29 November 2007

A Kiss Is Just a Kiss

Long time, no? Sì!
Original Photo by Patrick Pagnano for CBS News

No, I haven’t been in Havana. I’ve returned at last from my trip to the States, as ever an abundant source of material, though I had but little time for posting any blog entries. Nevertheless, at every stop along the way, I found myself saying, “I’ll have to post this on my blog.” The darnedest things turn out to be habit-forming.

Another darned thing is the bisou, the traditional French greeting and farewell, a quick kiss on each cheek. (In some parts of the country, one returns to the first cheek for a total of three bisous; the Parisian trend of going for four bisous in alternation has died out. It took too long. We’re a busy city. We have stuff to do.) I've been in France so long that the bisou is not just a habit but a reflex. A reflex that almost nobody in the United States expects. But I can’t help myself. The clash of cultures results in a sometimes painful butting of heads. To all those whom I assaulted, I apologize again.

Over the next few days, I hope to be posting a bit more, and the odds are that I’ll fudge the dates on some entries, just to flesh out the November pages — so look sharp. I’m especially pleased that my brother was able to scan one of the pictures of me with Fidel Castro, and I’ve updated my essay on him to include the picture. But it’s too good to use only once, and that’s why I put it here, too.

Let the record show that Fidel did not give me a bisou, just an abrazo.

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28 November 2007


Tree at work: Who knew liquor came in other colors?

On my most recent visit to New York, I was able to go out with Fredd Tree after work one evening. This is a rare treat, a chance to hang out with one of the city’s most vivid characters, and to hear some of his many stories recounted for me alone. But it’s also risky, because Tree is a barman. And a barman who has spent the earlier part of his evening serving other people is ready, when the time comes, to begin drinking himself. To him it seems only sensible that his companion keep up with him, drink for drink. Tree’s capacities outpace my own, by a long shot: he’s immensely tall, for one thing. And even when he has drunk a prodigious quantity, he hardly shows it. If you are still in any condition to notice, you will see that Tree has begun to twinkle. It is a curious phenomenon. He has a smile for everyone. This is not usual for Tree, when sober, but inebriation inspires in him a bounteous goodwill toward all mankind. Which in turn inspires him to order you another drink, whether you can handle it or not.

He has been something like the unofficial mayor of the West Village for more years than anyone can calculate, although he lives in Chelsea and he is not terribly old. He was born famous. Nobody calls him Fredd; everybody calls him Tree, and everybody knows him. When you are with him, you are welcome everywhere: even the lesbian bars keep a stool ready for him, and the women buy his drinks. His arrival is an occasion.

His social life keeps him busy. He is the favored escort of certain actresses, including Joyce Randolph (Trixie from The Honeymooners) and Rue McClanahan (Blanche from The Golden Girls); he often squired the late Ruth Warrick (the first Mrs. Kane in Citizen Kane, and the irascible Phoebe Wallingford from All My Children). He is a driving force behind the Bartenders Ball, an annual orgy in which, for one night, the folks who pour drinks are served, lavishly; he’s a member in good standing of the Imperial Court, a charitable organization that features, among other things, elaborate presentations of drag artists in even more elaborate gowns. (Until recently, Tree had never worn a dress. The result persuaded absolutely nobody that he should do so ever again — although there are photographs to document the historic event. Instead, Tree wears tuxedoes, and he owns dozens of them, far more than any classical musician I know.)

Tree claims descent from some branch of Russian aristocracy, and he wears his inherited medals proudly and throws parties for the Russian New Year and Easter. He’s a Stonewall veteran, arrested on the first night of the riots that marked the beginning of the modern era in gay politics. Tree managed to slip free of the police that night, but he witnessed everything, and he has contributed oral-history interviews to a number of archives and universities. Now he tends bar at the Stonewall.

