Harrington and Whitehill
Written by John O'Hara and narrated by Dylan Baker

 

Mary Brown went to the door and opened it. “Hello, Jack,” she said.

“Hello, Mary,” he said. “How are you?”

“Very well, thank you,” she said. “You know where to put your coat. Gretchen just got home a little while ago, so you’re going to have to wait.”

“I have all the time in the world,” said Jack. He hung his coat and hat in the foyer closet.

“Would you like a drink?”

“Sure. What have you got?”

“What you see. Whiskey, and gin,” she said.

“Shall I make a cocktail?”

“Not for me, thanks.”

“Not for me, either,” he said. He helped himself to a strong whiskey and water.

She was uncomfortable, ill at ease under his gaze.

“You don’t have to entertain me, Mary. Do whatever you were doing.”

“I was washing stockings, and Gretchen’s in the tub,” she said.

“You staying home tonight?”

“I’m going out later,” she said. “There’s a dance at the Squadron, but Billy won’t be here till—I don’t know—not before ten, I guess.”

“You going to marry Billy?”

The question annoyed her. She held out her left hand.

“I didn’t ask you if you were engaged to him. If you announced your engagement I’d probably hear about it.”

“Then why don’t you just wait till you do hear about it?”

“I don’t think you want to marry him, but all the same I’ll bet you do.”

“Jack, why don’t you keep your nose out of my affairs? I really don’t like those kind of questions.”

“It wasn’t a question you disliked. It was my analysis of your innermost thoughts. I don’t think you want to marry Billy, but I’d bet fifty dollars you’re married to him within one year. Would you like to take that bet?”

“Suppose I won? Would you ever pay me?”

“If I happened to have fifty dollars I would. Yes, I’d pay you.”

“I’m sorry I said that,” she said.

“What the hell? I don’t often have fifty dollars, and nobody knows it better than you do. Except Gretchen. And you’re a Brown, and the Browns are all very money-conscious. So am I, of course. But you’re money-conscious because you have it, and I am because I haven’t.”

“It wasn’t a very nice thing to say,” she said. “But you always make some remark that just infuriates me, and I say things I don’t really mean.”

“I do it on purpose,” he said.

“Sometimes I think you do,” she said.

“I do,” he said.

“What pleasure do you get out of it?”

“Oh, come on, Mary. Isn’t that obvious? You never fail to rise to the bait. Never.”

“Well, I admit I’m not as clever as you are.”

“Who said anything about clever? You’re so used to having the same things said to you, and saying the same things yourself, that anything out of the ordinary throws you off.”

“I’m not used to clever people. My friends aren’t clever people.”

“If you’re talking about Billy, I’ll agree with that. No one will ever accuse Billy Walton of being clever. He’s safe there.”

“He has a very fine mind.”

“Maybe he has. Mens sana in corpore sano. A sound mind in a sound body, that’s Billy Walton. You ought to have very healthy children. Although I’m only going on what I see. There may be all sorts of loathsome diseases in the Walton family history. The Browns, too, for that matter. But just from looking at the present generation, you and Billy, I’d say you had a pretty good chance of producing fine specimens. Reproducing, I should say. Because that’s what you’ll do. You’ll reproduce. The offspring will bear some resemblances to you and some to Billy, but they’ll be essentially the same. You perpetuate the line, without incurring the risk of bringing forth genuine idiots, as you would if you married your brother or a first cousin.”

“When I was working with the Junior League I saw children that had mixed ancestry, and believe me some of those were far from perfect.”

“I know,” he said. “I’ve seen them too. It makes you realize what a big chance you’re taking when you bring any children into the world.”

“Therefore, why not pick someone you know something about?”

“Like Billy Walton,” he said.

“Yes. He was the twelfth highest man in his class, and he rowed on the varsity crew for three years.”

“I see what you mean, all right. It was a winning crew, too. I never rowed, myself. Not that I was big enough for the varsity, but I never went out for the jayvees or the hundred-and-fifty pounders. I know it’s very good discipline and teaches you teamwork and all that, but I didn’t have the real spirit. Besides, I heard that oarsmen all got boils on their asses. I had a boil on my ass once, and it’s no fun. Did you ever have a boil on your ass, Mary?”

“Another of those remarks. But this time I know you said it on purpose.”

“I always do. I told you,” he said. “Did you ever have a boil there, Mary?”

“No.”

“Where?”

“On my ass. You wanted to make me say it, so now I have.”

“I’m glad you escaped that,” he said. “Not only because of the pain, the discomfort. But for aesthetic reasons. A boil just doesn’t belong on your ass. Or anywhere else on you. Or on Billy Walton either, except in line of duty for good old Yale.”

“Harvard, and you know it,” she said.

“Yes, I did know it. But the Yale varsity and the Harvard varsity, except for all those Saltonstalls on the Harvard crews, they’re both just a continuation of Groton and St. Mark’s. Hard to tell them apart.”

