THE HOTEL DES MUTILEES

THE HOTEL DES MUTILEES

The first time I told the story of Jack Gates was to a fellow American I met in a hotel bar in Paris.

‘Call me Scott,’ he said once he’d forced his attention on me with the offer of a drink.  ‘Or Scottie if you prefer.’  He didn’t say if it was a first or last name and I didn’t ask.

‘Whatever you like, old sport,’ I said and ordered bourbon and a splash.  ‘Here’s mud..’

‘…in your eye.’  He toasted me.  His drink was scotch.  I smelled peat on his breath.  ‘You alone?’  He caught my hesitation. ‘Oh, don’t worry, I’m not a nancy, making a habit of picking up men in bars.  That’s my wife over there.’  He waved a hand and gave her a name: Romanian or gypsy or something.  I expected to see someone dark-eyed and Latin, but she was a Yankee beauty, fine-boned and animated.  She was talking to a frump who looked upholstered rather than dressed, but as she talked she kept glancing in every direction and casting smiles as if scattering sequins.  I caught a few, and they dazzled me.

‘She’s quite something, isn’t she?’ said Scottie, then dropped the subject; so maybe she wasn’t something after all.  He made a gesture, taking in the room.  ‘Who do you know here?’

‘No one: I just arrived from Cherbourg.’

‘Really?  How was the crossing?  How were the cards?  There’s some awful gambling on those boats to pass the time, and I’m going to make a wild guess that you’re a poker man.  Am I right?’

I nodded.  He was an astute fellow or lucky in his guesses.  To hear him talk – and I can’t set down all of it – you might think he could see into the heart of everyone and describe what he saw, though in my opinion you’d be wrong.

We sat at the zinc on high stools, nursing our glasses.

‘So what brings you here?’ he asked.  ‘How do you make a buck?’

‘I fix things.’

‘Things?  Like automobiles or airplanes?’

‘Situations – I fix situations.’

‘A situation fixer?  OK.’

‘And you?’

‘I write.’

‘Are you good?’

‘I’m great!’ Scottie said with a touch of lightness; yet I think he meant it but had doubts that anyone believed him.  He studied me. ‘You didn’t ask if you’d know my books.  Everyone else asks, “Do I know your books?” or pretends they’ve heard of them already.  Yet you don’t?’

‘I don’t know any books or any writers, except Washington: didn’t he write before he became President?’

‘You mean Washington Irving?’

‘Maybe it was after he became President.’

‘Could be.’  Scottie said and dropped the subject.  I don’t think he knew how to handle an uneducated man who wasn’t ashamed of the fact.  Instead he asked, ‘Tell me: who is the most fascinating person you ever met?’

‘Jack Gates,’ I told him.  I wasn’t sure of the purpose of the question, so I added, ‘Do dead guys count?’

 

Jack and I were a part of Pershing’s Finest when America went to save Europe for some reason I never grasped.  After the war we went our ways and I scratched a living like other stupid men, driving or mending automobiles or hiring myself out as a waiter.  I was a waiter when I found myself at a party in a fancy house and came across Jack again.  He’d made a fortune in no time flat and was living in a lakeside palace, where he’d become a gentleman and invented a legend.

‘I take it he wasn’t in fact a gentleman,’ Scottie said.

‘He was a Jewish kid from Brooklyn, but his folks came from someplace where Jews are tall and blond and look like gods.’

‘And his fortune?’

‘Luxury goods – the liquid kind.  He imported them from Canada.’

Scottie smiled.  ‘Yes, of course.  And I suppose you do too?’

‘No,’  I said. ‘I’ve got no head for business.  People ask me to fix situations, and I fix them.  That’s all.’

We got back to Jack.  To hear it he came from a Midwest family so ancient they lived there before the Indians.  He’d been raised to a life of leisure and inherited a bundle.  He was educated at Oxford College, which is in England.  I can’t say how far this impressed people.  For a legend to have value you have to tell it to someone who understands.  If the other guy never heard of Montenegro, he doesn’t care who the king is or if these days he waits tables at the Biltmore.  I’m an ignorant man, so nothing much impresses me.