He used to tend bar at the Ninth Circle, a hustler bar with a fabled history. It was on a bathroom mirror there that Edward Albee saw a cryptic message in lipstick: “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Rock Hudson was a frequent customer and a friend, and Tree would cover for him: people would say, “Isn’t that Rock Hudson?” When his hair was its natural grey, they weren’t sure. So Tree would answer, “No, that’s my friend Roy.” Which was his real name: Roy Harold Scherer, Jr. Ever discreet, Tree would help Hudson find dates. He wasn’t so successful with Elton John, who still blames Tree for some encounter gone awry.

Andy Warhol used to sit at one end of the bar. He’d speak to no one and doodle on cocktail napkins — and at the end of every evening, Tree would scoop up the doodles and throw them out. “Do you realize what those things would be worth today? I could have retired on that,” he says.

The actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein was perhaps the first person to urge Tree to write his memoirs. He even offered to help. But so far, no book. I sometimes wonder whether any book could capture Tree’s personality, or match the charm of hearing him tell the stories aloud. Even Harvey Fierstein would be hard-pressed to do him justice on the page.

River Phoenix became a good friend, near the end of his too-short life. He once invited Tree to a performance by his rock band, Aleka’s Attic. Tree hated it, and said so. River didn’t mind. For Tree doesn’t flatter and he doesn’t fawn. If he deigns to spend any of his time with you, it’s because he genuinely gives a damn. And you feel rather special as a result. I suspect that’s one reason that so many famous people are comfortable with him.

Tree got his training early, working as a gopher for the pioneering rock impresario Allen Freed and on The Ed Sullivan Show when he was in his teens. It’s almost impossible to name a postwar celebrity he doesn’t know, one way or another, and some surprising people he’s known very well indeed: an old photograph shows the young Tree on the subway with Buddy Holly and the Crickets, on their way to an afternoon at Rockaway Beach. Just a handful of friends hanging out.

That picture is kept in Tree’s apartment, a space hardly any bigger than he, that is stuffed with memorabilia. Tree is a compulsive collector, and he long since began using the ceiling to display objects for which he had no room on the walls and shelves. We are not certain where he sleeps; there is a foldout couch but no room to unfold it, or him. He must sleep sitting up. If he continues to collect, he will have to sleep standing, or forego the practice altogether.

He has seen every kitschy old movie ever made, and owns most of them on videocassettes. If you want to talk about the films of Judy Canova, Tree is your man. (And if you do not know who Judy Canova was, get out of his way.) He collects the aforementioned tuxedoes, in every color, as well as autographed baseballs and photographs and every kind of tschotschke, and he corresponds with the universe.

He even figured out how to correspond with Katharine Hepburn, who was notorious for not responding to fan letters from men. (She never answered my marriage proposal, for example.) But she was well brought-up, and so when Tree sent her flowers, she wrote a thank-you note. Every single time.

His apartment resembles the Soane Museum in London. But where John Soane collected architectural artifacts and antiquities, furniture, paintings and bibelots, Tree collects popular culture. Future scholars will spend several lifetimes studying Tree’s treasures. The tomb of Tutankhamen did not yield more.

Behind the bar, his comic repertoire is largely based on insults and abuse (“Everybody has the right to be ugly, but you abuse the privilege”) and on quick, usually corny anecdotes. The Stonewall used to serve only bottled beer and two kinds of alcohol: brown and not-brown. However, under new management it’s become a popular hangout in recent months, and the bar is abundantly stocked and very crowded. The varieties of bottled beer have multiplied, and other drinks must be mixed, in great numbers and a shimmering rainbow of colors and flavors. Tree is too busy now to spin longer yarns.

But get him alone, and there’s no end to the stories. You will hear about the city’s seamy sexual underbelly in years gone by, and about the price of coffee in Rio de Janeiro last week. You will hear the most intricate political machinations of the Imperial Court, and you will hear rapturous appreciations of nine-course meals and of the song stylings of Deanna Durbin or Marie Blake. You will hear perceptive character analysis of the men and women and the folks in-between who made New York what it is, many of whom you never heard of and most of whom you will never meet. Some of Tree’s stories I’m unable to quote because they’re too racy for this blog (which is read by my mother and other delicate sensibilities). Others I’m unable to quote because Tree bought me another round.