“Billy didn’t go to Groton or to St. Mark’s,” she said.

“Why didn’t he? Maybe you ought to do a little digging on that, Mary. You might learn something before it’s too late. Where did he go to school?”

“He went to Pomfret, where all his family went.”

“Oh. Well, I guess you’re safe. If there were family reasons for going to Pomfret, you’ll have to make allowances.”

“Is that supposed to get a rise out of me, too?”

“Nothing will, tonight,” he said. “You’re on your guard. Do you mind if I cadge another drink off you?”

“Gretchen pays half, it’s not all mine,” she said.

“Well, do you mind if I cadge another drink off you and Gretchen?”

“Go right ahead,” she said.

“After all, you’re first cousins. And I guess Billy Walton takes a drink here now and then. So, in a sense, you might say half of his drinks are practically mine, inasmuch as I’m the one that comes to see Gretchen. And Gretchen pays half the liquor bill. Do you follow me?”

“Oh, yes,” she said.

“I wasn’t sure. I had a little trouble with it myself.”

“Don’t make the next one so strong,” she said.

“Oh, my present state of mind wasn’t produced by the drink I just finished.”

“I didn’t think so,” she said.

“You’re so observant, Mary. Did it show, that I stopped off at Dan Moriarty’s on the way here?”

“I could tell you’d stopped off somewhere.”

“It’s payday, and I wanted to reestablish credit. Today it was Dan’s turn. I’m all clear with Dan now, which means that Gretchen and I will dine at Giuliano’s, on the cuff. The week after next, not next week, but the week after next, I shall reestablish credit at Giuliano’s.”

“How can you live that way?” she said.

“Huh. You might better ask, how could I live any other way? Were it not, were it not for the liberal policy of certain speakeasy proprietors, I would often go without food or drink. Not only what I charge to my account, but I can cash cheques. They don’t bother to try and put the cheques through. They just hold them for a while, and tear them up when I come in with the cash. But don’t you tell Gretchen.”

“Don’t you think she knows?”

“Not positively.”

“You’ll never be able to get married if you don’t start saving some money.”

“Wrong,” he said. “If I were to save ten dollars a week—a very unlikely prospect—but say I saved ten dollars every week, in one year I’d have five hundred and twenty dollars. Right?”

“Yes.”

“In two years, two years, I’d have one thousand and forty dollars. In ten years of this fantastic scheme, I’d have amassed the sum of five thousand, two hundred dollars. Fifty-two hundred bucks. Do you know what that is?”

“Well—”

“Don’t bother to think about it. It’s exactly, I happen to know, exactly the allowance Gretchen gets from her mother in one year. Not what she gets from both parents, but from one parent. Her father gives her the same amount plus birthday and Christmas presents.”

“I know. But still—”

“Wait a minute, I haven’t finished. Do you know how much I get paid?”

“Seventy-five dollars a week.”

“Oh, she told you. Well, that’s right. Seventy-five a week. I pay sixty dollars a month rent. That’s one I have to pay. If I don’t pay the rent, out I go. No place to rest my weary head. So I do pay my rent. Not right on the dot, but somewhere in the first two or maybe three weeks of every month. Sixty bucks, cash. And I pay a woman six dollars a week to clean up my apartment. She doesn’t come in Sunday, and a damn good thing she doesn’t, some Sundays. But that’s twenty-four dollars a month. Sixty and twenty-four, eighty-four. More than a week’s pay and so far I haven’t even bought a pound of coffee. I make my own coffee and have a couple of doughnuts every morning, but so far we haven’t come to that. I haven’t paid the phone company yet. The rent, the maid, the phone company, and the laundry bill. You can’t wear a shirt two days in New York City, not if you have a white-collar job. The light company. They’ll turn off the light. Gas. No hot water for my coffee. The dry cleaners. When you have two suits and a Tuck, there’s always one or the other at the dry cleaners’. And so far, no food, no coffee, and no cigarettes, not a damn thing to drink. I haven’t even left my apartment.”

“But people live on a lot less than that. When I was with the Junior League—”

“I know that, too. When you were with the Junior League you saw families getting by on twenty-five or thirty dollars a week. But did they want to? I don’t want to. I can’t get by on three times that much. I can’t save four dollars a month, and live the way I have to. It’s no use arguing that I could stop going to Dan Moriarty’s and places like that. Why should I? To save fifty-two hundred dollars in ten years? Ten God damn miserable, joyless years? And be thirty-six years old at the end of it?”

“Well, I don’t know,” she said.

“Mary, your grandfather, or maybe it was your great-grandfather—”

“My grandfather, if you’re going to say what I think you are.”

“Opened a little store in Cleveland, Ohio, on probably a great deal less than fifty-two hundred bucks capital. And now your family are worth God knows how many millions. Well, your grandpa worked very hard, raised a large family, made a big pile of dough, and now I’m drinking his liquor. And whenever she’s ready, I’m going to take his granddaughter out for dinner.”