‘And what was your position?’ Scottie asked.  ‘Difficult, I imagine.  Did he welcome you as an old buddy or pay your fare home with a little something for your silence?’

‘He took me on as staff.  I drove for him, put out his clothes, carried his bag at golf.  I didn’t expect anything better.’

Scottie seemed to understand that Jack was as kind as he could be under the circumstances.  His legend didn’t allow us to be friends, but once in a while he tried out a story that my family had worked for his for generations so we were brothers of a sort, until I told him not to bother; it made me uncomfortable.  I prefer honesty.  I can’t fix things if I’m not honest about who I am.

Scottie threw his eyes round the room and came up with nothing except that his wife returned his gaze for a heartbeat with such intimacy that I felt a shock.  He smiled the smile  of the only two people in an audience where everyone else is in the cast, and nothing those others can do or say or claim to feel is authentic.  But I think the pretence was on Scottie’s side, even if he didn’t know it.  You see, I do feel stuff.

‘This place is full of phoneys,’ Scottie said.  ‘I know a maison close, a jolly little place.  What say we go there?’

‘You want to visit a whorehouse?’ I said.

‘Oh, not for the usual reasons, if that’s what you’re thinking.’

I nodded. ‘All right, old sport.’  And that’s how it was decided, as so many momentous things are decided: casually and without knowledge of the consequences.

Scottie offered to stand my bill but I said no and reached into my pocket for cash and paid the tab.  We settled our hats on our heads and were about to leave when Scottie spotted something on the floor by the bar.  He picked it up.  It was a photograph.

‘Well, isn’t that the damnedest thing!’ he said and laughed.  ‘How in the name of all that’s holy did that get there?’

The photograph was of Scottie.

 

We stepped out into a spring shower and a Parisian night.  A one-armed soldier was selling roses from a tray: faded blooms bought cheap at the end of the day, when the markets scatter flowers into the gutter.  Scottie bumped into a swell in an opera cape and silk hat and stole his cab.  He gave the driver an address in Montparnasse and we drove by street lamps and the glare pouring from shops and cafés, and I saw here and there a bridge, a big church, a glimpse of river, and buildings with statues and domes shingled like fish scales glittering by moonlight, but I can’t give a name to any of it.

‘I suppose,’ Scottie said, ‘that you’re wondering how I have the nerve to leave my wife in order to go to a bordello?’

‘I wasn’t wondering,’ I said.

‘Really, she doesn’t mind.’

‘I guess not.’

And really she didn’t, because in truth Scottie hadn’t left her: her eyes were still with us, watching everything that was going on through his.  Afterwards they would talk about what each had seen during their supposed separation.  They would be in bed or maybe she would be in the bath with a cocktail and cigarettes to hand while he sat nearby on a stool smoking and taking in her nakedness, and they would have a witty opinion about everything because they mocked anything that wasn’t themselves.  That was the secret of their shocking intimacy, their private conspiracy against the rest of us, their awful indecency which I could see but, it seemed, no one else could.  Everyone else called it glamour.

Scottie sighed.  ‘Where were we? Oh yes, you were working at Jack’s fancy house on Long Island.’

‘It was on the lakeshore near Chicago.’

‘Nonsense, someone with Jack’s social aspirations would buy a place on Long Island.’

‘It was Chicago, ’ I told him. ‘That’s just a fact.’

‘Really?  Don’t you just love “facts”?  Well, let’s agree to differ.  Now tell me about the girl.  There has to be a girl.  And they meet – well, that’s obvious – they meet at the swanky party Jack throws at his mansion: one of those parties that parvenus give for any sort of high class riffraff that cares to show up, and for the low class riffraff that shows up anyway.  Am I right?’