Maybe I’m a bit of a pushover: tell me a few stories and feed me (or buy me a drink), and I’m yours. But Tree long since passed that easy threshold of my devotion. I’ve grown to admire him so much. His zest for life is gargantuan. And if I can’t ever quite match that zest, any more than I can match his experience, I can at least say with pride that I know him. Better yet — Fredd Tree is a friend of mine.

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23 November 2007


My parents live in the house where my mother’s parents grew old and died, and where her grandparents grew old and died. The house has been in our family a long time, and our family has been in Goliad a long time. It’s a tiny town — current population is recorded at 1,975 — and it’s the only place I’ve returned to, consistently, all my life. Yet often I feel a newcomer there, and conspicuous. Now that I’m grown, my footfalls on the floorboards make more noise, and I still walk on tiptoe, remembering how my grandfather hated the noise of thundering children in the house. My brother and I used to tiptoe especially in the mornings past the dining room where the old man, obscured by his newspapers and a blue haze from his cigarettes, took his coffee. He has been gone for nearly a quarter-century, but my feet have not unlearned the lesson.

Goliad is a good place to grow old, and as you see three generations of my mother’s family have grown old in succession under the same roof. The weather is warm: for much of the year you can practically hear the heat, a low, throbbing hum that’s echoed by the sizzling cicadas. The cost of living is low, and it’s possible to hire help more cheaply than in other places. This permits the practice of a kind of Southern gentility, a graceful, unhurried rhythm of big meals at midday and long naps in the afternoon, a cocktail hour around sunset and an early supper. And since there isn’t a great deal of nightlife, nobody thinks you’re a fogey or a party-pooper if you’re asleep by nine o’clock.

Time for bed?
Photo by Robin Barnhill

Almost everybody waves at you, whether they know you or not, as they drive around town, and the streets are just broad enough for an old lady to drive her Cadillac to the post office without hitting much of anything. The rare exception is the few old oaks that grow smack in the middle of the road. Goliad streets were laid out in straight lines, and whenever the road crew came to a good-sized tree, they’d pave around it instead of cutting it down.

Locals are unfazed, but out-of-towners are startled, and worse. The sheriff inquired of one poor fool who’d crashed into a tree, “Didn’t you see it?”

“I saw it,” the driver replied. “I just didn’t believe it.”

When I was learning to drive, I was sure I’d be the next crashing fool, and I panicked every time I approached one of those oaks, as if the trees and not I were in motion. In those days there were about half a dozen trees standing in as many streets. Now there are only a couple. Time has done what the road crews would not.

I persist in calling Goliad’s charm a kind of Southern gentility, at least among the retirees. I recall for instance the words of my cousin, Mary Elizabeth McCampbell Gibson, who was distressed when she heard I was going East to college. “I hope they won’t make you mean,” she fretted. “Yankees are always so mean.” My grandfather spoke so often and so vividly about the Civil War that until I was ten years old, I fully believed he fought in it. On the Southern side.

Nice barn: The Mission Espíritu Santo

But Goliad’s gentility has a Texas accent. The town is surrounded by venerable ranchland, and Hispanic culture, especially Tex-Mex food, is nearly dominant. I have relatives who are convinced that there isn’t much on earth that wouldn’t taste better without a jalapeño in it. According to the Census Bureau, half the town’s population is Hispanic; that estimate strikes me as low.

Goliad is proud that the first draft of the Declaration of Texas Independence was signed here, in 1835, and the second siege and massacre of the Revolution took place here, too, at the Presidio La Bahia, in 1836, three weeks after the fall of the Alamo. Across the highway from the Presidio stands the eighteenth-century Mission of Espíritu Santo, which one of my ancestors used as a barn, but which has been beautifully restored and is now the centerpiece of a state park.