“Yes?”

“Well, why should I sweat and strain to save five thousand dollars when I can go out with Gretchen tonight and have a better time than old J. J. Brown ever had or ever gave anyone?”

“If a good time is all you want to get out of life,” she said.

“I sure as hell don’t want to have a bad time.”

“But you are having a bad time. You worry about money, you can’t marry Gretchen. You’re not having a very good time, Jack.”

“No?”

“No.”

“Well, are you? Are you having a good time? Washing your stockings and waiting for a stuffed shirt to take you to a dance at Squadron A?”

“Of course I am,” she said.

“And wondering if this is going to be the night Mr. Billy Walton will propose honorable marriage? And you can go back to Cleveland, Ohio, and get ready for the big wedding. Got yourself a real, genuine, old Knickerbocker family specimen.”

“I think you’re horrible! And I mean that,” she said. “You’re detestable.”

“Sure. But you’re all right. The one life you have to live, and what are you doing with it? Saving your virginity for him. You may be a peasant, but you’re a virgin peasant.”

“Horrible, horrible,” she said, and began to cry as she left the room, her face covered with her hands.

He sat silent for a moment, took a sip of his drink, then got up and threw the glass in the fireplace. He was staring at it when Gretchen came in.

She went to him without a word, and they embraced.

“Sorry I’m late,” she said.

“Why do you let them get away with it?”

“With what?”

“I’m sure everybody else goes home at five, but they don’t seem to care how long they make you stay. God knows they don’t pay you enough.”

She smiled. “The last two weeks they didn’t pay me at all,” she said.

“The next thing will be when they try to get you to put money in the business.”

“They’ve already asked me to,” she said.

“Are you going to?”

“I don’t know. I might. It wouldn’t be a lot. Where are we going?”

“Giuliano’s,” he said. “Shall we go?”

“Could we wait a few minutes? Mother phoned and I wasn’t here, and I think she may call back. I’d like to find out how Father is.”

“Is he home from the hospital?”

“He got home yesterday, but they’re keeping two trained nurses.”

“He must be a lot better or they wouldn’t have let him go home from the hospital.”

“That’s what I’m hoping,” she said. “We can have a cocktail here. Will you mix me a Martini? And what are you having? No drink?”

“Don’t pretend, Gretchen. You know I’ve had a lot to drink.”

“I wasn’t going to say anything. How did you happen to break the glass in the fireplace?”

“I was drinking a silent toast to Mary and Billy Walton.”

“Oh, she told you? How can you worm those things out of her? She hasn’t even told her family.”

“She hasn’t told me, either. I just guessed.”

“She must have told you something,” said Gretchen. “What did she tell you?”

“She told me I ought to start saving money.”

“Well, I’m sure you had a good answer for that. She worries about you, you know. She really likes you.”

“Am I supposed to jump for joy because Mary Brown likes me?”

“You could be more agreeable. Whenever you have any conversation with her you always manage to somehow hurt her feelings. You say things.”

“Yes, damn near every conversation I have with anybody, I say things.”

“Oh, don’t start picking on me. It doesn’t get you anywhere. I know your ways. But Mary isn’t used to having people make her feel like an absolute dumbbell. And she’s not, either. She’s very bright. But you’re always so condescending with her, trying to trip her up on everything she says.”

“How long are we going to have to wait for your mother’s call?”

“Why? Are you in any particular hurry?”

“I don’t want to go an hour without a drink.”

“Well, have one. It’s there. And I told you, I asked you to fix me a Martini. What’s got into you tonight?”

He started the business of making her cocktail. “Money.”

“Money?”

“The whole damn subject of money. Your cousin got me started on it, and before I knew it I was telling her all about my finances.”

“Well, she understands.”

“Understands? Who gives a damn whether she understands? I wasn’t trying to make her understand anything. But it made me realize what a hell of a state my finances are in. I hadn’t stopped to think about it lately.”

“Then maybe it’s time you did. You have a good job—”

“A good job—and I make less than you get for spending money. You have a job that’s supposed to pay you twenty-five dollars a week, and when they don’t pay you, you can laugh it off as a joke.”

“It’s not a joke, and I don’t laugh it off. Neither do they. These two boys are trying to publish good things, not just mystery stories and trashy novels. But all the good authors are signed up by the big publishers. These boys are trying to keep their heads above water until they discover someone that hasn’t been published before, and that’s not easy, because the literary agents, if they find somebody good but without an established reputation, they take their discovery to one of the big publishers like Scribner’s. Doubleday. I’m in favor of what we’re doing, and I wish I could help.”

“They’ll give you your chance to help.”

“Well, I’d rather put my money in that than in a lot of other things I could think of.”

“Such as?”

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