‘You’re right,’ I said.

The girl was Mrs. Chester Campbell, who used to be Maisie Bryan before she married.  Campbell’s family had made money out of army supplies back in the Civil War, and these days counted as aristocracy.  Maisie was a second cousin of that William Jennings Bryan who was famous for something, and her family was loaded too.  Her new husband was one of those well set florid men who abuse women good-naturedly when they’re young and turn to dangerous drunks in their middle years.  Maisie was a brunette beauty with a long elegant neck that I heard someone say was ‘straight out of Bronzino’.  Everyone else said she was amusing, but I thought she was crazy and some day would come crashing down from the heights where she lived.

This was the situation Jack got himself into.

‘You have a way with words,’ Scottie said.

‘I tell it plain, just what I see.’

He chewed that over, then for a moment changed the subject.  ‘I can’t figure out for the life of me what my picture was doing on the floor of the bar.  It isn’t the sort of thing I carry on me.’

He looked to me for help.

I said, ‘I got the idea the place was full of your friends.  One of them probably dropped it.’

He laughed.  ‘What a flattering notion.  But how often do we carry photographs of our friends?  Only incidentally because they happen to be in the same picture as ourselves – which, of course, is who we’re truly interested in.  But this picture’ – he took it out of his pocket – ‘is of just me and a few pigeons, and it doesn’t look as though I posed for it.’  He turned the piece of card over and someone had written in laundry marker the name of an hotel, the same where we’d bumped into each other.  He gave a sad smile.  ‘You know, a mystery writer could make something out of this, but my talent doesn’t lie in that direction.’

 

The cab turned into a side street and stopped outside a tall door with narrow glass panels protected by ironwork.  The glass was green and a light shone from the hallway behind.  A brass plaque was screwed to the wall next to the door and inscribed with the words: Hôtel des Mutilées.

Scottie tugged on an old-fashioned bell pull and someone opened the door.  It was a woman in a Japanese wrap of yellow silk trimmed with blue and decorated with chrysanthemums and white cranes.  She had the fierce look some old people get when they begin to lose their powers, but her hair was bobbed in the modern style: black with a row of curls plastered on her forehead.  The right side of her face said that in youth she’d been beautiful. The left side was puckered with a vivid burn scar.

The woman wasn’t pleased to see Scottie.  They bickered in French until money changed hands, and we were allowed in.  Scottie shrugged and grinned.  ‘We go through this every time.  She tells me I’m not the sort of client her establishment caters for.  I tell her she doesn’t see my deep inner scars – a waste of time because she has no understanding of metaphor.’

We left our coats and were shown into a large salon hung with swags of velvet drapes.  The place was overstocked with pictures, plaster busts and gimcrack furniture that went out of fashion forty years ago.  It had a sort of gorgeous bad taste that had turned dusty and worn out.

Unasked, a maid with a limp came over and gave us glasses of bad brandy.  In one corner of the room a trio of musicians was smoking between numbers.  They were old men in rusty suits of tails.  One of them had the shakes and they couldn’t muster a full set of legs.

We sat on a chaise longue spattered in cigar ash.  Scottie said, ‘Tell me about the party Jack threw.  Of course it was really for Maisie’s benefit, wasn’t it?  A lure to draw her in.  What was behind it?  Obviously they’d already met  – it would be some time before the war, when Maisie had been a debutante and Jack was…  I suppose he was checking cloaks at a bal blanc, a handsome young man on the make.  Stop me if this gets to sound like a romance fit for my Aunt Martha.’

I don’t know where Jack first met Maisie – he never said – but Scottie wasn’t far off the mark.  Also I didn’t know at first that, for all his bootleg money, Jack was in over his head with Morty Lowenstein to pay for the house and the party and the big impression he wanted to make on his girl.

When I told him about Morty Lowenstein, who disliked the Irish and mostly financed the Italians, Scottie gave a start.

