An excerpt from

Quays

Richard Smyth

From Chapter 2:

“I went to war in 1917. I never drank whisky till I went to war. And it wasn’t until I went to war and drank whisky that I realised that Eddy Hassler put whisky in his coffee. It wasn’t until I went to war that I understood about Eddy Hassler. I didn’t know a thing about Eddy Hassler.” Tom smiled. “But how much can anyone know about anyone anyhow?”

“So what did it matter if Eddy put whisky in his coffee?” Dorothy lifted her elbow on to the back of the couch and smoothed an eyebrow with one fingertip.

“Who the hell said that it mattered? I never said anything about that; what I said was, that was the first thing I really understood about Eddy. You know? It was – it was an intimacy. That’s what it was. Even though at that moment – that moment of realisation – I was ankle-deep in French cowshit with eight ounces of kraut munitions in my knee and Eddy – well, Eddy was back in New York, wasn’t he. In jail. I don’t know if they’d’ve let him put whisky in his coffee.”

Dorothy was shaking her head but there was a smile on her lips.

“And you can be as intimate as you like,” she said, “and still you’ll never know anything about anyone.”

“Is that a question or are you telling me?”

I wouldn’t presume to tell you anything. I don’t believe there’s anything you don’t already know, Great King Thomas of Spain. Was there ever a King Thomas in Spain? I only know about – oh, the one whose beard was singed. My God, I’m ignorant.” She laughed. “And look, now, here’s me without a cigarette.”

“I don’t smoke, I’m afraid.”

“I know you don’t, darling, you’re far too pure and splendid for that. Bunny’ll have cigarettes. You’ll excuse me, won’t you?”

Tom spread his hand so as to indicate that he would.

When Dorothy Parker was first introduced to Tom Quays she dropped to her knees and kissed his hand. The Simpleton And The Sage had just been published, and Tom was twenty-six.

God. Abe Lambert’s falling all over.” She dropped back on to the couch beside him. “Laurie must have started putting liquor in his liquor. But I’m so sorry, Tom.” She drew on her cigarette as though it were a chore that had to be got out of the way, and squinted with a smile through the smoke. “Where were we?”

“Intimacy and the King of Spain.”

“Oh, I’m sure I never was – surely I should have remembered.”

“Actually I forget where the King came into it. The intimacy was mine, though – with Eddy Hassler.”

“Oh that’s right.” She touched his forearm. “Of course.”

“You said that no-one ever knows anyone. However intimate they might be.”

“Well, that just shows what a little pinhead I am, darling. Because of course if anyone ever knew anyone you knew Eddy Hassler. God, I read the book and I think I knew Eddy Hassler.”

If anyone ever knew anyone, though, you said. A conditional.”

“And perhaps no-one ever did?” Dorothy looked at him from under her brows. Then she laughed, and leaned forward to stub her cigarette in an ashtray. “God, that sad Spanish face of yours. You get me right in the old spine, Tom.”

The apartment belonged to the publisher Laurie Hammereight. There wasn’t enough light in spite of seven lamps and four glass lightfittings and the tobacco smoke that gathered in a heavy pall under the low ceiling moved only sluggishly when stirred by the feather of a tall headdress or the opening of a door. Photographic portraits in black frames covered the chimneybreast. On each side of the chimneybreast was set a bookcase: the nearer to Tom carried a display of nine longfaced African masks that threw complicated shadows on the satin wall, and the shelves of the further were heavy with bottles and siphons.

“Where’re the books?” Tom had whispered to Dorothy when they arrived.

“Oh, Laurie isn’t much of a reader,” Dorothy had said. “He thinks readers are suckers.”

A slender man with dark hair and no hips was standing by the African masks now. He shifted from one foot to the other and then looked over his shoulder at Tom.

“Godawful, aren’t they?” he said. He grimaced and pushed out his tongue in mimicry of one of the masks. “Goddamn voodoo nigger faces. Goddamn things give me the goddamn – Dotty!”

He had noticed Dorothy sitting beside Tom and turned fully to point at her with a cigarette holder that had no cigarette in it. Dorothy looked up at him over the rim of her glass. Then she set down the glass and wiped her lips with her fingers.

“Hello Abe,” she said.

“What in hell are you doing here?”

“Oh, well, I was on my way to Flo’s latest folly at the Century and I was waylaid by this big bad wolf.” She laid her hand on Tom’s forearm and left it there. “Do you see what big teeth he has? Oh, I should have listened to my grandmother. But anyway – and will you stop pointing that thing at me?” Dorothy frowned sharply at the empty cigarette-holder that the man still held out in front of him.

“What? Oh.” The man held the holder up to his eyes. “Don’t worry, it’s not loaded.”

“Well, anyway, Tom, allow me to introduce you to Abe Lambert. Abe, this is Tom Quays, the most splendid of all America’s splendid young men.”

