The summer of 1924 shriveled the trees in the Champs-Elysees to a misty blue till they swayed before your eyes as if they were about to go down under the gasoline fumes. Before July was out, dead leaves floated over the square of St-Sulpice like paper ashes from a bonfire. The nights lifted themselves exhausted from the pavements; restless midnights settled over the city like the fall of a cooling souffle in the bowl of early morning. Sleep was impossible and I wasted lots of time in Montmartre. The grass in the Bois was as baked from the heat as pressed flowers under a bell, and bed was only possible comparatively, so I lethalized myself in boites de nuit night after night that I might find my apartment bearable afterward. That was how I got to know Larry and Lola.
They already had a certain clientele. I mean there were groups who drifted into their “club” specially to hear them play and offered them drinks and asked for their favorite tunes. The two kids sat in a state of watchful collapse, holding on to the dying spring excitement as if they were having a tug of war with itinerant Americans who would have dragged it south. They were nothing but kids, either of them. She was a protruding Irish beauty, full and carnivorous, with black hair slicking up her conical brows, and hunter’s eyes that trapped and slew her mouth. She moved the masses of her body with the slow admiration of a baby discovering its toes, deliberately, like a person at chess, so that it gave no impression of movement, just constant arrangement and rearrangement. You would have thought she had learned to breathe on the piano bench.
They played me the old war tunes and I jounced my youth upon my knee as if it had been a lusty grandchild instead of a string of intangible memories. We got to be sentimental friends. Sometimes very late when the place was deserted and shirtfronts sailed the thick smoke like racing yachts in a fog, they asked me for definitions of love and success and beauty. Larry would say tentatively, “Now, Lola, I think she’s beautiful.” Lola, piling herself very high, dismissed us tolerantly. “Of course we don’t know much about life. We’ve always had each other.” As if that were a sop to fate!
In those days of going to pieces and general disintegration it was charming to see them together. Their friends were divided into two camps as to whose stamina it was that kept them going and comparatively equilibrated in that crazy world of ours playing at prisoner’s base across the Atlantic Ocean. Some people thought they weren’t married, they were so young and decorative. They had walked across Panama on their honeymoon. A sort of practical imagination they shared pulled them in and nearly out of all their adventures, through the muddlings of high society’s private checking accounts and through the sordid backwash that people rich enough to take their amusements seriously scatter behind them like wrappings from candy eaten along the way. If she had told, for instance, how she got the ruby bracelet she wore as a memento of a party they once played for on Long Island, a famous millionaire would have buried his face in the Sound, and I happen to know that it was a duchess who paid for his sunstroke. But they themselves were at that time innocent children as faithful to each other as two aristocratic borzois on the same leash. Larry was wonderful looking. He humped his shoulders over his banjo like a football player huddling a ball. When he sang he opened his mouth sideways and howled and broke the notes and fitted them back together with the easy precision of cogs slipping into place, shaking the tones loose on the air as if he were freeing his fingers from some ticklish substance. If he had been born twenty years before, or in a country town, he might have worn a blond pompadour and clerked in the village drugstore. Instead, he shared our generation’s intellectual yearnings and was a little ashamed of his metier. “Oh!—oh—oh,” he sang, luring the boldness of great ladies from mulatto staccato to Spanish persuasion and “tum—diddle—um—dum,” he urged them back again till they didn’t know what they felt. He was a banjo player, and they were the people who rose with the moon and swamped his soul in uncategorical dismay. He had the nicest face opening out beneath his eyes like wide and friendly prairies in a copper glow. His smile tucked up his skin back of one ear like satin skirts held high from a rainy pavement.
Well, they managed to stick together through everything when they couldn’t pay for their sheet music and had to refuse the champagne that was offered them because of their empty stomachs. Afterwards, when unhappiness used up the unexplored regions in their laughter and hardened their gestures into remembered mimicry, they got to love telling people about the hard time they had had getting started. It must have brought them closer for a moment, retracing the days when they knew they couldn’t have borrowed five dollars.
When they first floated up on the heat wave they made music in a dump that prides itself on discovering new people. Their patrons later turned out to be the heroes and heroines of half our modern novels, and their fortunes rose on the insatiability of the Paris lion hunters. So long as there is money to buy leisure there is the necessity to forget we have it, and Lola and Larry might still be successfully blasting Time from the stones of the rue Pigalle if they hadn’t gradually become obsessed by their “rights.”