‘You know him?’ I asked

My new friend was thoughtful. He said, ‘We’ve had dealings. Would you say he was a strict man when it comes to business?’

‘Very strict,’ I said.

‘Yes, that’s what I heard.’

The woman in the Japanese wrap came over and spoke with Scottie.  Then she brought a girl, holding her gently by the arm and cooing in her ear, and set her in a chair facing us.  Men and girls were coming and going, and sometimes they went up the wide sweep of stairs to the floor above.  At first I hadn’t paid attention, but now I saw that there was something not quite right about any of the girls, not one.  The most ordinary of them had ticks and squints, but others were scarred or one-armed, or limping in a way that suggested a leg was missing beneath the skirts.  It wasn’t that they weren’t pretty: most were all right and some were downright lovely.  But the Hôtel des Mutilées didn’t run to flawless beauty; didn’t allow you to suppose for a moment that the girls were anything other than vulnerable and human.

‘Her name is Adélie,’ Scottie said of our girl.  She gave me an unfocussed stare and one of those smiles you can take back in an instant.  Scottie explained, ‘She’s blind and doesn’t understand a word of English, but she knows you’re here.’

She was nineteen or twenty with thick brown hair.  Her skin was perfect in its smooth glow and she had in full measure that charm of youth which will come to nothing because there’s nothing behind it.  Had she been truly beautiful I should have been awestruck, and this would have been a different story.  But I could see that she wasn’t: she had only that momentary thing that captures a man and holds him if both he and she are true, but more often wastes itself in a muddiness that lacks the energy to be ugly.

‘So,’ said Scottie, ‘tell me about Jack’s party.  The story – excuse me if I speak in novelistic terms – turns on that, doesn’t it?  This is Cinderella’s ball, even if it’s Jack who risks turning into a pumpkin or white mouse if midnight catches him out.’

So I told him about the party: the decorations, the fireworks, the band, the flowers, the lake: a bland list of stuff I remember.  But it was as if I hadn’t been there: as if I was repeating a more vivid story told by an actual witness, because Scottie kept prompting me: feeding me details (‘You don’t recall the type of flower?  Oh, my dear fellow, they had to be gardenias!’) and correcting me as if I was wrong (‘They can’t possibly have danced the Turkey Trot.  Absolutely no one has in a dozen years.  At least, no one that counts.’)  When I was finished I no longer had my story: it was Scottie’s; and yet I didn’t care because my meaningless scraps of memory had become vibrant, and an encounter I hadn’t understood now became fully real to me, and I could see Jack and Maisie dancing out their tragedy.

‘You see,’ Scottie said in one of those explanations you think you understand at the time but don’t, ‘Jack’s house was the Lost Domain and he was Frantz de Gallais, waiting hopelessly for his fiancée.’  He hesitated and I think he felt guilty because he saw my ignorance.  ‘Forgive me.  I’m speaking of a French novel that caused a stir a few years ago.  It’s about love and dreams… oh, and other stuff that would make perfect sense to you whether or not you read it.’

I didn’t want to seem stupid, so I looked away at the men who were chatting with the girls.  I saw that they too were not whole.  Most of them were former soldiers.  There were no uniforms, but it seemed to be a rule of the house that they wore their medals pinned to the breast of their cheap clothes.  I had no stomach to take note of their deformities, but saw only the sickness in their faces which some of them tried to mask with a deathly jauntiness.  The trio of musicians stubbed their cigarettes, finished their shots of absinthe, and struck up a tune on violin, viola and bass, a thin and frothy waltz.

Scottie was still speaking to me but his eyes were fixed on the girl.  He said, ‘Chester knew that Jack was carrying a torch for Maisie, didn’t he?  I’m sure he cheated on her and that faithless sort always suspects others of infidelity.  He would find it unbearable, naturally, which would create what you would call a “situation”, wouldn’t it?  What happened?’

