The End of Terry Southern Month
June 30, 2010 | by Lorin Stein
As we come to the end of Terry Southern Month—and our first month in operation—I wish to thank all of you who wrote in, whether on the comments page or privately, to say how much you love Southern's work. We had no idea how many other fans were out there. This has been one of those gratifying lessons that only the web can teach.
Thanks also—equally—to those who hate the stuff, and piped up. We are not in the criticism business at The Paris Review. But we believe in it. Here we differ with our friends at The Believer: we like snark, when it comes from the gut. It may not be the lifeblood of the arts, but a healthy organism also needs bile, not to mention a gag reflex.
You haters are going to hate this last piece. We make no apologies for it, but—at the risk of going off the reservation, into lit crit mode—we would like to point out that it makes the author queasy, too. (Even his anti-hero, "Art," knows enough to be ashamed. Get it, Art?)
Furthermore, we'd like to observe that this is typical of Southern's work. His comedy depends on moral ambivalence. He may be turned on by bad behavior—if it weren't a turn-on, it wouldn't be bad. Or at least, no one would engage in it. But he knows it for what it is. In a story like the following, he'll sacrifice good taste, comfort, even laughs for the sake of a truth "too ... er, uh, gross for a general readership."
We trust you are not that.
Heavy Put-Away or, A Hustle Not Wholly Devoid Of A Certain Grossness, Granted
by Terry Southern
Recently I was researching an article for a woman’s magazine, whose considerate editor had already entitled it—Con-Men: Their Games And Their NAMES—aiming, with the final emphasis for a bit of the old exposé mileage no doubt. I had assumed in front that, through editorial pressures, it might gradually get bent into the usual hacksville tom-foolery—a rehash of classic and clichéd hustles…and, for the most part, so it proved to be. Most, yes, but not all, for there was one conspicuous exception, and it was deleted, totally, from the piece—“because of,” in the head-back closed-eyed words of the senior blue-coiffed lady-editor, “certain elements in the narrative which are simply too, how shall I say, er, uh, gross for our general readership.”
I was really quite surprised. A prevalent real-life hustle “too gross” to be exposed? What a curious age we live in.
In my research I used a small unobtrusive Sony-600, obtaining verbatim recordings of every conversation. The following is the one which was deleted from the piece, and is, I submit, among the most intriguing (albeit outrageous) deceptions presently in vogue, in the U.S. of A.
The narrator—whom I shall call “Art”—is thirty-four, white, college-grad, unmarried, clean-cut and boyishly good-looking, a type seen mostly in beach-movies…a younger Jack Nicholson; and though he was careful to keep his story always in the third person, even slightly detached, as though describing someone else, I had the recurrent and distinct impression he was talking about himself.
The interview was taking place on the terrace of the “Sow ‘n Merkin,” a café-restaurant on La Cienega, about two blocks below the Sunset Strip. Only a moderate amount of pedestrian traffic on the sidewalk that passed our table, and whenever a girl would go by, Art’s eyes would flick after her with a warm somewhat carnivorous glint in them, without interrupting his story. He’s also one of those “L.A. types” (no other way to say it) who do coke quite openly—though with consummate discretion, natch—carrying it pre-chopped in an ornate antique-style snuffbox, dipping in with the little finger, for swift unobtrusive toots off the back of the nail…which Art did throughout his narrative, occasionally sliding the box to me across the table. The first time he passed me the box, I glanced around, super-casual, to check out the neighboring tables, but Art was quick to allay my concern.
“It’s cool, man” he said, “no vigilantes here.” He smiled and assumed a cracker draw: “Hell, we done strung ‘em all up.”
I switched on the Sony-Six, and Art took that (as per intention) to be a signal to begin.
“Okay,” he said, “now here’s a funny number a couple of guys I know run from time to time—I’ve been saving it. I mean, it could be a little heavy…for, you know, certain tastes.”
“No way, Art,” I assured him, “you lay it down, and I’ll pick it up.”