Because of all this rich history, folks in Goliad are proud of being Texan, prouder perhaps than other Texans. The battle cry at San Jacinto was “Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!” And while the rest of the world may have forgotten, people in Goliad do not.

Cattle country
Photo by Robin Barnhill

A tornado in 1902 is still talked about; a hurricane, four decades later, knocked the turrets off the county courthouse, and it took another half century to get around to restoring them. Goliad isn’t far from the Gulf of Mexico, so the town gets its pick of hurricanes, tornadoes, and other “Blue Northers.” I suspect that much of the delay in restoring the courthouse can be attributed not to the weather, however, but to the reluctance of county administrators to spoil the pleasure so many townsfolk took in describing the storm and pointing out the blank spaces where the turrets used to be. Only when enough of those people had passed on, and the reminiscing had slowed (though never stopped), could the restoration begin.

People remember the dry spells, too: the town gets either too much rain or none at all, in violent pendulum swings that long predate Mr. Gore’s warnings. People still remember a longhorn stampede through the town square. This took place in the mid-1970s, but it was a very big deal, and really nothing has happened since to rival it.

Many of the buildings around the square date to before the turn of the last century. My grandfather used to take me there in the mornings, stopping off at the drugstore to catch up on the latest gossip. Hopping barefoot on the hot pavement as I scooted after him, I used to feel like a celebrity. “This is my grandson,” he would say, and I am certain that a prince named William doesn’t get treated any more royally than I was. Nowadays it does me less good to say, “I’m Will Torian’s grandson”; it’s a mercy that most of the town was educated by one of three generations of the women in our family: my grandmother, my aunt Tisha, my cousin Robin. I tell people that, when I’m there. I want to make clear that I am not a stranger — I’m a part of Goliad, too, and Goliad is a part of me.

Yet the road keeps leading me away...
(My parents’ house faces a highway.)

Goliad has meaning for me, one that I can’t quite define. At school, I was mystified when friends didn’t know what Goliad was and what it represented to me, though I found myself unable to explain. Even people who had grandparents in other small towns in Texas felt my gently condescending pity. But when you get down to it, I am a stranger, or near enough. I never lived there, and I don’t visit as often as I did when I was a boy. This was my first Thanksgiving in Goliad since 1978.

And things have changed. Whole buildings have vanished, like the old, ramshackle hotel that stood (barely) just off the square. Even the pavement is gone now that used to mark the site of the Goliad Opera House: built in 1905, the building was torn down long before my time, but it gave me such a kick to see the marker pressed into the concrete there. The cemetery is crowded with people I knew, and it takes longer to pay my respects to them all. My grandmother’s garden, a wonderland of shady trees and colorful flowerbeds when I was small, has fallen victim to time and weather: storms took out the biggest trees, the flowers are mostly gone, and only my parent’s dog, Mac, seems to derive from his romps the kind of enjoyment I used to find there.

Learning to be gargoyles: Alison and Bill
Thanksgiving 2007

Yet this is the nature of families: they keep going, though not always in the directions we expect. I was struck this Thanksgiving by the possibility that my little cousin, Alison Dye, may wind up experiencing Goliad in something like the way that I did. Like me, she’s not from Goliad, and only one of her parents was born and grew up there; like me, she goes to visit doting grandparents who live in a house with many furnishings that are not from this century, in a yard that is animated by flowers and trees. (Not to mention cattle and an alligator — that’s another story.) And because we have these things in common, a few things are clear.

Like me, she will be baffled and a bit annoyed when she visits people who don’t know how to make cornbread the right way or to smoke the sausage they made from the deer or javelina they hunted themselves; people who don’t put a sleeve on a can or a napkin around a glass; people who don’t drive around a tree if they find one in the middle of a road. People who don’t remember.

Like me, she will go to school with kids whose families can point to no one place, no hometown populated by grandparents, aunts and uncles, and fourth cousins once removed; like me, she will feel sorry for people who have never heard of Goliad.

