Outer Mongolia, when sweat covered her breasts and ran down the valley between them, then I hoisted myself up on one elbow and turned away from her.
“You’re right,” I said with difficulty. “There’ll be loads of time later. We’ll have the rest of our lives for this sort of thing. No point in wasting valuable time here and now. You’re one hundred percent right, Candy.”
Her nails dug into my back and drew blood. She called me the filthiest names anybody could possibly think of and sank her teeth into my upper lip.
Then all the desperation and all the excitement and all the tension in our two fevered bodies exploded and the world fell off its axis and the day turned to night and the floodwaters rose and the sun blazed and the moon eclipsed it and the rock of Gibraltar crumbled into dust.
Time vanished, space spread out and disappeared. I forgot my name and my life and the world.
I forgot that I was a rapist and a murderer.
A bus is sort of a subway on dry land. A subway is bad enough but there just ain’t no subway that goes more than ten or twenty miles. The Greyhound took us to Louisville and that was a damn sight further.
It was a drag.
It was worse than a drag. It was boredom and agony and hell without flames, and it would have been sheer torture even if we hadn’t been running away from the electric chair. Even without the tension, a trip like that would have been miserable, and the way I felt it was as though the bus was standing still. It wasn’t—Greyhounds make better time than most cars and this guy driving our crate hit close to seventy a good part of the time.
But that wasn’t fast enough the way I felt. A jet plane wouldn’t have been fast enough. A rocket would have seemed like crawling. I was so tense I couldn’t see straight, and despite the relative speed of the bus it was a far cry from a rocket or a jet plane.
I did not like that bus.
We had seats near the back, seats together, and there was just me and Candy and her suitcase. As soon as Candy was settled in her seat next to the window with the suitcase on her lap she was out like a light, sleeping like a babe in arms. She was the type of person who could do that. She was under the same strain I was, or at least she should have been, but she had the ability to put it all out of her mind and make like a junkie on the nod.
It was night on the bus. The lights were out and the bulk of the passengers, like Candy, were busy counting sheep and sawing wood. I felt annoyingly lonely, a stranger and afraid in a world I had neatly unmade, and I wanted to crawl out of the bus and lie down in the road and let the bus run over me.
I told myself that it was ridiculous; that I should give myself up and let them throw the switch and send me to hell where I belonged. I told myself that I wasn’t built to run away, that this just wasn’t my scene.
That’s what I told myself.
And for a while I believed it.
But then I started devoting some concentrated thought to the matter—which is always a good way to louse yourself up, and at this point I began to see that running away was old stuff for Jeff Flanders. Old stuff—hell, it was my way of life. I’d been spending my whole life running away from something or other and I ought to take to the current situation like a duck to water.
Running. Not always from John Law—this was in the nature of a brand-new experience. But always from somebody and generally from myself. I was running away from myself when I took up with Candy in the first place instead of straightening up and flying right and sticking with Lucy. I was running away from myself when I moved out of the apartment on 100th Street and into the Kismet. And if the bouts with the bottle hadn’t been running, what the hell were they?
Now the preliminaries were over. This was the big race, the one I’d been spending my whole life shaping up for. Now I was running for the comparative safety of the Mexican border with the New York police baying at my heels and the world’s greatest lay sitting beside me.
I chain-smoked the night away. I lit one cigarette from the butt of another and prayed that I’d live long enough to die of lung cancer. I dropped the used-up cigarettes on the floor of the bus and ground them into shredded tobacco-and-paper and kicked the shreds into the center aisle.
It’s hard to say just when the full impact of it all hit home. Shocks of this magnitude don’t hit at first; you think you know what it’s all about and two hours later you start shaking. It’s like the time the car I was driving and the car somebody else was driving had a car-fight. It was the other guy’s fault—he missed a stop sign and I got a glimpse of his car out of the corner of my eye and we both hit our brakes about the same time. There was a disgusting brake-squeal and a moment’s silence and an incredible montage of unpleasant sounds as the two automobiles chewed each other up.
I reached for my door handle and it wouldn’t open—the crash had knocked things together. So I nonchalantly got out the other side, strolled over to the moron who had done such terrible things to my new car, lit a cigarette and offered one to him.
That was that.
And two hours later I was trembling so terribly that I couldn’t stay on my feet.
It was the same thing now, years later. What Candy had told me jarred me right at the start, knocked me off my pins, and I thought it was as much of a shock as I was going to get. But I still hadn’t adjusted to it at the time and I was calm enough to make love to her a few minutes after she clued me in on the happy fact that I was a murderer.
You see, I never completely accepted it. I made the neat mental entry on the immaculate mental file card, the pen-scribble that testified that one Jeff Flanders had brutally murdered one Caroline Christie. But the entry on the little white card was simply a definition, an equation. Jeff Flanders—murderer. That’s the equation, and in itself it was not reassuring.
The mental picture that took time to develop was even less reassuring and it damn near jolted me out of the bus. It did not hit all at once; it grew on me, snuck up on me until suddenly it was there and was awesome in the full force of its presence.
It was Caroline Christie, the attractive dyke with money in the bank and Candy in the bed, and she was lying on the floor of her apartment as dead as a lox. What had killed her? It might have been the beating, or the rape, or any one of a number of things I had done to her. How did she look now? Would there be the odor of death from her body when they found her?
How will the roses smell
When we are all blown to hell?
I looked down at my hands and they were the hands that had murdered Caroline Christie. I wanted to cut them off and fling them out the window.
And then, true to form, I began to think seriously of my own skin.
