Drinking was Fitzgerald’s usual method of resting his mind for any period from a couple of hours to several days, although his problems always loomed with urgency when he was sober again. He had another way to distract himself that left no hangover, one that he enjoyed, and yet it didn’t give him as much pleasure as drinking. It was inducing others, friends and strangers, to talk about themselves.
For one who usually dominated the conversation, whether with brilliance, maudlin sentiment, or cynical detachment, he maintained a lively and absorbed interest in people that encouraged them to speak freely. In getting others to reveal themselves, Fitzgerald said that he entered into their lives and thoughts, instead of their entering his, and that he identified himself with them and faced the problems of their world. His own problems faded as someone else’s took on a personal meaning for him.
His interest in my experiences with Faulkner lay outside that realm, as did his curiosity about Shaw and his Boswell and Thomas Wolfe’s mother, a woman he now preferred to forget. But I felt that his questions about other aspects of my life belonged to that special realm. One day we were reminiscing about the various concoctions we had drunk during Prohibition, and I confided to him the key ingredient in that nonalcoholic, eye-catching circus refreshment, pink lemonade, so popular along the sawdust trail during the heyday of the Big Top. It was citric acid.
“It makes a passable gin rickey,” Fitzgerald said with a nostalgic smile. “I drank my share. Probably the most wholesome stuff I poured down the hatch in that unsavory era. When I think of the booze we guzzled, a lot of us are lucky to have a few feet of gut left. I bought the best bootleg, yet some of it was raw and tasted like varnish. I don’t doubt that it contained wood alcohol.”
Fitzgerald said that he had made a list—he was making plenty of lists that summer—of such liquor substitutes as hair tonics, canned heat (Sterno was the brand name), flavoring and baking extracts, that had been sold over the counter. Most could be drunk as they came, but the alcohol had to be distilled from hair tonics and strained out of canned heat. To his list I added three that were popular in the South: Jamaica ginger, Tichnor’s antiseptic, and Capudine.
Jamaica ginger had the highest alcoholic content of the flavors and extracts. It was called “jake” and was the best seller in my father’s store in Monroe, Louisiana. The recipes on the bottle were for baking, not boozing. We also sold Tichnor’s, an antiseptic for cuts and bruises that stung worse on an open wound than Sloan’s Liniment. Capudine was a North Carolina favorite, a patent medicine containing a chemical that gave the addicts a doped, jaundiced look.
When mixed with soda pop, either jake or the antiseptic had a solid kick, while Capudine gave a drowsy glow. We dubbed the drinkers of these substitutes, white or black, jakeheads, antheads, and capheads, and we could distinguish one from the other when they entered the store. Jakeheads strode in wide-eyed and loud-mouthed, ready for a fight; antheads shambled in grumbling to themselves, and capheads walked in like zombies and whispered shyly, as if we frowned on their vice.
“You have quite a store of information,” Fitzgerald said suspiciously. “You’re no rummy—or were you?”
I had drunk rotgut rye, tomato beer, and bathtub gin in college to go along with the gang—so I told him—but my first contact with booze went back to those early years in Louisiana when I watched drunks take a quick one in the rear of our store. They swallowed a little from a pop bottle, refilled it with jake or antiseptic, shook it up, then swigged at the bottle until only foam was left. After belching, they would wipe their mouths on the back of their hands and stagger from behind the feed sacks as though the store were a blind tiger.
Uncle Sam got wise to jake and cracked down on its wide use as a beverage. The manufacturers were ordered to switch from grain alcohol to synthetic alcohol, and they sold the new mixture in bottles labeled “double-strength.” Now it was carried only in drugstores and its price was tripled. Jakeheads cursed Uncle Sam but paid the new price, under the illusion that “double-strength” meant it contained a double kick—which in a way it did. A few years later jakeheads were hobbling the streets like derelicts; it was believed that the new formula had damaged the tissues of their knees and ankles.
Those were the Boom days when most consumer products were still the unrestrained blessing of free enterprise, along with Eldorado oil stocks and salted gold mines, and it was up to the buyer to beware; the days in the early twenties when, as a schoolboy, I peddled balloons along the route of circus parades, selling red ones for twice the price of other colors because red was what all the kids wanted; the days when I drove a Model-T at thirty-five miles an hour and was fined for speeding as I delivered the “makings” to bootleggers in the bayous and swamps.