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19 November 2007

On Growing

My Godsons, Texas Chapter:
Will and Tommy, November 2007

Contemporary culture places great emphasis on height, and this is especially true in Texas, where everything is supposed to be big, and rewards are doled out liberally to the boys who most closely resemble cattle. In childhood, I used to announce, with great seriousness, that I intended to be six feet tall. That was a nice round number, and it seemed a worthy goal, every bit as manageable as my other ambitions: to become President of the United States, to be a famous violinist and motion-picture actor, to marry both the high-school girls I’d met (and proposed to) at the swimming pool.

My parents had the good grace not to laugh in my face at these announcements — or perhaps they were being judicious. I made ridiculous statements with such frequency that it would have been difficult to choose which ones to laugh at. A person could spend all day laughing at me. Yet at the time, my six-foot ambition must have sounded more poignant than comical, because I was so short, and they had no reason to expect I would ever be tall. I wasn’t quite midget material, but close enough, according to the pediatrician.

And as the years passed, I remained the runt of the school. When I got to junior high, my new friend Karen didn’t exactly tower over me, but she was certainly taller, perfectly capable of beating me up (and perfectly willing). Sometime around the summer I turned 15, I shot up — though, I have been made to recall, I was still far from my goal. When I reestablished contact with Carlene Klein Ginsburg, she remembered me as short: she last saw me when I was 16. And a recently rediscovered photo of us, returning from Europe in 1977, confirms that I was hardly any taller than she at the time. By college, I was five-eleven, and five-eleven I remained. (Although my roommate, Alan, insisted quite rightly that he was much more five-eleven than I was.) I’d fallen short of my goal, yet it seemed a pretty good height. There wasn’t much more I could do about it. And I felt like a grownup, at last.

Then and only then did my parents reveal just how far I’d exceeded my doctors’ expectations.

Godchildren, Westchester Chapter:
Unaccountably grownup Emily and Will,
with their mother, Elise Goyette.

I’m taller now than my childhood friend Karen, although it’s likely she could beat me up still if she chose. Instead of walloping me, however, she’s opted to give me two godsons, and it’s their turn to grow. Will, the firstborn, turns 15 in a few weeks, and he is already within a quarter-inch of me; since his shoes are a monstrous and pitiable size 13, we can conclude that he hasn’t stopped growing yet. By the time I write this, it’s likely that he’ll have surpassed me. Tommy, who’s 11, is growing at his own pace — much as he does everything. He has not a Napoleon but a Stewie Complex, after the scheming baby on the animated television program, Family Guy: soon enough, Tommy will rule us all. You heard it here first. All hail our new Overlord.

Back in New York, another godson who bears my first name is applying to college and, although slightly shorter than I, dispensing his hand-me-down clothing to me.

How is this possible? Don’t these people realize that, mere minutes ago, they were tiny infants in my arms? How dare they be adults?

This business of growing has become a useful and vivid measure — not the measure of a man, as my Texan upbringing led me to expect, but a measure of the passage of time. My childhood has lasted a very long while, so long that in some ways it’s as if time has stood still. Yet my godsons’ childhood has passed so quickly. When I look at them, I have no choice but to face reality. If the boys are getting older, then so am I. Is it time at last to get serious?

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11 November 2007

The Disappointments of History

The mummy of King Tutankhamun has been unwrapped at Luxor, and we are now invited to gaze upon the face — leathery, emaciated, and silent — of history. He was only 19 when he died: a reminder to stay out of the sun. Apart from his resemblance to a typical Florida retiree, King Tut doesn’t tell us much. We are free to imagine that he would enjoy a brisk round of shuffleboard about now, but that he would find butterfly ballots unduly challenging.

He will not confirm this; he will not deny it. It is all the same to him. Our speculations will not trouble his sleep.

Living in Paris, I am often struck by the continuity of history. When I stand at the intersection of the Boulevard St-Germain and the Boulevard St-Michel, I am standing at the crossroads of the original Roman settlement, some 2000 years old. It’s freaky.