That was what engaged them in an eternal round of petty quarrels. It was either the drummer who wanted to get them fired or the bartender whom they suspected of making dirty cracks about them, or the manager who was an impossible person. The domestic element in Lola’s life was replaced by these pitiful bickerings, and I suppose that for him they satisfied some instinct of taking things in hand, the same as paying the weekly bills does for most of us. They seemed to forget the ultimate dispensability of jazz singers. One night they lost their job—drinking, I think. When I came in, Lola’s cheeks were floating over the room like two red clouds, her eyes playing about the edges of the manager like an Indian sword-thrower, picking out his bulky form against the desolate room. The boite somehow seemed inside out in the confusion, bolstered together like the wrong side of stage scenery. You could see the joints in everything, even the people. Larry was all for a placative attitude. He stuffed his hands in his pockets as if he gathered back his words in fistfuls to carry away with him. I heard him say to Lola: “There’s nothing to say. You can’t argue with a kike like him. Get your coat, that’s all.” I walked along with them under the dripping shadows of a Paris night, mauve and rose quartz under the streetlamps, pattery, clattery before the yellow cafes, droning, groaning, sucking its breath up the dark side streets, and I lent them twenty dollars to pay their board bill when I left them at their dingy pension.
“That old crab,” Lola exploded, “he just wanted to get rid of us, said we sat around with all of you too much and didn’t play enough to suit him. Sometimes I sang so much that my voice sounded like convicts breaking rocks by morning—and out we go at the end.” She turned to Larry like a well-behaved child who had upset his glass at the table. “Well, what’ll we do now—what will Larry and Lola do now?”
Jeff Daugherty was the answer to that—a genial expatriate who counted his spotted ties in hundreds and expatiated his existence with discoveries of the last word in entertainment. All of us who had ever been shortchanged out of a five-franc note or tried to cash a check at lunchtime or had any dealings with a French post office brought our violence to Jeff, confident that he could tell us where to find echoes from America to soothe our nostalgic lamentations. Larry and Lola took him by storm.
You would have thought they were buying a seat on the stock exchange if you’d heard them discussing how much they were going to ask him, to play at his dinner. They fixed on the absurdity of twenty-five dollars. It was the first time Jeff had been presented with a bill as small as that since college; it moved him to a patronly feeling. “I’ve got rather a nice little place on the Riviera, where I’ll be in a week,” he said, tracing their future on one of his calling cards. “Come down and play for me there.” Jeff drew a magic circle round his phone number. “That,” he said, “is the combination of my private safe.” They told me that they ran all the way home that night, their feet just tickling the pavement like the feet of marionettes, strung with happiness at the possibility of getting out of Paris.
It was late in the summer when I got away to Cannes. All the gay and glamorous people had floated off on the fumes of alcohol to Biarritz and Switzerland, Vichy and Aix-les-Bains to steam and sweat and look with satiated moralism over other gambling tables than those that wilted in Mediterranean vapors. I hadn’t been long at my hotel when Jeff phoned me for dinner. He had never been a great friend of mine but the season was disintegrating, already split into quarreling groups and cliques intent on their private affairs, and I was glad to fit in somewhere. “I’ve got hold of two lambs,” he said, “and I’m giving a slaughter. If your sanguinary tastes are nicely developed you might drop in.” Since I have for years considered all of Jeff’s friends more or less of a menagerie, I never thought twice to ask for details. After a day on the parched beach I squirmed my dinner clothes over my puffy, sunburned back and with my shoulders feeling like a package of live fish and my arms running up and down themselves like vibrating rubber and I damned Jeff as an animal-fancying exile, who meant no good to us who intended to escape from life. By the time I arrived, a group about the piano were whipping the party round and round like one of those gyroscope affairs to keep an airplane from falling. There was a lush hardness in the voice that sustained it, a voice removed from personal appeal, a prince and princess quality, gracious and cavalier. Most of those ingratiating voices that hang on the air like juicy ripening fruit hold a promise of initiation—this one didn’t. It was a secret you could never share, as detached from its owner as from you. I knew it was Lola. Nobody else could sing like that. So Jeff was going in for troubadours! The confident notes whipped the summer night to a Negroid frenzy and she sang about “loving you—you—you.” She put on a show about being glad to see me and made the party roar with an account of how she’d cheated their landlady out of my twenty dollars and blown into Cannes on the profit. I thought she was overexuberant and after a while I decided that they were both respectably but quite definitely drunk. When Jeff drinks it’s because he has been drinking for so long that liquor is as much a part of his daily ritual as his morning massage, and when I drink it is to fill up the gaps in human relations, but Lola and Larry were drinking to create the illusion that they had some reason for it. I suppose it didn’t make any eventual difference, since somebody else paid for their drinks, but they hadn’t yet staked out a claim for themselves on the face of this difficult earth, and it depressed me to see barriers go crashing before they were constructed. Jeff hung over the piano, svelte and proprietary. Even when he joined the scattered tables you could feel Lola’s attention following him, participating in his security. Larry seemed flattered, or thought he should be, by Jeffs attention to his wife. Anyhow, he talked to me in alcoholic modesty for a long time, and when the party shattered itself on the back of the August night, I drove him home. We left Lola in the midst of innumerable “My dears” and promiscuous “Darlings” tidying up the immaculate Jeff as if he’d been a cabinet of bibelots, and he extremely passive even for a cabinet. Next morning Larry was very determined in his attempt to be worldly about the fact that Lola got home after breakfast, had skated in on his fried eggs, so to speak.
