Authors: Michael McDowell
Jack & Susan
The Revelers of 1933:
JACK, a well-placed lawyer in his father-in-law's firm, and a man with the wrong wifeâ
SUSAN, a young woman from the right side of the tracks, whose life has been derailed into Manhattan's cabaret lifeâ
BARBARA, Jack's wife, and as delicious an enemy as Susan will ever encounterâ
And then the black-and-white bundles of mischief
, pups of the period who become Jack and Susan's saving giftâ¦
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And days of auld lang syne?
ELL”, SAID BARBARA
Beaumont, dusting the glitter off her bare shoulders, “that was a bit of a dirge, wasn't it? You'd think the New Year's baby had died.”
“So far as I'm concerned,” said Barbara's husband, Jack, “it's a goner already.” A little triangular hat of purple foil perched askew on his head.
Harmon Dodge, his eyes slightly crossed with alcohol, carefully aimed the glowing tip of his cigar stub at the skin of a balloon bearing the numbers 1933, and on the second try burst it.
The three were in the Villa Vanity, a New York City speakeasy on East Fifty-second Street. There had been a time when going to such places had been a thrill. You heard about it from a friend in a whisper. You went there by taxi and got out at the end of the street. One searched out the number while another watched for cops on the beat. You gave a secret knock and an absurd password. You went down into a dank cellar with sweating walls and joined the brightest and best of New York society. You tested the alcohol by sticking your thumb into the glassâif the nail didn't come off, it was potable. Then you drank yourself into an expensive stupor that next day became a rueful consciousness. But the thrill of lawbreaking compensated for the actual dreariness, and anyway, people had large amounts of money to spend on convivial vices.
Not anymore. Not in this Depression, when in New York alone half a million men were out of work. No longer. No one had any money, and no vice managed to be convivial. People drank juniper gin not to raise their spirits but to bury their spiritlessness a little deeper. It was also apparent, at this late date, that the Prohibition amendment was to be repealed. The police had better things to do than to close down nightclubs that sold food-colored alcohol in Coca-Cola bottles. The police herded the homeless about the city, quelled strikes among the unemployed, and stopped crazed men from beating their families in the extremity of their unhappiness. Speakeasies had become nightclubs and moved upstairs, where the apricot-colored bulbs in the chandeliers could be seen clearly from the street. A few even had discreet signs screwed into the brickfronts. Nobody cared anymore, and gone were the secret knocks, the absurd passwords, and the thrilling, if remote, anticipation of arrest.
Barbara Beaumont, nÃ©e Rhinelander, leaned her elbows on the table, which was about the size of a salad plate, and looked bored. Barbara had made a perfect study of boredom, for it was the fashionable pose among her set. Barbara was so good at it, she could have looked bored at the Last Judgment. She had managed to look bored and act bored for so long and with such intensity that boredom itself had become boring for herâor so she languidly saidâand now she did it out of habit. Barbara had a smile that expressed ennui, and a laugh that expressed lassitude, and even a kind of shriek, reserved for special occasions, such as coming across a disassembled body in a steamer trunk, that expressed nothing but a kind of convulsive weariness of life. At the same time, of course, she was, considering the human being as a piece of machinery, constructed of indefatigable steel.
“Don't do that, Harm,” said Barbara languidly.
“Don't do what?” asked Harmon, trying to put together a match flame and the tip of a new cigar. He was drunk, which was his usual state for twelve o'clock at night, even when the New Year wasn't being welcomed.
“Tell him not to do that,” Barbara said to her husband, Jack.
“Not to do what?”
“Not to smoke a cigar with the band still on. It's the most vulgar thing in the world. Once a man asked me to marry him,” said Barbara vaguely, “and I refused because I once saw him smoke a cigar with the band still on.”
Harmon, who had at last managed to get flame and tobacco in proximity, looked up and down the length of his cigar for a few moments, as if weighing in the scales of eternity whether it would be worth the trouble to pull the tiny gold band off the end.
“Here,” he said at last to Barbara, “you do it.”
He held out his cigar to her. She slipped off the band and dropped it into a pile of confetti that had accumulated on the table. The band continued its slurred version of “Auld Lang Syne.”
Jack sat back, tried to find a place for his legs that wouldn't trip anyone up, and reflected how much of his life was like this. Drunkenness and conversations about cigar bands. Morose celebrations. Barbara's face, which was a very Ecclesiastes of world-weariness. In point of fact, most of his life was like this.
Barbara's father, Marcellus Rhinelander, was the head of the law firm of Rhinelander, Rhinelander, and Dodge, up in Albany. (Dodge and one of the Rhinelanders were dead.) Jack had started out his legal career in Albany, though not in the firm. He had met Barbara at the Club, and after a courtship of six months duration, had asked her hand in marriage. Jack's offer was accepted with a metaphorical yawn, and he'd immediately after wondered why he'd done it, though on the whole it continued to appear to have been a good idea. After the return from the honeymoon to a beastly place in Maine, Barbara had announced her intention of moving to New York City. She had spent her childhood and adolescence there with her mother, and now wanted to go back. Jack pointed out that his job was in Albany, but Barbara pointed out in return that Rhinelander, Rhinelander, and Dodge had a New York City officeâ under the direction of Harmon Dodge, son of the original Dodge of the firm. Marcellus Rhinelander complied with his daughter's wish, and Jack was placed in the New York office.