But when I look at King Tut, what I feel is less the connection with prior generations, and more the disappointment that I don’t see in him the liveliness that I find reflected in the intersection of the boulevards at rush hour. I had hoped, you see, that King Tut would reach across the centuries to embrace my contemporaries; I had hoped he would look more like this:

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Je t’aime, moi non plus

Give me your ... oh, just give me whatever you’ve got

I’m in New York these days. The city was my home for 21 years. I was just a boy when I came here, like so many another oppressed refugee, dragging a battered suitcase and a fabulous faux-Empire sofa. I was tired, poor, hungry, and so I gave myself to New York, because that’s what you do, that’s what you’re supposed to do. It says so, right at the base of the Statue of Liberty. “Give me,” she says, so I gave.

I would tell you that New York was my fickle mistress, and the metaphor would be original — and yet it’s a cliché, because everybody else who ever lived here has had exactly the same impression of the city. New York is beautiful and loving, harsh and indifferent, never quite attainable. Always, to everybody, forever. You got a problem with that?

The city is richer than it used to be, which only makes the New York mistress a bigger bitch than ever. She is overrun with tourists who don’t understand her but who pay her handsomely. It appears that, while I’ve been living abroad, everybody else was making pots of money. And I’m no longer sure where I belong in this town, or whether.

Walking around downtown with Randy Partain (making his virgin exploration of the world’s capital), I groused and swore like a grizzled veteran of the urban battle, lamenting the lost and fallen monuments and decrying the monstrosities that rose to take their sacred places. And then the nostalgia: here I danced, here I dined, here I loved. E.B. White once observed that history has been made on every inch of New York. Something has happened everywhere here. And at this point, there’s hardly an inch remaining where I haven’t made some part of my own history, as well.

It is as if I never left, Feldstein said. And yet I find myself straining to remember the names and locations of old haunts. I’ve been away for so long — three years. I am home and yet not home, here and yet not here. And as always, the city sails serenely above my longing and confusion.

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10 November 2007

The Disappointments of Prehistory

The prehistoric rodent, in comparison
with his largest modern-day South American cousin

A report last week in The New York Times announced the discovery, in Uruguay, of fossil remains of a prehistoric rodent as big as a bull, roughly eight feet long and weighing about a ton. The leading theory at the moment proposes that despite its monumental size, Josephoartigasia monesi was beautifully proportioned: very small at one end, much bigger in the middle, and small again at the far end.

However, as a quasi-Frenchman, I am principally concerned with whether he would taste better stewed with carrots than with tomatoes, and what wine would accompany the dish.

Josephoartigasia monesi is extinct, yet I confess I’m not sorry a bit. I am not sure that the death of Mickey Mouse or Thumper would upset me much, after all the rat trouble I had in my last New York apartment … and this frisky critter was bigger than that the kitchen and bedroom combined. Either I’d have had to sleep in the bath, or one of us would have been obliged to leave.

Scientists believe that Josephoartigasia, or Jo-Jums, as I call him, was likely more similar to a giant nutria or beaver in his appearance and in some of his habits, as a river-dwelling herbivore. The artist’s rendering depicts a placid, rather stupid and uninteresting animal. I confess that I was rather hoping that Jo-Jums, or any Rodent of Unusual Size, might look more like this:


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03 November 2007

Departed with the Breeze

Hasta la vista, baby

Yet another writer has succumbed to the temptation to write a sequel to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind: Donald McCaig has just published Rhett Butler’s People, an exploration of the background of Mitchell’s dashing hero. So be it. McCaig’s approach at least avoids the pitfalls of previous attempts at sequel-writing, wherein the authors struggle vainly to find something interesting for Scarlett to do while waiting for Rhett to come back to her. This is particularly challenging because most of the things Scarlett might really do are potentially offensive to readers with contemporary sensibilities: if she has even a conversation with one of the black characters, the author will have to dredge up a lot of unhappy racial realities that Mitchell was able to prettify or gloss over altogether. Thus Alexandra Ripley sent Scarlett packing to Ireland, where the O’Haras had family and nobody had slaves. It was implausible, but safe, as plot devices go.