The makings were lawful, but not the making. Loaded down with corn sugar and cane, sacks of rye, bran, corn, cases of fruit jars, rubber hoses, siphons, and heavy brown crocks, the Model-T bounded over the gravel roads and muddy ruts that ended in the bayous. The swamps and bayous were said to be infested with alligators and cottonmouths, cutthroats and outlaws. Gunfire was common enough, the bootleggers taking potshots at revenue officers whose price for playing ball was too high. The scene was appropriate to menace. Gnarled and twisted trees jutted out of gloomy brackish water, tattered gray moss hanging eerily from their naked branches. A silent man picked up the stuff in a canoe, leaving me at the swamp’s edge, and rowed back toward the tall grasses where plumes of smoke rose from hidden copper stills.
The Boom days also had moonlit nights when the Ku Klux Klan rode in hooded white robes, burning crosses that were the symbol of white Anglo-Saxon supremacy. Negroes and foreign-born were terrorized into keeping their places as second- and third-class Americans. Six Italians, awaiting trial for robbery and murder in Arkansas, were lynched and their bodies tossed into the Mer Rouge River that flows from razorback Arkansas into hardshell northern Louisiana. A Negro, accused of “sassing” a white woman somewhere in the parish, was strung up, then the body was tied to the back of a truck and doused with kerosene, till it became a flaming torch that was dragged through black quarters as a warning to keep away from Southern white women.
“The bastards,” Fitzgerald said, his jaw set tightly. “The bastards.”
But when I had told my father about it, he said for me to mind my business. He was a Sicilian immigrant who had made his start in America as a peddler and, with more luck than shrewdness, had become a substantial merchant and importer in Louisiana. Though he was highly thought of in Monroe business circles and we drove a late-model Studebaker Phaeton, this did nothing for my prestige at school, where I was, along with a few other foreign-born, one of the dago boys from the wrong side of the tracks.
Business was business to my father and all of his friends, Italian, Greek, Syrian, or American. His was the booming business of buying and selling. Buying carloads of flour and corn meal, stock feed, sugar, lard, cigarettes, olive oil and cheese, and bootlegger “makings” to sell in our new store on Five Points. Buying property and building houses to rent or sell, in order to buy more land on which to build and then sell. Buy cheap, sell high. But not too high. Keep it moving, turn it over fast, don’t let it cool. It was the fever of the twenties, and my father had a bad case of it. Don’t worry about money, he would say, there’s plenty more where it came from.
I hadn’t wanted that money, I told Fitzgerald. I had a different goal. My dream was of having a different sort of life, a sort that couldn’t be nourished by the rapacious materialism of everyone around me. My father was blind and deaf to such a notion; my schoolmates were too busy with sports and dances to listen. My mother was long since dead, but a wonderful teacher did listen and gave me advice. And Nick the Greek, who ran the Dixie Lunch, offered me money with which to go to college; then my brother lent me the money that would free me from the store and let me pursue the dream.
But before my brother offered that loan—so I told Fitzgerald—I had run away from the store three times, to “grift” with the circus as an independent operator selling balloons and pink lemonade and spieling for a gypsy “mitt camp,” which is the circus name for a palmistry tent. The last time round I was taught the palmist’s art by Smaranda, who, as I barked outside her tent, “Knows All, Sees All, Tells All.”
“Why didn’t you read my hands when I asked you to?” Fitzgerald interrupted. He turned his hands over, palms up, extending them. “You saw something awful? Something you didn’t want to tell me?”
“I should’ve read them the night I met you,” I said. “The way your Dollar Woman did mine. What I see now would be hard to separate from what I know about you. It’s confusing and bound to influence me.”
“Can’t you pretend I’m a stranger?”
“I’ll try some other time,” I hedged.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said, dropping his hands. “Go on, the gypsy.”
I had three circus friends. Two were fortunetellers. Smaranda read hands, while the Old Man with the Flute had a parakeet that picked up cards from a box in its cage. He was a kindly man who had helped me stow away in a gondola car of the circus train, but his method of telling fortunes was to enchant the bird with his music while it chose a card. The old man was a fixture in the circus, driving the torch wagon that led the caravan out of town when the big show was over.