Well, the rest of that summer Larry’s role was not to care. He was awfully good at it and grew as stolid as a substitute halfback; toward the end he didn’t even seem to expect to be called into the play. Financially, they had done very well by themselves, playing at private parties and finally organizing a short-lived club which rocked itself to a lonely, delirious death to the tune of her garrulous blues. It was pounded out of existence by the roar of the autumn sea. Jeff left with his fatuous coterie. We three shivered alone in the prickly sunshine of the beach. The ocean turned muddy and our bathing clothes didn’t dry from one brisk swim to another; we grew irritable with the unspent tang of the sea. They made certain pretensions at a sophisticated coldness between them, but I could see how necessary they were to each other even in their disagreements. Larry behaved as if he’d been brought up on the Murad advertisements, and Lola was proud of his pseudo-worldliness in spite of her inflation at Jeff’s attention. Being always a little bit chilly was ruining my disposition and I decided to move on. They didn’t know where they were going that winter so when I left I offered to drive them to Monte Carlo. The first day of school hung in the air, crisp and anticipatory, and resuscitated our dog-eared hopes as we drove along. We stopped for beer and cheese along the way and looked sentimentally on the fall concision of the Mediterranean. Those white and blistered palaces that line the Nice seafront had opened their shutters once more and the gray rocks about the coast were no longer vaporous bathings of sunshine but scenery preening itself in an invitation to be appreciated as obvious as the coquetries of a marriageable daughter. The country was selling itself. We absorbed its bright confidence, a sort of transfusion of light after the summer gulling.
When I rode off into the carnation-padded hills of Italy and left them there in the subdued hubbub of Monte Carlo, I had somehow a feeling that they were all right, safe with the rich and privileged. My emotion may have been evoked by the outlandish number of policemen there were about. Have you ever noticed what a lot of watching the rich seem to need?
In Rome I had a letter. “Jeff got us a wonderful job at a cafe de Paris, but we haven’t been able to save any money. We hate to bother you like this but Lola’s in trouble and if you could spare us forty dollars, you know how grateful we’d be. We can’t afford a child at present, though we both feel terrible about it.” Of course I sent it and they continued to write me from time to time. In the course of our correspondence, it developed that the last of some pharaohic dynasty had lent them one of those apartments consisting entirely of boudoirs, whose blinding fronts corset the pompous hills of Monaco with musical comedy stairs. They were apparently living in royal disarray, drinking and playing, and howling like banshee from the yachts in the harbor. They referred to the Egyptian as their “nigger friend,” and taught him the Charleston and in spite of their hangovers remained dependent on each other. Their stuff was spectacularly American and they made a killing at it, being simple kids. It wasn’t until another spring that I saw them again in Paris. Frankly, Larry looked as if he’d just slept out the year in a cloakroom. The stagnant smoke of nightclubs had worn an embalmed, unearthly swirl over his head and he was as glazed as the surface of a delicatessen mince pie. They were prosperous and very much in vogue. Both of them had acquired a calculating quality and I missed the old “nothing to lose” bravery that used to be in their music when they tipped over their chairbacks and sang. I asked them out with me but they were always busy. Life had become a sort of Virginia reel of dissolute counts and American millionaires and disillusioned English—and Jeff. Larry was funny about Jeff. He treated him now as if he’d been a rare find from some obscure curio shop that he’d managed to buy for Lola with cautious saving. Of course, Jeff wasn’t serious about Lola, but he followed her everywhere, batting her cigarette ashes with his signet ring and picking up the little bits of her that seemed to detach themselves whenever she moved.