My own skin. Not the most ideal skin in the world, but one which had been with me for quite some time. I had grown rather attached to it over the years.
I could read the newspaper headlines in my mind, could imagine the tabloidic progress reports on the relentless pursuit and inevitable capture. The Daily News, direct and brutal, would say:
while the Mirror, in a rare display of ingenuity, would headline it:
CAUGHT BY COPS
We’d all have fun.
I thought about the trial. Maybe Lucy would cry, and maybe that bird Hardesty would be on hand to defend me, and the papers would have a field day with the whole scene. There’d be a conviction, and an appeal, and a denial of the appeal, and another appeal, and denial of that appeal. And then I’d sit in a cell on Death Row at Sing Sing and wait and wait and wait until they came along and took me to a room and strapped me in a chair and threw a switch.
It would burn for a minute or two, I supposed, and then nothing would happen at all. Jeff Flanders would have paid his debt to society and gone to heaven or to hell or, as I prefer to believe, into the gaseous cosmos.
I was sweating and the sweat was cold on my forehead. I wiped it off and sweated some more and lit another cigarette and smoked and sweated and smoked and sweated and looked at Candy while she slept and watched the sky lighten and the dawn come up through the rarely-washed green-tinted window of the big Greyhound bus.
When we pulled into Louisville, Candy’s eyes snapped open and she was instantly awake. We left the bus. I was unsteady on my feet but she made up for it with her absolute composure. She held the suitcase tight in her hot little hand and led me out of the dusty bus terminal and into the thoroughly uninviting daylight.
The dealer wanted twelve hundred for a green Buick sedan that wasn’t worth a grand. He got a grand—Candy did the talking and I stood around saying silent prayers. Only Candy could have beaten the guy down on the price. Price didn’t matter, we had fifteen times the price and needed the car desperately. Two hundred dollars weighed against the possibility of discovery was infinitesmal and I couldn’t have argued for a minute but I had to admit to myself that she was playing it the way it had to be played. If we didn’t haggle he would be much more suspicious than if we did. And she knew it.
So we had a car and it drove nicely enough, a nice big car with the registration made out to Mr. and Mrs. David Trevor. Well, to Mr. David Trevor, actually. Mr. and Mrs. David Trevor were the names Candy had picked out for us, and I figured they were as good as any other names. I was a little put off by the fact that my driver’s license and my registration had nothing at all in common but there wasn’t much I could do about it. If the joker’s sales book had Jeff Flander’s name in it the jig would be up fairly soon.
I was too tired to keep my eyes open and too tense to close them so we got the hell out of Louisville after a quick bite to eat in a ptomainerie which shall remain forever nameless. The roads were good and the Buick hugged them like a long-lost brother. The car ran well even if it wasn’t much for looks and I hit ninety-five on one stretch of straightaway until Candy reminded me that getting picked up for speeding wouldn’t do us a hell of a lot of good. After that I drove a steady three miles under the speed limit and we made good time.
By nightfall I was too dead to keep going. We switched off on the driving—she was a damned fine driver—but I was still bushed and we put in at a motel and showered happily. I took a shave that I needed desperately and crawled into bed so tired that I could have slept on a bed of nails with ease.
Then Candy crawled in next to me and we didn’t get to sleep for a good half hour.
It was a strange type of lovemaking. We were too tired to be imaginative and too tense to really relax and enjoy it—at the same time our tension needed the release of sex or our sleep wouldn’t have done us much good. She was clean and sweet-smelling from the shower and I took her quickly and perhaps a little sadistically. We were two fools going to hell in an open boat and determined to get there in a hurry.
We slept for a long time. We checked out of the motel and gobbled fried eggs and black coffee at a diner on the road and off we went.
There was a radio in the car but it made both of us nervous. I’ve never liked music or chatter while I drive and Candy felt the same way about it. I turned the radio on a couple times to try to catch a news flash and once I managed to catch the tail end of one. It informed us brusquely that the police were hot on the trail of one Jeff Flanders, the rapist-killer of Caroline Christie. They piled on a few nasty adjectives, uncomplimentary things that sat not at all well with me, and then the announcer began to extol the merits of Bangaway Mattresses and I switched off the noisebox.
“They’re after us,” I mumbled. Candy didn’t catch it and I had to repeat what I’d said.
She nodded. “I knew they would be.”
“I wonder if they know where we’re headed.”
“I don’t think so.”
I shrugged. “They’ll figure it out,” I told her. “They’re supposed to be very efficient. Some joker at the terminal will remember selling us a ticket or something and that’ll be the end of it.”
“By that time,” she said, “we’ll be in Mexico.”
“I hope so.”
She lapsed into a sterile silence and I pushed the car on southward.
The next day another problem occurred to me. The cops had our names—by now the border patrolmen would also have our names and it would be relatively impossible to get across the line into Mexico. You don’t need a passport for Mexico but I remembered vaguely that you do need a tourist card and a vaccination certificate and sundry nonsense. You could get the tourist card automatically by showing identification, but where in hell were we going to get identification. The auto registration would hardly do it.
I outlined the problem for Candy but she was right on hand with a solution.
“There’s a place in Galveston,” she explained.
She left it like that and I asked her what she was talking about. It turned out that this place in Galveston of which she had heard tell was a place where you could get anything forged from a draft card to a passport, for anywhere from twenty to five hundred dollars.
The Galveston guy would fix us up with whatever we needed, and there was obviously no chance of a guy in his position reporting us to the police. He wasn’t exactly aboveboard himself, needless to say.