When Cervantes set out to write the sequel to
Don Quixote, he had a clear objective: to stop other people from writing sequels. Quite a lot of bad imitations and “further adventures” rushed into print after the first novel appeared, and Cervantes was having none of it: he seized control of his own story and, when he got to the end, killed off the hero. What happens next to the mad knight of La Mancha? Nada.

Margaret Mitchell opted instead for a cliffhanger that drove up sales, provoked dinner-party fistfights, inspired some of Hollywood’s most memorable dialogue, and contributed to the novel’s enduring mystique. Not a bad move, but it left the door wide open for other writers to continue telling the story. Badly.

Yet it’s always struck me that Mitchell’s cliffhanger was no cliffhanger at all, just an attempt to spare Rhett (with whom she was clearly smitten) one final, deeply humiliating emasculation in a book that’s already crowded with such scenes. To illustrate, I provide the
real sequel to Gone with the Wind, as follows.


“Tomorrow is another day,” Scarlett mused as she sat studying the door through which Rhett had left her.

“Why, Miss Scarlett! What are you doing sitting on the floor in the dark?” Prissy said. “Would you like for me to light a lamp?”

“No, Prissy, I am too upset.” Indeed, Scarlett was so upset that she hardly noticed the tender, well-modulated expression of Prissy’s voice — far from the shrillness she most often employed.

“Yes,” said the servant. “I heard about Miss Melanie.”

“You know already? I only just left her deathbed.”

“Word travels fast among the servants of Atlanta,” Prissy replied with a sad smile. “We typically know what the white folks are doing, long before you know yourselves. It’s almost like some kind of twenty-four-hour news network.”

“Then you must know, too, that Mr. Rhett has left me.”

“Half the neighborhood heard the door slam, Miss Scarlett.”

Scarlett frowned. “You are speaking remarkably good English today, Prissy.”

The young woman shrugged. “I know you used to find endless diversion in my little minstrel-show routines,” she said. “But it’s been such a difficult time for you — first Miss Bonnie died, now Miss Melanie. I thought you might like to hear a little straight talk, for once in your life.”

“Yes,” said Scarlett, drying her eyes with the handkerchief Rhett had given her. “You’re right. Oh, Prissy! How sensible you are, and how seldom I have realized it.” She shook her head sadly. “I understand so many things now.”

Prissy pursed her lips. “Mm-hmm,” she said. “But better late than never, I suppose. Is there any chance you might understand that the war is over and it’s time to start paying me a living wage?”

“I can’t think about that!” Scarlett snapped. “I’ll go mad if I think about it!” She had begun to cry again. “Mr. Rhett has left me! Where shall I go? What shall I do?”

Prissy glanced at the clock on the parlor mantel, visible through the doorway. “Honestly, ma’am, I don’t think you need do anything but wait a bit. Would you like a cup of coffee? Perhaps a newspaper?”

“What do you mean?”

Prissy rolled her eyes impatiently. “Have you been paying any attention at all? Has it not occurred to you, ma’am, that Mr. Rhett has never been able to deny you anything? Oh, he may balk a bit, like an old mule, but sooner or later he gives you anything you ask. Against his better judgment — if, indeed, he has any — he spoils you. He always has. Any man with gumption would have told you to jump in the lake years ago. But Mr. Rhett isn’t capable of that. Oh, how we laugh at him down in the servants’ quarters! Pork does a most amusing imitation of him, you know. ‘Buy me this! Buy me that! Give me all your money! Risk your life for me!’ ‘Yes, honey! Yes, sugar! Yes, Scarlett! Anything you say, dearest!’

“I never really thought about it.”

“If I may say so, ma’am, there’s not a man in the South who’s ever stood up to you for ten minutes. Certainly not your father! Poor old Mr. Ashley was so terrified of your temper tantrums that he couldn’t even tell you he was in love with his wife. And as for your first and second husbands — well, it’s been a rough morning. You really don’t want to know what we say about them in the servants’ quarters. Mr. Rhett has a little more backbone than those mealy-mouthed pantywaists — but not much more. Heaven only knows what you’ve done to deserve that kind of devotion.”