‘An accident, they say.  Jack was run down and killed by a roadster.  The gossips said Chester Campbell was behind it and Chester blamed Morty Lowenstein on account of it can be fatal to owe him money.  But nobody was black-balled by any country club because of it, except Morty and only because he was Jewish.  And the circus went on.’

‘And in any case neither Chester nor Mr. Lowenstein would do the deed themselves, would they?’

‘No,’ I said.  ‘I’m pretty certain they didn’t.’

Scottie was looking at the girl all the while he spoke and tears were running down his cheeks.  I thought of how it would feel to be the object of that terrible stare.  I understood why Scottie came here.  He wanted to cry the tears he couldn’t cry before his wife.  He wanted to look at a woman with such searching intensity that, if she only knew he was looking at her, she could not have borne the horror of it. He wanted to know if this woman in front of him – and any woman for that matter –  was truly real in her authentic joy and suffering or just a fiction he’d spun from the stories he told.

He asked, ‘To return to where we came in: what was it about Jack that made you say he was the most fascinating person you ever met?’

I think I answered something about his good looks, his glamour, his money, and the easy way he had about things, all of which is true in a limited way.  Also there was the tragedy of his fate, always assuming he was killed for love and not the money he owed to a Jewish mobster, which no one knows except the worthless hoodlum who was hired for the job.

Yet the truth is, Jack fascinated me because of his emptiness.  He tried to be anybody you needed him to be: an army buddy, a bootlegger, a great lover.  He soaked up impressions from movies, magazines and dime novels and fed them back.  Seeing Jack – or even thinking about him as Scottie did – another man who was terrified that he too might be empty where it counts, would wonder if he could be as convincing.  Except that in the end Jack wasn’t convincing.  Chester or Morty had him killed in a way they wouldn’t have dared for one of their own, and Maisie returned to the misery of life with Chester because it was always more believable that life with Jack.  And, of course, the guy who actually did the deed must have decided that Jack was someone you could bump off and not feel too bad, though I’m thinking he must have been curious both about Jack and himself.  He must have wondered who each of them was, and I guess that somewhere he had regrets.

‘I’m all cried out,’ Scottie said.  ‘Let’s go.’  And the fact was he looked exhausted.

He kissed the girl on the forehead in benediction, the only time he touched her.  The house was livening up with the trio playing some ragtime, but we grabbed our coats and stepped out into the night like mourners leaving a wake: struck for the first time with the full sadness of bereavement.

We walked arm in arm down the darkened street and Scottie asked, ‘This situation that you’ve come here to fix, is it going to take long?  You don’t have to tell me.  I’m hoping it’s none of my business.’  He brightened up and said, ‘Lord, what a tale I’m going to have for my wife!  She’s never met you, so I’ll have to describe everything.  I trust you’ll forgive a little artistic licence?  Believe me, once I’ve finished describing the mysterious “fixer of situations” I once met in a bar, you’ll think it a marvel !  I mean that, if I do it right, you’ll see yourself with a clarity you never had before and who you are and what you’re supposed to do will become lambent.  You will simply know –  at last.’  He stared at me eagerly, wanting me to agree.

‘I don’t think stories do that,’ I said.  ‘I don’t think stories do anything.  We see too much in what we do, thinking it means something when really it doesn’t.  I fix situations, but they never seem to stay fixed.’

‘And now – here and now in Paris?’

‘I never take a job without scoping it out and deciding if it’s a situation I want to fix.  My customers understand that.’

We paused under a streetlamp and looked about for a cab.  I remembered something and said, ‘Could I ask a favour, old sport?  The photograph?  Could I have it as a souvenir?’

Scottie let out a long breath as if he’d been holding it.   His face glowed with – I don’t know – relief? pleasure? inspiration? He repeated, ‘The photograph?  Yes, sure,’ and  reached into his pocket, produced it and handed it to me.

I took it, all the while staring over his shoulder down the street, where the Hôtel des Mutilées was visible as a green light shining through the panes of the door.

 

 

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