So when we hit Galveston we would become Mr. and Mrs. David Trevor for keeps. It was just as well that we’d bought the car under a phony name; in addition to keeping the name off the car dealer’s books it eliminated the necessity of forging that as well.
We drove days and stayed nights at motels. We ate pretty lousy food but we made pretty good love and the latter made up for the former. I thought about running for the rest of my life and this more or less bothered me; then I thought about sleeping with Candy for the rest of my life and this more or less compensated for the running.
The Buick burned a lot of gas. But it was a pleasure to drive and there was always a nice ribbon of road stretched out in front of us. It was a good thing. If we had stayed cooped up in one place hiding out I would have cracked. This way I had something to do and the monotonous routine of driving and driving and driving helped preserve whatever vestige of sanity I had left. It wasn’t much but it was a hell of a lot better than schizophrenia.
It was a hot and beautiful morning when we crossed the Texas-Oklahoma border and gunned off in the general direction of Galveston. Texas looked big even though I couldn’t see too much of it from the road. It stretched out every which way and I felt lost. When we pulled up at a Gulf station for a tankful I noticed that Texans look just the way they’re supposed to look. So help me, in this case the stereotype fits. Every last one of the bastards is six and a half feet tall with broad shoulders and bronzed skin. I don’t doubt that there are five-foot Texans with running noses somewhere in the vastness of the state, but I personally have never set eyes on one.
Driving in Texas is, because of the length and breadth of the state, an ungodly bore. We were in Galveston before too long but it seemed as though we’d been driving through Texas and more Texas for the greater part of our lives. I wondered if there was no end to Texas. I wondered if there was a single solitary hill in the whole damned state. I even wondered if it ever rained there and I decided that it didn’t dare to rain. It would be afraid to—awed by the awful and awesome sureness of Texas. Because Texas was incredibly sure of itself.
You know what they say.
There’s nothing as sure as death and Texas.
The passport forger, happily, was from out of state. He was short and dumpy and his skin looked as though it had been kept in a storage shed for the past five years. His eyes blinked and watered and his nose ran and he wore a look of perpetual fear.
He had the steadiest hand I had ever seen in my life.
He wasn’t a crook. He was an artist, a full-fledged artist who could do magnificent tricks with a pen and a printing-press. We told him what we wanted and Candy told him the name of somebody who had put her on his tail and he got right to work on our doctored documents. He never asked us who we were or what we were running from—he knew better than to ask. He was an artist and a professional in his trade and he did it up brown. We gave him carte blanche and he more than lived up to his reputation.
In bygone times the runt would have made a fine living forging Rembrandts. Now he was doing our driver’s licenses and birth certificates and all the rest. Even an expert would have had the devil’s own time telling his products from the real thing.
Candy, who had known enough to bargain with the used-car dealer, also knew enough not to bargain with the runt. He asked a lot—twelve hundred bucks for the works—and it was easily worth it. When we walked out of there we were Mr. and Mrs. David Trevor and no one in the world could have said otherwise.
Or proved otherwise. Neither of us had our prints on file any place. We were Mr. and Mrs. David Trevor. Period. End of report.
We took a hotel room, which was nice after the run of motels. We baptised the bed properly with a hot love-match and we sacked out. The bed was comfortable and the pillows were soft and we slept thoroughly.
She was still sleeping when I woke up and I didn’t have the heart to wake her. I got dressed, shaved, and headed downstairs for breakfast. I was hungrier than I’d been in a long while and the hotel’s coffee shop had good wheat cakes. I had a stack of them drenched in real maple syrup, the kind you can’t hardly get no more.
Over coffee and a cigarette I browsed through the Galveston morning blat. The world news was a run-of-the-mill roundup of H-bomb tests and South American revolutions, neither of which met with my approval, and the local news was glutted with reports of local corruption, which if nothing else proved that New York and Galveston weren’t as different as you might suspect at first.
It was awhile before it occurred to me that I was reading a newspaper, the first newspaper since the murder, and that it might not be a bad idea to hunt through the paper for a story on the killing. It was a pretty exciting killing, all things considered, and Mrs. Caroline Lipton Christie was a big enough name in the Social Register so that she rated nationwide coverage of her untimely demise.
I found what I was looking for on page eleven. It was halfway down the page, a little one-column thing with a staid eighteen-point head, and it went like so:
HUNT THINS FOR
NEW YORK (AP)—Police were baffled today as clues failed to turn up concerning the whereabouts of Jeffrey Flanders, prime suspect in the murder of Mrs. Caroline Lipton Christie.
Sgt. Charles Schwerner, spokesman for Manhattan West, admitted that Flanders seemed to have “vanished into thin air.”
“We’ve followed up every lead around,” Schwerner stated. “We’re pretty sure he’s travelling with the woman but we haven’t gotten a lead on them yet. It’s like the earth opened up and swallowed them.”
The woman Schwerner referred to is Miss Candace Cain, acquaintance of Mrs. Christie’s, at whose swank East Side apartment Mrs. Christie was found.
Police conjecture that Flanders and Miss Cain fled the city after Flanders criminally assaulted Mrs. Christie and stabbed her to death with a kitchen knife.
I finished the story, nodded sadly and guiltily, and took a quick drag of my cigarette. Then when the story hit me, I dropped the cigarette and it rolled from the counter to the floor.
I didn’t bother to pick it up.
I re-read the last paragraph of the story, then read it a third time. I thought long and hard about the kitchen knife with which I had stabbed Caroline Lipton Christie to death.
