Tuesday, April 16, 2024

the last book I ever read (Black Wings Has My Angel (New York Review Books Classics)) by Elliot Chaze, excerpt nine)

from Black Wings Has My Angel (New York Review Books Classics) by Elliot Chaze:

I’m no authority on New Orleans wrought iron, but I can say the French or Spanish or whoever had themselves something when they thought of installing it along the edges of balconies. I found that around the mezzanine of the St. Charles Hotel there were so many differently shaped openings in the railing that you could see almost anyone you wished to watch below in the lobby, without moving from your chair near the rim of the balcony. All you had to do was move your head slightly. And that appealed to me, especially after the evening I’d spotted Clell Dooley down in the lobby. Clell was my good FBI friend who had packed me off to Parchman in the dim days of poverty, packed me off with a sincere little lecture on borrowing other people’s automobiles. But he had been checking out at the desk of the hotel when I spied him, so I stayed on, happy in the knowledge his headquarters was in Jackson, not New Orleans. Now that I was rich I worried a lot more than I had on the Atchafayala or in Denver or Cripple Creek about someone recognizing me as a fellow wanted at Parchman. I’d grown an Englishy polo-playing mustache and now wore spectacles with more shell rim than glass in them, but I worried. Or let’s say I didn’t worry more, but that I worried harder, because all my life I’d wanted to live lazily and glossily, and now I had it and didn’t want it taken away from me. Before I became rich it was only a matter of hanging onto life, a good, rugged, animalistic, instinctive thing that kept me hard and on my toes. This was different, this petulant, craven business of sweating over my wealth, and over what it was doing to Virginia. Since we had come to New Orleans and begun spending on a fairly fat scale, she wasn’t the same girl. She spent much time in bed, and bathing and primping, and every morning there was a gold-toothed woman up in the room messing with Virginia’s hair and patting lotion into her chin and such general foolishness. And we’d got in with a nighttime crowd of wealthy youngsters and this crowd was quarterbacked by a brother-sister team whose father owned a salad-dressing factory or something like that. The brother, Eddie Arceneaux, announced at intervals that he was going to seduce Virginia and travel the world with her. And the sister, Loralee, announced after about the same number of cocktails, that she was going to seduce me and make a salad-oil king of me. If you don’t find this humorous, I can say only that I didn’t either, but in the crowd we’d adopted this was a rousing good joke and everyone laughed about it. They all had money to burn, or, if they didn’t, managed to give that impression, and they laughed about everything. I remember they made jokes about such things as incest and sodomy, and their idea of a big night was to taxi down in the French Quarter and giggle at the queers who put on a floor show down there. I’d never thought being rich was anything like that, and still didn’t believe it had to be, or else there wouldn’t have been the steadfast desire to hang onto my own pile. They worked so hard at being individuals. Eddie wore a green canvas rainhat everywhere he went, even with formal clothes, and he looked like an exhausted cat peering out from under a collard leaf. Loralee did it with bracelets, pounds of them, which dangled and jangled, and with dresses that left her suntanned breasts very much on display. Both she and Eddie were married to somebody or other but, despite the strings of parties, I never saw her husband with her but once and I never saw Eddie’s wife at all. The married couples swapped around and played grabby in dark corners and all in all it was enough to make you want to stick your finger down your throat. If you’re going to be married, really married under the law, you have no business rolling around that way with all comers. Coming from me that must be hard to swallow, but it’s the way I felt. I’d rather kill a man I don’t know and who never did anything to me than have my own children know I slept all over town just for the exercise of it. Virginia, of course, took to it like a duck takes to water. In New York she’d had a sustained taste of five-hundred-dollar nights, wealthy men, and top restaurants before she was hounded into flight. And on top of that, according to Mamie, the Unique Massager, Virginia came from quality stock, whatever that is nowadays. Now, when we were down at the yacht basin with the others, she and Eddie had a way of disappearing. At first I didn’t think much of it. I was too busy being amazed by myself, at the fact that I could write large checks and hand them to someone and point at what I wanted and get it. My shoes got better and better until they were bench-made ones at sixty dollars a crack, and the bench-made ones never felt as easy as the cheaper ones. I got into cameras, not because I especially liked to take pictures, but because the stainless steel and pebbled leather and gleaming glass looked pretty to me. I started off with an Eastman Medalist, tired of it and bought me a Rolleiflex because I’d heard Life photographers go for it; then I discarded it and paid over four hundred dollars for a thirty-five millimeter Exakta with a 1.2 lens. And so with suits and shirts and ties until I had so much stuff I couldn’t concentrate on any of it long enough to enjoy it, so I became sick of all of it. These were the things I thought of as I sat on the mezzanine of the St. Charles and looked down at the lobby through the ironwork, waiting for night. It seems that when you’re rich you do a lot of waiting for night, since daylight is neither sophisticated nor secretive and is more or less devoted to perspiring and recovering.

Now Virginia was upstairs with the hairdresser and I sat on the rim of the mezzanine, legs crossed, polishing the heel of my shoe with my thumb and peeking through the decoration below the railing.

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