They shook hands.

“So, what’re you into, Tom?” Abe perched on the arm of the couch and spun his cigarette-holder idly in his hand.

“I’m a writer.”

“Another one! They’re everywhere in this goddamn place.”

“How about you?”

“Right now I’m in magazines. Used to be in advertising: Shino gets ‘em super-smart. That sort of racket.”

“Oh, I – ”

“You Mexican?”

“Me? No. I was born in Spain, as a matter of fact.”

“Spain? Damn me. But then it’s all the same, Quays, isn’t it? I mean the Mexicans are all Spanish when you get down to it.”

“I guess. Except for the Indians.”

“What goddamn Indians?”

“The Mexican Indians.”

“Oh!” Lambert laughed. “Goddamn confusing, isn’t it? The Mexicans are Spanish and the goddamn Indians are Mexican. So what do we call those guys in India?”

“The English,” Dorothy said.

“Ha!” Lambert clapped his big-knuckled white hands together. “So, anyway – hey, is Dos Passos here, d’you know?” He looked at Tom. “He’s a writer, y’know, and he’s a spick too. You two should meet.”

Dorothy sighed. She squeezed Tom’s arm and then stood up.

“Somehow Dos succeeded in missing it, I’m afraid, Abe.” With both hands she smoothed the front of her dress. “And I, too, must arise and go now.”

“You’re not leaving?” Lambert leered at her.

“A girl has to work, darling. Much as I’d love to stay and hear your thoughts, Abe dearest, on the ethnic problem.” She smiled slightly at Tom. “Goodnight, men.”

Tom laughed into his drink while Lambert slipped from the arm of the couch into the cushions beside him.

“Hell of a girl,” he murmured. He nudged Tom. “Catholic Jew. Can you believe it?”

“Hell of a girl,” was all Tom said.

At something close to midnight Tom walked home by himself. No-one else had turned up to Laurie Hammereight’s and without Dorothy there there was no-one he felt like talking to.

He was worried that he didn’t like writers much.

The janitor at Tom’s apartment building was a thin Bavarian with a left eye that winked without meaning to. At first Tom had taken him for a Russian exile – in fact he had thought of working the janitor into a short story. He’d mentioned the idea to Colman Smith.

“Oh, God, Tom, not another fucking Russian exile tragedy,” Colman had said. Colman Smith was a writer Tom didn’t mind. “You can’t move for the bastards in this city. Your cabbie was Tsar Nicholas’s favourite hairdresser. You get your shoeshine from the Tsarina’s personal physician. The guy who pours your drink says he’s Rasputin’s cousin once removed. They all went to Berlin at first but now they’re bored of Berlin so they all come out here. God knows where they’ll go when they get bored of New York. Back to Russia, maybe.”

In any case the janitor was from the Bavarian town of Nittenau, near the border with Czechoslovakia. He winked at Tom with his good eye.

“G’night,” Tom said.

“I bet it was, Mr Quays,” the Bavarian smirked. The Bavarian had a lot of ideas about how Tom spent his evenings out.

In his apartment Tom pulled loose his tie and dropped his jacket on to a chair. He stood with his hands on his waist in the middle of a room full of books.

“Every one of you,” he said to the books, “a dollar in Laurie Hammereight’s pocket.”

He wanted to read before he went to sleep but he was too tired and too drunk to read. He pulled out a book from the nearest shelf. DeGrey’s A Woman Of Principle. Tom liked the book but he’d met Morgan DeGrey at a party in May ‘24 and what he remembered of him was a fashionable haircut and a rude way with waiters.

Colman Smith was all right because if you wanted to talk about writing then he’d talk about writing but if you wanted to talk about prizefights or a dog you had as a kid or the Italian girl with red pumps who lived in the apartment upstairs then he’d talk about that. If you just wanted to get drunk he’d get drunk and if he didn’t agree with something you said he wouldn’t say, “Are you quite certain about that one, Tom?” or “Tom, I’m sure you’re right, but how about this?” –

No, Smith’d tell you you were wrong and he’d tell you why, too. Tom reached down to take Smith’s book out of a bookcase. The Cities Of The Plain. Thing was, Tom’d never made it to the end of the damn thing.

He’d tried to get some answers one night over three bottles of weak Sauterne in Henry Moon’s place on Depeyster Street.

“So this woman, this, uh, ‘Caroline Marienbad’ – look, Col, I don’t see why she would hook up with this Hubert character – I mean, look, he’s a – “

“It’s a fucking allegory, Tom,” Smith shouted, slamming a wine bottle down on the table. “Can’t you see it’s a fucking allegory?”

Tom liked Moon’s place on Depeyster but no-one ever wanted to go that far downtown to drink. That was another reason Smith was all right. He didn’t mind where you wanted to go to drink.