What kitchen knife?
THERE COULD, OF COURSE, be any number of rational explanations. The wires of Associated Press had more than a few goofs on their respectable shoulders and this was quite possibly one of them. Or, if the Galveston Record went to press without benefit of teletype apparatus, a local linotype operator might have substituted a non-existent kitchen knife for my bloody hands.
And then again …
I tried to forget about the then-and-again part of it. I got out of the coffee shop and found a cab to take me to the Record building, a three-story brick mess that looked as though it was taking a siesta until it was time to get down to the monotony of putting out a newspaper once again. The friendly old coot with horn-rimmed spectacles and alcoholic breath who was minding the store gave me copies of the past week’s issues and didn’t even charge me a nickel apiece for them. I remember thinking hazily that a person could save a nickel a day in Galveston if he was willing to get his news a day late.
If the kitchen knife gambit had been an error, then it had been a persistent wire service goof that showed up an amazing total of four times in the first story and at least once in every other version. It seemed that Mrs. Caroline Lipton Christie had suffered the overwhelming indignity of having her ivory throat slit from ear to ear.
The possibility of suicide had been ruled out, I learned. Police had conjectured that Caroline might have been raped and then have killed herself, but the absence of any fingerprints whatsoever ruled that out. It was a clear-cut case of rape and murder (although the puritanical press persisted in calling it “Criminal Assault”) and the rapist and murderer, according to all sorts of testimony, turned out to be none other than yours truly.
Two people in the world knew better. Three people if you could count Caroline, but since she was no longer in the world but in a gay heaven all her own, that left just the two of us.
And my own true love.
I thought it over and decided that I didn’t believe it. Then I thought it over some more and decided that there was nothing else to believe no matter how bitter the inevitable realization tasted in my throat.
So I tossed the newspapers in the nearest trashbasket in an effort to oblige in the drive to KEEP GALVESTON CLEAN and found my way back to the Hotel Westlake. My brain burned and my fingers played neurotic games with themselves. The beautiful morning was a neutral gray now and the hot sun was a pale cardboard cut-out on a sky of vomit purple.
It all made sense, sick sense, horrible sense, unnatural sense that was now frighteningly and staggeringly and all-too-obviously natural. I was the ultimate Mark, the Magnificent Sucker, the Patsy-to-end-all-Patsies. I felt duped and swindled and taken, but more than anything else I felt appallingly stupid, which hurt more than the rest of it. There are few things quite so disheartening as the discovery that your love and trust have been used to nail you to the wall.
In the taxi back to the hotel and on the elevator to the room I thought valiantly that it couldn’t have been her, that she couldn’t have done a thing like that, that even if she had she would never have been able to fool me the way she did. My mind invented an Unknown Person who slipped into the apartment after I left and before Candy appeared, a blank-faced, medium-built nonentity who had done the evil deed and vanished like smoke in a whirlwind.
That explained everything. Mr. Nobody had done it, Candy thought I had done it, and off we were to Mexico. Mr. Nobody, the little man who wasn’t there.
Only he wasn’t there. That was the sore point and it sort of fouled things up.
I started to knock on the door, then changed my mind and used my key instead. The door opened and I walked inside and closed it behind me. She was on the bed and she was awake and she was naked. She looked at me and her eyes were wide with a combination of Gee-I’m-glad-to-see-you and Something’s-bothering-you-what-is-it? shining softly in them.
I didn’t know what to say or where to start. I walked over and sat down on the edge of the bed and looked at the nudity of her. Somehow it made me feel out of place with my clothes on but there was nothing to do about that but take my clothes off and that wasn’t what I had in mind. I was, for once in my life, not in the mood for love.
“Hi,” she said. “I missed you this morning. I wanted you when I woke up and you weren’t here. The bed was empty and it was terrible.”
I looked away from her. I saw her shoes at the edge of the bed with their high heels and pointed toes. I saw our clothes on one chair where we had hurled them the night before. I saw a wisp of lingerie in a tangle on the floor at the foot of the bed.
I turned back and saw her. Her face was a little drawn now, not so much that anybody would have noticed it, but enough so that I knew she knew that something was wrong. I knew her well enough to read her face.
Or did I? Perhaps I never knew her at all. Perhaps I was just beginning to discover her.
“Jeff,” she said. “Tell me what’s wrong.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Did I do something?”
That was sort of a leading question.
“Jeff—” She paused, a significant pause that was pregnant with meaning, and waited for me to unburden my alleged mind.
I said: “How come you killed her with the knife?”
The silence was strikingly loud.
Her face never cracked but there was just the merest twitch of her right eye and the slightest trembling of one shoulder. That was enough. Then she was calm and relaxed and said things that didn’t mean anything to me because I did not hear them. I sat there mute and deaf with rage and self-pity and hate and every emotion in the catalogue except happiness, and finally I asked her to start over at the beginning because I hadn’t heard one goddamn word that came out of her mouth.
“The knife was right there,” she said. “You cut her throat with it. What are you talking about?”
“I never saw any knife.”
“But it was there! Jeff, are you sure? Because … because if you didn’t then somebody else must have done it and you’re in the clear. Of course we’ll still have to go to Mexico because there’s no way to prove it and you did rape her, but—”
“Candy.” I had just remembered something, something that made Mr. Nobody nobody at all. I had thought that Mr. Nobody had already died within my mind, but evidently he hadn’t because this present realization was sufficiently crushing to keep me speechless for a second or two. It was all I could do to get her name out in a flat two syllables devoid of any intonation whatsoever. That was enough—the tone of my voice must have combined with the expression on her face to silence her because her mouth snapped shut and she didn’t say another word.