“What do you think of this fellow Daugherty?” Larry asked me one night, assuming a confidential air as if Jeff had come up for a club election. “Well, I don’t know,” I answered. Jeff was an older, if more casual, friend of mine than Larry and I wasn’t going into the days when he had had an artificial shower arrangement outside his windows to keep girls from leaving his apartment, and was only saved by his youth and suavity from the accusation of lechery. “He’s a charming person, really. He used to write musical comedies years ago.”
“Oh! did he? Were they any good?” Larry’s face fell in blank incredulity. He couldn’t bear it that Jeff should have had ambitions, and perhaps talents, the same human attributes as his own.
“Well, yes, I believe they were good—something very special and sophisticated for that time.”
“Why did he give it up? You know, I think Europe is a bad influence. I mean, life’s so easy over here. I’ve been trying to get Lola to go home.” You could tell by the way he balanced the words and tentatively meted them out that the idea had just come into his head. I supposed he wanted to get Lola away from their environment and Jeff. I cannot tolerate buoyant comedy characters when they lapse into that attitude of baffled seriousness just “to show you the stuff they’re really made of,” so I paid my check and walked off, feeling rather pleased with myself that I hadn’t betrayed Jeff: I so often do make nasty cracks about my friends. I didn’t see Larry again until June.
That spring the lilacs dumped their skirts over the walls in the Boulevard St-Germain and wanderlust sprinkled the air. I wanted to stop at every “Rendezvous des Cochers” and “Paradis des Chauffeurs” I passed as I strolled along. It was like walking with a child beside you, the morning was so tender. I had got as far as the Cafe des Deux Magots, enjoying the people airing themselves on the sidewalk, when Larry caught up to me. I expected some coldness when I remembered the abrupt end of our last meeting, but he was beaming away in the daylight like a beacon left burning from the night before. “We’re going,” he said triumphantly, as if we’d never parted. “Sailing at noon tomorrow. At first Lola didn’t want to for a damn, but I finally got her to see that if we’re ever going to make a name for ourselves we’ve got to go home now while we’re known and settle down.”
“I think you’re very sensible,” I said cautiously, in surprise. It seemed rather silly to me that they should tear off just now when people were beginning to recognize them over here but of course I guessed his motives. There had been some malicious talk about Jeff and Lola. He slipped his hand under my arm and we slid down one of those brown streets padded with humanity that mark dark vistas to the Seine. The shadows cooled the inside of my nose like a breath of melting snow; the sun was fragile as a blown glass casing around the world. Larry stopped and lit a cigarette. Something in his movements suggested a boy scout about to perform a good deed. I waited. “Say,” he said, “if you see Jeff any time soon you might tell him I’m sorry I was rude the other night. I’m afraid I was awful. I thought he was pawing Lola but as soon as I sobered up I saw how absurd I was. You will tell him, won’t you, and that Lola sends her love? And say, I’m gonna send him a check for what I owe as soon as we get to America.” He seemed relieved after that as if he had somehow discharged all obligations and could now withdraw from the scene with a clear conscience. I left him by the river where it flows like a typewriter ribbon printing the alphabet of Paris on the city itself, wishing them good luck and bon voyage. As it happened I hadn’t seen and didn’t see Jeff for six more months.
I woke up one Sunday morning having lost my superiority on Saturday night and I thought it would make me feel more respectable to look at the cold equilibrium of the Luxembourg statues. So I did every surface thing a person can to myself and delivered my interior chimney-sweepishness onto the sidewalks. Symphonic taxi horns blew the muffled suppression of Sunday calmly through the narrow streets as I trod the quiet tones through the soles of my shoes. I ran into Jeff by accident outside the museum and we decided to lunch together. I suppose people with like habits discover the same escapes from them. We went to Foyot’s where we devoted two hours to eating ourselves into a lethargy. We soon exhausted our categoric conversation, and searching the past for titbits, I remembered Larry’s message. Jeff smiled with dubious skepticism and when he saw that I disapproved of that particular conquest he began to expand in self-justification. Jeff is a bore when he expands; he usually goes into details about how much it cost in telegrams to extricate himself and leaves you guessing as to the situation, but I was interested in the kids and it was a long time since I’d had any news of them. “Lola and Larry,” he commenced, “are a couple of museum pieces, early Neathandral I make them. I don’t see why they can’t take life like adults. I was very fond of her, you know, and he seemed a nice sort of chap, so when they left Europe, I sent out mail-order blanks to some friends who used to put on my fiascoes in the days when failure was still a novelty to me, trying to get them a decent job. Maybe you know Les Arcades? Well, it’s so chic that people sit about in a gunman hush and sense the satisfaction that they’re paying ten dollars more for their champagne than all the other people similarly