Jack had been there three years now, and the fact of the matter was, he did all the firm's work. After the Crash the firm had specialized in bankruptcies, so there was no lack of business. Jack had become expert in appeasing creditors, salvaging tiny pensions for broken businessmen, and seeing to it that young sons and daughters remained in college. Bankruptcies were emotional proceedings.
Jack's duties to the firm of Rhinelander, Rhinelander, and Dodge did not end at the threshold of the lower Fifth Avenue offices, however. Jack had gradually found himself responsible for the maintenance of the private life of his superior, Harmon Dodge. Only a year older than Jack, Harmon had two vices, two excitements, two failings, and two strengths. They were liquor and women. Jack and Barbara clubbed with Harmon four nights out of seven. Jack made sure that Harmon got home safely, spilled over sideways in a cab with a five-dollar bill stuck in his jacket pocket, and Barbara tried to make sure that he didn't sign power of attorney over his life to some hard-boiled baby he'd met under the influence.
So, for better or worse, Jack and Barbara Beaumont were part of cafÃ© society. Barbara was well-born and beautiful after the fashion of the well-born, which is to say, her beauty was strong and built to last. Her features, which were graceful and regular, never softened. Her green eyes never went liquid, her light brown hair was never negligently tossed, her dress was always right but always calculatedly right. She invariably looked, even under the most appalling of circumstances, as if she had just come back from a photographer's studio.
Jack Beaumont was tall, and handsome after the fashion of the Arrow shirt man, which was, in 1933, very handsome indeed. He was blessed with strong features, cheekbones that produced shadows in certain lights, a jaw that would had done service to Moses setting himself up against the pharaoh, and eyes that were a quiet, liquid gray. The regrettable thinning of his light brown hair only made his high, intellectual brow higher and even more daunting. He appeared to best advantage when sedate and reposed and naked. For when he put on clothes, they invariably got wrinkled, and pulled in the wrong places, and were a tailor's dream of rips and snares. When he moved about, he was sometimes clumsy, owing to his height and the astonishing length of his legs. The condition got worse when he was tired. He was frequently tired because of how many late nights he spent in his superior's company.
Jack wasn't even allowed to feel animosity toward Harmon for keeping him up so late every night. Harmon, it was explained to Jack, couldn't have been a playboy if Jack didn't work so hard at the office, obviating the necessity of Harmon's doing any work at all. This was Barbara's reading of the situation, and she had never hesitated to state her opinion to Jack, to Harmon, or to the two when together. Even Harmon took up the call. “Jack, my dear fellow,” he'd declaim in his cups, “I must tell you somethingâI've you to blame for this dissipation. You entirely. Entirely. If you didn't cover for me so splendidly at the office, why, I'd have to knuckle down and do a little business myself. But you are so damned conscientious that you don't leave me with a thing to do but to drink myself into oblivion every day, and”âhere he'd glance at Barbara, and finish off euphemisticallyâ “look for a little frilled company and solace.”
So it was Jack's fault that his boss was a satyric lush.
Barbara's eyes dutifully scanned the crowd in the nightclub every few minutes, as if in bare hope something would prove worthy of comment. Finally, her eyes brightened a little, giving a tiny cold glint of reflected amber light. “That's why we're here,” she said, smirking knowingly. “I see. I wondered why you'd picked this den of dreariness for our New Year's celebration, Harm. Now I understand. I don't sympathize, I'll never forgive you for dragging me to the Villa Vanityânever, in the entire of
âbut I do understand.”
Barbara's drawled complaint gave Jack the time to look around the room for the woman who had brought Harmon Dodge, and in consequence himself and Barbara, to this out-of-the-way place. Jack knew it was a woman because it was always a woman. Harmon Dodge liked three kinds of womenâthose who worked in cloak checks, those who sold cigarettes from a tray around their necks, and those who leaned on pianos and sang.
Harmon's womenâand there had been enough of them to secure a generalizationâtended to be very pretty, at least when seen in the right costume, in certain lights, and through the watery red eyes of the inebriated. They were cunning rather than intelligent. The most that could be said about their background was that it had to be kept there.
This one was a singer.
After “Auld Lang Syne” the band had morosely packed up its instruments to a little scattered applause, and wandered off backstage severally. Then a tiny curtain was raised, revealing a tiny stage with a very large grand piano, behind which sat a dapper little man with thick spectacles, and before which stood a young woman with lustrous black hair and shining black eyes. She was dressed simply, in a black crepe sheath, with a red heart-shaped brooch on her left sleeve. Her skin was translucently white, and it fairly shone, as the moon shines, in the white spotlight.
,” remarked Barbara dryly in Harmon's ear. “So simple, yet so effective and affecting. And the heart on the sleeveâhow dreadfully clever. Makes one want to run into the powder room and weep for the sheer splendor of it.”
“I think she looks first-rate,” returned Harmon, waving away the cigar smoke obscuring his vision of the vision in black.
Jack, too, thought the singer looked first-rate. In fact, he rather preferred the singer's outfit to Barbara's, which in his opinion was a little overdoneâa canary-yellow gown with a slightly darker cape, yellow half-length gloves with a thick diamond bracelet outside, and a fur boa that dropped into Jack's Rob Roy, giving it a decidedly foresty taste.