“She died in your arms,” I said. “She talked to you and told you all about it and died in your arms.”
She looked at me, puzzled.
“That’s how you knew I had been there,” I went on. I was talking very easily now—it seemed almost as though someone else was talking with my mouth and some other brain moving my lips, it was that simple.
“You went to her and she told you I had been there. And then she died in your arms. Right?”
“Quite a lot of talking,” I said. “Quite a speech from a woman with her throat cut from ear to ear.”
The color drained out of her. It was the first time I had seen her genuinely shaken and the sight did something to me. It was as though I was getting my first real indication that Candy Cain was a human being like the rest of us, a person who was not wholly invulnerable.
But she recovered quickly. She didn’t say anything at first but the color seeped back into her flesh as suddenly as it had left it and she lay there keen-eyed, waiting for me to say something else.
“This is unnecessary,” I said. “You already know what you did but I’m going to tell you, anyway. You walked in on Caroline, saw I was an obvious patsy for a play like this and killed her. I don’t have the slightest idea why you did it but I don’t suppose that makes much difference.”
There was a touch of humour in those eyes of hers now and I hated her for it.
I pushed on. “Then you cleaned out the apartment, beat it to the Astor and phoned me. You managed to convince me that I had killed her—how could I figure it for anything else? You were always careful never to say a word about how she got it. You never mentioned any knife. As soon as you did it would have been all over. Because I did a lot of things in that apartment without knowing just what I was doing, but I know damned well I never had my hands on a knife.”
I fumbled for a cigarette and got one going. I didn’t offer her one and she didn’t ask for one. I smoked and took a few breaths.
“Never played the radio,” I said. “I should have noticed how nervous you were when that one newscast was on, but I was so nervous myself that it sailed right past me. Now it makes sense. But how in God’s name did you expect to get away with it?”
“What do you mean?”
“Good God! I couldn’t go the rest of my life without stumbling across a newspaper story. What kind of world do you think this is? Even in Mexico there would have been some mention somewhere and someday I would have hit it and the jig would have been up. How did you figure to get clean?”
She smiled. I didn’t particularly care for that smile.
“Jeff,” she said, softly and clearly, “I did get away with it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just what I said.”
“You got away with it this far. But now you’re not getting away with it any further. I know damn well I didn’t kill the Christie bitch and that you did.”
I just looked at her.
“Can you prove it, Jeff?”
I stammered something quite meaningless.
“You can’t prove a thing, Jeff. You know and I know that I killed Caroline. After you left she decided that I wasn’t worth the agony you had just put her through. She wanted me to leave, Jeff. She was going to throw me into the street.”
“That’s where you belong.”
“She was going to throw me out on the street,” she repeated, and she didn’t act as though she had heard a word I said. “I had to kill her. She had all that money lying around the apartment, money and jewels and all, and all I had to do was kill her and it would be mine and we could run away together. You and me.”
“Why? Because I like you, Jeff, and because—”
“Cut the crap.”
“That’s part of it,” she said, her eyes level. “I’d rather live with you than anybody else, I guess. But running away with you made it safe for me.”
I was baffled and it must have shown on my face because my expression got a tiny laugh out of her.
“If you didn’t come away with me,” she said, “they might not have proved you killed her. You could have taken one of those lie detector tests or something and wormed your way out. But you’re not safe now, Jeff. You ran off and nobody outside of you and me is ever going to believe you didn’t kill Caroline. Nobody in the world.”
“But you ran off with me—”
“I know. That makes me an accessory after the fact. And I stole all the money and jewels and that makes me a thief. But it doesn’t make me a murderer, Jeff, and that’s what it makes you. They may send me to prison for a while, but they’ll send you to the electric chair.”
I couldn’t say a word.
“Now do you see what I mean? You found out about me killing Caroline, but that doesn’t change a damn thing. You still have to get out of the country and I’m still going with you. We can live good in Mexico, Jeff. We can have each other just the same, and we couldn’t have done that if I hadn’t killed Caroline. We can have each other and we can be happy and—”
I couldn’t believe it. I looked at her there, all naked and all unashamed, confessing a murder and trying to make it appear both rational and blameless, confessing a frame-up and propositioning the guy she’d just framed in the same breath.
It made no sense. No—it made sense if you could believe in Candy. Candy was the part of the equation that made no sense at all. Candy’s reasoning fit neatly with Candy, but Candy herself did not fit in with anything in the entire world. She was a species all her own.
“Look,” she said. “I know you’re mad at me right now but you might as well be practical. If you want to see me punished for murdering Caroline you’re crazy. I couldn’t possibly be convicted. There’s not a chance in the world.”
She was right.
“The only way you can save yourself is by leaving the country. And if you do—Give me a cigarette, will you?”
I gave her a cigarette and held a match for her. She drew on the cigarette and blew out smoke. Her hands were steady and she seemed calm.
“If you leave the country,” she went on, “you might as well take me with you. We’re registered as Mr. and Mrs. David Trevor and we’ve left a wide trail under those names. It’d look funny if we split up now. You might have trouble getting across the border.”
“I suppose you’re right.”
“Besides, I’ve got the money.”
I shrugged. “I could take it away from you.”
“Probably, but not without a fight. And a fight could attract attention and I don’t think you can afford attention. If worst came to worst I could always tell the police on you and turn state’s evidence. The most that could happen to me is that I’d get a year or two in jail. Probably not even that.”