Scarlett barely heard the reproach in Prissy’s voice. Her thoughts were racing elsewhere. “So you’re saying that I don’t need to go home to Tara — to think of a way to get Rhett back?”

Prissy laughed. “Ma’am, if you go to Tara, you’ll only increase the distance that Mr. Rhett has to come crawling back to you.” She looked again at the clock. “Ten minutes are up,” she said, opening the front door.

There was Rhett, on his knees. He looked up at the women and blushed.

“I —uh — dropped my key.”

Scarlett stood. “You walked out on me!” she cried. “And you didn’t even make it past the front gate?”

Sheepishly, Rhett stood now, too. “Forgot to pack socks,” he mumbled.

Scarlett stepped forward and took Rhett’s hand in hers. “There, there,” she said softly. “There are plenty of socks in your room. You can pack as many as you please. Take your time — take all the time in the world.”

Rhett began to sob like a baby. “Oh, Scarlett! I love you so much! I can’t live without you! I can’t help it!”

Scarlett wrapped the man in her arms. “Nobody wants you to live without me, you little fool. Love me! Love me all you can! I don’t mind.” They kissed.

Rhett sighed through his tears. “Frankly, my dear, this is what I was meant for.”

Prissy stood by the door, her arms folded across her chest as she watched her employers. “Now that we’ve got that out of the way,” she said, “can we talk about that raise?”


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02 November 2007

Lovely Spam

But I don’t like Spam!

I recently received a scamming spam, in which the sender represented himself as the United States Internal Revenue Service. Not just an agent of the I.R.S., mind you, but the whole of it. He informed me that the government was prepared to make me a tax refund in the amount of $200. All I had to do was confirm my account information at my bank, and the full refund would be deposited electronically. A fairly typical spam on its surface, but a rollover revealed that the address of the sender was somewhere in the nation of … Iran.

Of course you know this means war.

I thought that chutzpah was punishable by stoning in Iran these days, but I see that I was mistaken. (It’s only the word itself they find offensive.)

Apparently there really are people gullible enough to be taken in by such scams: you can tell somebody thinks the scheme is working when you get several similar appeals in a short period of time. Thus I find batches of urgent warnings that somebody has tampered with my eBay account (I don’t have one), or that suspicious transactions have been made from abroad using my MasterCard account (I don’t have one), or that I qualify for a mortgage on my home (I don’t have one), or that I have won the lottery in the Netherlands (oh, really?), or that a humble, hardworking, honest widow has chosen me out of all the world to assist her in spiriting her late husband’s multi-million-dollar fortune out of Africa.

It’s almost a relief to find other, less imaginative messages, those that inform me that I can pleasure her all night without plastic surgery, thanks to the miracle of enhancement. Strangely, they never mention who this woman may be who has nothing better to do than spend sleepless hours with me; maybe she’s one of the dozens of nubile Eastern European lasses who are waiting to meet me NOW.

As a scrupulously moral man who enjoys his privacy, I’m outraged by the whole concept and practice of spam. Yet as a writer, I’m intrigued. Really bad spam is an art form. Imagine writing a fiction, larded with absurdities and inconsistencies, yet so compelling that a stranger confides in you not only his trust but also his Social Security number, his bank-account and credit-card information, and the bulk of his retirement fund. I am certain that if Herman Melville were alive today, his Confidence Man would not work a Mississippi riverboat; he’d surf the Internet. (Melville would have his own blog, too, so that his unhappy late-career publishing history might never bother him.)

Attempts to craft a really good piece of spam have so far failed me. I can’t quite strike the right note of audacity. But there’s hope. With further effort, I may succeed. And I’d be happy to send you the results personally. Just send your credit-card number and expiration date, along with the security code and your name as it appears on the card, to my private e-mail address. Thanks!

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