My third friend was Archy the Human Fly, a small fellow no bigger than I. He was an orphan and I had told him I was one too. Often I was with him when he slipped into his red-spangled velvet cape, and I rarely missed his daredevil act inside the Big Top. I never wished him good luck, for among the superstitious circus folk as throughout show business, that would have been bad luck. But with my heart in my mouth as I watched his performance, I sincerely wished it.
It was because of my combined heart and head line in both hands— what Fitzgerald’s Dollar Woman had called the Napoleon line—that the gypsy had offered to teach me palmistry. She gave me lessons in the morning while the canvas was going up on the lot, and sometimes in the afternoon when the midway drowsed under a hot sun.
One gloomy afternoon of drumming rain and high wind, the show was almost canceled. The Big Top was only one-third full, the midway was deserted. No spieler’s bark rose, no gillies—circus for suckers—tramped outside our flapping tent. I was ready to go and watch Archy put on his cape, but the gypsy took my hands and began to explain the difference in fate lines, holding them as though intent on keeping me at her side.
When the windjammers—the band—waltzed into Archy’s music, it was my cue to head for the big tent, and I sprang up.
“Dark weather,” the gypsy moaned, her eyes gazing outside the tent. “Evil weather.”
Her voice carried a foreboding beyond the nature of the weather, wild as it was. I was suddenly frightened. She lifted her head and stared toward the Big Top as though the canvas walls surrounding us and the big tent had been ripped away by the wind. She stood waiting for something, her eyes rapt, her long black braids hanging like whips. Her silver bracelets that tinkled with the music of little bells were silent.
“Somebody gonna—?” I couldn’t say the last word.
“Die?” She pointed at the Big Top. Her emerald ring flashing, she whispered, “Human Fly.”
I couldn’t move. In my mind’s eye I could see the gillies watching Archy climb up the king pole. They would be spellbound and open-mouthed, huddled on the single planks of the bleachers. My spine tingled as it did when I watched his flying leaps. He would be climbing higher and higher, on up into the umbrella cone of ropes and spotlights at the center of the tent, where finally he was shrunk in size to a flyspeck.
The animal-like cries of hundreds of voices rose in the Big Top. Then the hush. The sudden explosion of their shrieks tore me from the spot. I ran toward the half-open flap, but the gypsy grabbed my arm and held me. The crowd was screaming, the windjammers crashed into a rousing march to drown out the panic.
“Don’t,” she said. “Stake came loose in mud. King pole off balance. His slip broke giant wire.”
I wrenched myself from her grip and ran out, zigzagging across the rain-soaked lot, splashing through puddles, stumbling into gillies bursting from the tent. As I entered I saw my friend being carried off on a stretcher under his red-spangled cape. A brawling band of circus clowns dashed into the arena and the cries of spectators switched from distress to bursts of laughter, as if it had only been an act and Archy were still alive.
“I could’ve killed her.”
“Why?” Fitzgerald asked, intent.
“Why?” I repeated. “She knew Archy was doomed. She could’ve saved him. It was like she had let a blind man walk off a cliff. The last I saw of her, she was standing by the tent flap, looking at me as I ran off the circus grounds.”
“You never saw her again?”
“Utterly fascinating,” he said. “Gypsy fortunetellers fascinate me. Zelda’s mother named her after a gypsy queen in a novel she once read. Before I met you, I was writing a story about a gypsy—yes, a fortuneteller. It lacked what you made me feel. Mood and tense atmosphere. It’s one of my poorest stories.”
“You can’t rewrite it?”
He didn’t reply.
“Do you think Archy would have listened to your gypsy?”
“Never. He would have been through. He never could have scaled that pole again. That would have been a more tragic end for him than crashing in his act.” He studied me as though expecting a reply. I was silent. “Your experiences in the twenties are lively and engrossing material. You should use them while you’re young—not waste time on the barnyard stuff that ruined Tom Boyd.”
“Someday I will.”
“Someday,” he grimaced. “If you don’t bog down in ballyhoo or lose your way along the Party line.”