She stretched lazily. She was entirely in command of the situation by now and she knew it and the knowledge pleased her no end. I looked at her and I let my eyes take in all of her from her head to her feet. Her body was just a body now and I found it hard to believe that I had ever been a slave to it. It was just flesh, just a chemical mess worth maybe 79c on the open market.
I shook my head sadly and she raised her eyebrows, wondering what I was shaking my head sadly about. I didn’t say anything and she breezed idly on.
“If we go to Mexico together,” she continued, “nothing will be changed. You’re the best man I ever had, Jeff. That’s the truth. I love having you. I always have and I know for a fact I always will.”
Perhaps she was telling the truth; perhaps she was lying in her teeth. At one time it would have been very important to know whether the words she spoke were true or not. Now it seemed inconceivable that I could care one way or the other.
“And you want me. I know you do, Jeff. You won’t get tired of me. I’ll be good.”
Very good. Like a machine. Put in a nickel and the hips start rolling.
“It’ll be the same as if you never found out, Jeff. I could have turned you in to the cops but I didn’t because I want to be with you. So we’ll do just what we planned on doing before you read that article in the newspaper. We’ll go to Mexico and settle down and live on Caroline’s money and make love all the time and—”
I’d been shaking my head from side to side all through the tail end of that little speech but it took her a while to run out of words. Then she looked at me blankly as if she wondered very genuinely what was the matter with my hitherto logical mind.
I just went on shaking my head. Then I dropped the cigarette on the floor and ground it out.
I looked at her.
“What’s the matter?”
Somewhere in Galveston a bell was tolling the hour and I counted the chimes without thinking. It was ten o’clock, ten o’clock and all’s well, except for the pertinent fact that all was not well. I fished out another cigarette and set it on fire. I didn’t say anything.
“You killed her,” I said simply.
“Look,” she said, “be reasonable. Jeff, look at it sensibly. There’s nothing you can do about it.”
I opened my mouth, then closed it.
She sat up on the bed and smiled. She was almost-but-not-quite sure of herself now and that’s what the smile was saying, a shy, almost girlish smile that curled her mouth prettily but left her eyes serious.
When she sat up like that her breasts were just a few inches from me. They looked like ripe fruit and they were obviously there for the plucking.
I remembered her words: I’ve got the hardest and firmest breasts of any girl I know. They’re big, too. You can see how big they are.
That had been long ago. Not so long ago by the calendar perhaps, but ages ago, a lifetime ago by the clock that ticked in my head.
That was in another country. And besides the wench was dead.
I have read that when a man drowns, his entire life passes before his eyes. The exactness of this time-worn myth has never seemed apparent to me—if the man drowns, how does anybody know what was on his poor mind before he gobbled down enough water to kill him? I was not drowning, needless to say, so I am still unable to report on the dilemma of the drowning dolt.
But I do know that my whole life passed through my mind as I contemplated the succulent breasts of Candace Cain. All the rather inane things I had done, all the stupidities of my life unreeled before me in one unholy panorama of Cinemascope and Technicolor and Stereophonic Sound and, God save us, Aromarama.
It was an unpleasant spectacle. The Aromarama came into play quite prominently.
The whole thing stank out loud.
The murderess cupped a breast in each of her bloody hands and offered them to me. Perhaps the sick aspect of the scene actually aroused her; perhaps she was enough of a fake to simulate tangible signs of excitement. Whatever the reason, her proud little nipples stood up and beckoned to me.
“Take me,” she pleaded.
If I could have laughed out loud that is precisely what I would have done. The whole tableaux was hysterical. But I was beyond laughter.
I didn’t even turn away. I just looked at her and drew a complete blank. No, thanks, I wasn’t having any.
“Jeff—” she said huskily.
I said: “No.”
“I’m not interested.”
“Of course you are.” Her voice was suddenly fierce, as if the world would end if I ceased to want her body. “You want me, Jeff. You want me!”
“I don’t. I did once but now I don’t.”
When she pouted at me she looked like a baby, a child denied an extra hypnotic hour in front of the television set or a second piece of candy. I had to remind myself that she was not a kid but a killer, not a baby but a bitch.
“Jeff,” she oozed, “what else can you do?”
I told her.
“I can kill you,” I said.
And I did
She was inches from me when my hands reached out for her throat. She did not draw back at once as she might have done. I think she refused to believe me, thought I was joking, assumed my hands were reaching to possess her rather than to destroy her.
She could not have been further from the truth.
My hands went around that neck and I squeezed her neck harder than I have ever squeezed anything in my life. It is not a simple matter to strangle another person with your bare hands. The books and television shows make it seem much easier than it really is. It is a tough proposition, even if you are a relatively strong guy and the person you are strangling is a woman.
There are all those cords and tendons and muscles in the human neck, and they get in your way. They were in mine, and if Candy had put up much of a fight she might have made things harder for me. But she did not put up any fight at all, did not try to scream or fight me off or anything. She just sat there, her eyes bewildered and her forehead wrinkled in a frown that was part disbelief and part sheer physical pain; just sat there with something approaching calm while I choked her to death.
She must have been dead long before my hands relaxed their grip. God knows how long I held onto that throat. I think I was afraid that if I let go too soon she would pick up another kitchen knife and wipe out half the human race.
She might well have.
But finally I was satisfied that she was dead. Quite satisfied, and very pleased with myself. Not joyous, not happy, but curiously elated with my performance.
I had performed a task which was not only difficult but essential.