seated in similar circumstances. They were supposed to sing and pass themselves off as society toughs. They got away with it beautifully for a while. I mean, they fitted all the current adjectives, ‘hectic and delirious and killing’ and all that, and people went there in droves to keep from having to think up new epithets for their conversation. Everything went along like fireworks in an oven until my ex-wife appeared on the scene, or until the scene swallowed her up, I can’t make out which. Mabel, you know, rejoices in her quaint Victorian ways and I suppose it hurt her pride that there should be a man in America she hadn’t slept with besides myself. So she began making passes at that handsome exterior of Larry’s, which, I believe, were eventually fatal. She’d turn up every night with Lord Ashes of Alley or the Hon. Hick-ups, and graciously surrender them to Lola. The four of them spent evening after evening gloomily soaking cigarette butts in the dregs of their highballs, happily quarreling. Mabel is a glamorous person, and she eventually located Larry’s Achilles’ heel in Brett’s Peerage. At any rate, Lola became pugilistic when she found she was losing Larry. When the situation got to the stale mustard point, the clientele, bored with the unpleasant aura, wandered off. I mean, everybody knew the four of them wanted to bash each other’s faces in, and no reasonable person is going to squander a hundred dollars a night for the privilege of being sorry for two clowns. So they got fired. Well, one must live, and bread and whiskey are expensive since the war. Lola got a Broadway jackal to bring suit for alienation, and it looks as if the whole thing were going to cost some hundred thousand dollars. Mabel hasn’t got a penny outside her alimony and the price is extravagant even for an eccentricity. Of course, I can’t afford to have the mudslinging in the papers. Really, these days I never know when my breakfast rolls will be loaded with dynamite. I suppose, however, it is my just deserts for fooling around with such a couple of nuts.”
Jeff is a genial individual who learned his philosophy from checkbooks and I confess that I envied him the equanimity with which he accepted his schooling. He drove placidly off in a taxi and I stood there in the skeleton sun terribly conscious of the frailty of human relations. I was wondering about the kids. They had possessed something precious that most of us never have: a jaunty confidence in life and in each other like the plaiting together of a lovely cravat from an assortment of shoestring. What did Lola want? It seemed to me her broken heart came a bit high—a hundred thousand, Jeff had said, but I somehow couldn’t believe she was the kind that cared much about money. Nevertheless, the blue surface of her eyes was jagged with a predetermination not to care, a vengeful quality like sharp rocks where the water is too shallow to dive. Larry was a nice fellow. I wondered if he had given in to Mabel to be vindictive. The whole thing oppressed me. I disliked thinking that where there had been something pleasant and clean and crisp as an autumn morning now there was nothing. To see them again would be like revisiting the scenes of my youth and finding my mother’s house no longer there, so I put them out of my mind, as I would have dismissed a false conception when I found that it was wrong.
Three weeks later I picked up the paper and saw that ghastly tragedy staring out from the front page. The fact that it was Mabel’s yacht made it headline news. They had all put off in a hurricane, Mabel and Larry and some of those imported brummagem of hers and the high sea swallowed them up like gulls pouncing on the refuse from an ocean liner. It was horrible. A boy who almost drowned once told me that while he was trying to keep himself afloat, birds settled on his head and pecked at his eyes. The papers said the sea that drowned them was the worst in forty years, so I hope they sank at once and weren’t left there a long time struggling. Larry’s body was never found, nor any of the others—only Lola. She lay for weeks in a recuperating hospital. Lola wrote me a pathetic letter when she got well again. “Can you spare me some money? I think I’ve got a job in a new show that’s opening in the spring, but you know we never saved anything and I’ve got to get along until then. You’ve always been so kind to us and now that I haven’t got Larry any more all of our friends seem to have disappeared. I could ask Jeff but sometimes I feel that if we’d never known him none of this would ever have happened. He and his wife were such a couple of nuts. What were we doing on a yacht? Before we met Mabel we could always quarrel well enough at home and forget about it afterwards.”
Lola and Larry! No, they never saved anything. Well, I sent her the money and I suppose she’ll be all right for another five years. She’ll be pretty that long anyway. It takes time a good thirty years to batter down a woman’s looks and crumple the charm she acquires from moving in a world she finds rich in that fantastic quality. Poor kids! Their Paris address turned up just the other day when I was looking for my trunk keys, along with some dirty postcards and a torn fifty-franc note and an expired passport. I remembered the night Larry gave it to me: I had promised to send them some songs from home—songs about love and success and beauty.
1 Thus in the Scribner’s Magazine text.
First appeared in Scribner’s Magazine, August 1932. Previously collected in Bits of Paradise (1973).