For quite some time I remained in the room with Candy’s corpse. She was not beautiful in death. Perhaps no victim of strangulation could ever be beautiful—her tongue hung out of her mouth, her eyes bulged, her face was purplish and puffy.
But it was more than that. A good part of what passed for beauty in Candy was actually more akin to vivacity. She had been very much alive, desperately alive, alive with the verve and spirit of a jungle creature to whom civilization is a cumbersome affair.
Now, now that she was dead, this Life with a capital “L” was gone, and what remained was nothing but the right amount and variety of component parts which added up to Woman. The result could not be called beautiful by anyone but a true necrophile, an absolute worshipper of Death.
When I couldn’t stay in the room any longer I rummaged through her purse and took as much money as I felt I would need. I stuffed the wad of bills into my pocket and left the room, hanging a DO NOT DISTURB sign on the doorknob so that no errant chambermaid would stumble upon the body of the late and unlamented Candace Cain. I took the elevator to the main floor, wandered out through the lobby into the sunshine.
A pawnshop in a less-than-respectable section of town supplied a .38-calibre revolver and some bullets. I had to pay a good deal of money for the gun but I didn’t worry about the price.
My next stop was a typewriter sales and service shop a few blocks from the hotel. I bought a new typewriter—an extravagance, I admit—and paid cash for it.
From there I went to a stationery store and bought a ream of bond paper. With the gun and bullets in my pants pocket and the paper and typewriter in my arms I re-entered the hotel and elevated back to my floor. I opened the door of the room and it was as I had left it, which was hardly surprising. Death had not been kind to Candy. She looked worse than she had when I left her.
I placed the typewriter on the desk and pulled up the chair and sat in it.
I am sitting in it now.
I placed the revolver, loaded with a single bullet, on the desk by the side of the typewriter. I looked at it from time to time.
I am looking at it now.
I began typing, and I typed very fast and very long. The words came freely, almost too freely. There is still some of the ream of typewriter paper left, but quite a bit has been used already.
I strongly suspect, Officer, that this is the longest suicide note you have ever read.
A New Afterword by the Author
CANDY, PUBLISHED TOWARD the end of 1960, may have been Sheldon Lord’s last book for Midwood Tower. (It wasn’t the last book by Sheldon Lord—several ghostwriters produced a string of books for Beacon Books, and the last that Beacon printed was, in fact, one I wrote myself, a crime novel they called The Sex Shuffle, now available under my own name as Lucky at Cards. Nor was Candy the last book I wrote for Midwood; they published Jill Emerson’s first two ventures in lesbian fiction, Warm and Willing and Enough of Sorrow.)
If Candy was my final Sheldon Lord for Harry Shorten at Midwood, I suppose there must have been eight or ten before it. And that, it seemed to me, was enough labor in that particular vineyard. I’d welcomed the assignments and had a good enough time turning out soft-core erotica, but it wasn’t how I wanted to spend my writing life. It was very much my intention to write books that might be a source of satisfaction and even pride, and that was generically impossible in the field where Sheldon Lord had been making a name for himself.
I remember having read an article in which crime fiction writer Bill Gault talked about his own literary ambitions. Early on, he said, he’d wanted to become a second Ernest Hemingway, but over time he decided he was better off trying to become the best possible William Campbell Gault. While my earliest fantasies might have shown me as a second John O’Hara or James T. Farrell or John Steinbeck or Thomas Wolfe, I’d since lowered my sights, and becoming the best possible Lawrence Block seemed reasonable.
But I wasn’t entirely sure what that might mean, or how to get there. Mystery fiction, it seemed to me, was both respectable and attainable, and my inner self seemed to come up with ideas that lent themselves to the genre. My first sales were short stories to crime fiction magazines, and I’d sold a couple of crime novels to Gold Medal Books by the time I wrote Candy.
There were times when the two genres overlapped, at least in my house. Grifter’s Game started out as a book for Shorten; a couple of chapters in I decided it was cut out for better things and finished it accordingly. Knox Burger bought it at Gold Medal. And sometimes the reverse happened: Cinderella Sims was supposed to be a Gold Medal crime novel, but something went awry and I lost confidence in the book and finished it up for Bill Hamling’s Nightstand Books. ($20 Lust, they called it, by Andrew Shaw; it’s since been republished under my name and original title.)
This sort of migration, from crime to erotica or erotica to crime, isn’t all that remarkable. It was perfectly reasonable for crime novels to have sex in them, and it was a fairly standard ingredient in the paperback originals Gold Medal published. And crime was no stranger to the field of erotic fiction, serving the useful function of endowing the books with at least the minimal illusion of a plot.
Candy wound up being very much a crime novel. There are two murders in it, which would seem to satisfy the genre’s entrance requirements. But it never occurred to me to aim it higher than Midwood Tower, and all these years later—fifty of them, astonishingly—I have to wonder why.
It’s hard to know, but I suspect I’d written a substantial amount of the book before the crime element entered the picture. I’d have had to go back and change a lot of what I’d written if I were to aim the book at a higher market, and it would have been ever so much easier to wrap it up and save any ambition for another book.
For all the books I wrote for him, I met Harry Shorten only once.
This was very much in keeping with the Scott Meredith Literary Agency’s view of the author-publisher relationship. Scott didn’t believe in keeping writers and publishers at arm’s length—because that was far closer than he wanted them to get to one another. It was best, as he saw it, that they never meet, and just as well if they never exchanged letters or phone calls, either. The less contact writers and publishers had, the more indispensable was the agent who had established himself as their sole point of contact.
I don’t know how many books I wrote for Bill Hamling. Dozens, certainly, plus dozens more ghostwritten under my name. I never did meet the man, and the only time we were in contact was when I wrote him a letter after Scott and I had ended our author-agent relationship. I had begun a book for Nightstand, which I could no longer submit as the market was a closed shop, and I wrote to find out if I could, in fact, finish this book for him. He called Scott, wanting to know what the hell was going on; no one had told him I’d been dropped from the client list, and I’m sure Scott was prepared to ship him ghosted Andrew Shaw novels forever, leaving Hamling in the dark and me out of the picture.
There was a flap, and Scott called me and offered to resume representing me. I declined—pride? stupidity? The two, God knows, are not mutually exclusive—and I did finish that one book for Hamling but that was the end of it. We never met.
But I did meet Shorten. He wanted to meet Sheldon Lord and learned that I was in New York. My agent Henry Morrison, unable to figure out a way to prevent it, arranged a meeting at Midwood Tower’s midtown office.
I don’t remember much about the occasion. It seems to me Midwood had offices on Fifth Avenue in the Forties, but I could be wrong about that. Wherever it was, I went there, and Harry was a bluff and hearty middle-aged fellow. He asked me a few questions, and I did what I could to answer them. He did contrive to bring up the grease pit scene from Carla and expressed admiration for my having come up with that one. And he wondered how I managed to get so much sex in without having the books come out dirty. That’s not how he worded it, but that seemed to be the gist of it. And I vamped, and said something about writing realistic books about people whose problems and concerns happen to be sexual in nature. I’m not sure what I thought I meant, but I do recall that Harry nodded thoughtfully, and seemed to regard it as a meaningful response.
Harry retired in 1982 and moved to Pompano Beach, Florida. (My Aunt Mim and Uncle Hi lived in Pompano Beach; I wonder if they ever ran into Harry?) He died in 1991, at the age of seventy-six so he must have been around forty-five when we met.
Bob Silverberg, a prolific writer, told me recently that Bill Hamling’s still alive and living in Southern California. Maybe I’ll drop him a line …
Lawrence Block (firstname.lastname@example.org) welcomes your email responses; he reads them all, and replies when he can.
A Biography of Lawrence Block
Lawrence Block (b. 1938) is the recipient of a Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America and an internationally renowned bestselling author. His prolific career spans over one hundred books, including four bestselling series as well as dozens of short stories, articles, and books on writing. He has won four Edgar and Shamus Awards, two Falcon Awards from the Maltese Falcon Society of Japan, the Nero and Philip Marlowe Awards, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Private Eye Writers of America, and the Cartier Diamond Dagger from the Crime Writers Association of the United Kingdom. In France, he has been awarded the title Grand Maitre du Roman Noir and has twice received the Societe 813 trophy.
Born in Buffalo, New York, Block attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Leaving school before graduation, he moved to New York City, a locale that features prominently in most of his works. His earliest published writing appeared in the 1950s, frequently under pseudonyms, and many of these novels are now considered classics of the pulp fiction genre. During his early writing years, Block also worked in the mailroom of a publishing house and reviewed the submission slush pile for a literary agency. He has cited the latter experience as a valuable lesson for a beginning writer.
Block’s first short story, “You Can’t Lose,” was published in 1957 in Manhunt, the first of dozens of short stories and articles that he would publish over the years in publications including American Heritage, Redbook, Playboy, Cosmopolitan, GQ, and the New York Times. His short fiction has been featured and reprinted in over eleven collections including Enough Rope (2002), which is comprised of eighty-four of his short stories.
In 1966, Block introduced the insomniac protagonist Evan Tanner in the novel The Thief Who Couldn’t Sleep. Block’s diverse heroes also include the urbane and witty bookseller—and thief-on-the-side—Bernie Rhodenbarr; the gritty recovering alcoholic and private investigator Matthew Scudder; and Chip Harrison, the comical assistant to a private investigator with a Nero Wolfe fixation who appears in No Score, Chip Harrison Scores Again, Make Out with Murder, and The Topless Tulip Caper. Block has also written several short stories and novels featuring Keller, a professional hit man. Block’s work is praised for his richly imagined and varied characters and frequent use of humor.
A father of three daughters, Block lives in New York City with his second wife, Lynne. When he isn’t touring or attending mystery conventions, he and Lynne are frequent travelers, as members of the Travelers’ Century Club for nearly a decade now, and have visited about 150 countries.
A four-year-old Block in 1942.
Block during the summer of 1944, with his baby sister, Betsy.
Block’s 1955 yearbook picture from Bennett High School in Buffalo, New York.
Block in 1983, in a cap and leather jacket. Block says that he “later lost the cap, and some son of a bitch stole the jacket. Don’t even ask about the hair.”
Block with his eldest daughter, Amy, at her wedding in October 1984.
Seen here around 1990, Block works in his office on New York’s West 13th Street with, he says, “a bad haircut, an ugly shirt, and a few extra pounds.”
Block at a bookstore appearance in support of A Walk Among the Tombstones, his tenth Matthew Scudder novel, on Veterans Day, 1992.
Block and his wife, Lynne.
Block and Lynne on vacation “someplace exotic.”
Block race walking in an international marathon in Niagara Falls in 2005. He got the John Deere cap at the John Deere Museum in Grand Detour, Illinois, and still has it today.
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copyright © 1960 by Tower Publications
cover design by Elizabeth Connor
This edition published in 2011 by Open Road Integrated Media
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