He chuckled, somewhat cynically now that I think back on it, and then continued:
“Well, there was this chick—name of Sally—very cute, twenty-three, twenty-four years old, worked as a kind of hat-check cigarette-girl at a small club on the Strip. I forget the actual name of the club…it was like the Crescendo, one of these you know, with a piano-player, and maybe a combo in for weekends—that kind of place, small but legit…just your ‘average American bar.’ Anyway, this guy—let’s call him Al—starts coming in, almost every night. Nice looking guy, about thirty-five, sharp dresser, leased Lincoln Continental parked outside. And he’s always quite friendly—not pushy about it, just friendly—you know: ‘Hi, Ted,’ ‘Hello Tom,’ ‘Hi Sally,’ and blah-blah-blah. And so finally he’s like a regular customer, coming in nearly every evening. Comes in before dinner, has a couple of drinks, and splits. Now he’s gradually getting fairly tight with Sally, the hat-check cigarette-girl—no heavy come-on, nothing like that, just sort of a pal. And one night, a slow night, she’s sitting at the bar with him, having a drink, and he lays this story on her…about a friend of his—an older guy, a terrific guy, friend of the family, a sort of ‘surrogate father’ is the way he put it—who’s coming in from New York in a week or so. And he goes on to describe this guy, in a very flattering terms—an important businessman, a well-known financier, a major executive of a huge corporation, on the board of directors of several big companies, seat on the New York Stock Exchange, private plane, and so forth. And he tells her how the guy comes to California on business two or three times a year, and that when he does, he likes to have a discreet affair with someone—not a hooker, he isn’t interested in that at all—he wants someone, well, like someone to talk to, and to spend a pleasant evening with. ‘He’s good for a thou,’ Al said, ‘a thousand bucks for the evening, and usually a nice gift of some kind besides.’ Al knows all about it, because he has arranged it for him before, several times—so he was able to assure her that it was ‘strictly legit’, and what’s more that if she didn’t like the guy she could just split, she didn’t actually have to make it with him. Naturally, he hoped it would happen, but it wasn’t really critical, I mean it wasn’t going to be a deal-breaker if she didn’t let him fuck her—because he was happily married, had a wonderful family—wife, children, grandchildren, the whole bit—it was just that he liked the excitement of, you know, meeting a nice young girl from time to time, and so on…made him feel younger, whatever. Anyway, he went on to say that he, Al, knew that the guy would like Sally, and he wondered if she would be interested—a thousand bucks for a couple of hours, probably a nice present, and after she got there, if she decided she didn’t want to make it with him, that would be okay, she could just leave. Well, right away she said no, it wasn’t the sort of thing she would be interested in, ever, and he said ‘Well, no offense,’ and she said ‘None taken,’ and he took her to dinner, never mentioned it again, took her home, didn’t hit on her in any way, didn’t come in for coffee or a drink, said he had an early appointment, had to get to bed, and that was that. Saw her the next few nights at the club, never referred to it again.
“Now then, parallel to this, there was a young couple living in the Valley—the guy was a stunt-man, or let’s say an ex-stunt man, with a broken back… had taken a fall, a big fall, landed on a Chapman crane…crushed his back. So he’s laid up—totalled. Now the tie-in is that the stunt-man had married this girl’s best friend, Sally’s best friend, about a year and a half before this. Bill and Mary, that was their names, and they had this kid, and the kid was about a month old—a one-month-old kid—like an infant. Now the guy, Bill, had broken his back about six or seven months ago, so for the last four months they’ve been in heavy trouble. I mean, they bought a house, furniture, two cars—all the usual stuff—during the first six months they were married…and then he busted his back. But the studio wasn’t liable, because it was some kind of unauthorized stunt, whatever, so he wasn’t getting any workmen’s comp. I mean, he really got ripped on the whole thing—wasn’t getting any money. And they had all these medical bills—for his back, and for her having the kid, plus all the regular bills—the car payments, mortgage payments, insurance payments, everything. And, of course, she can’t work because of having the kid, and he’s lying around—they don’t know yet if he’s going to be a full-on paralytic or not—just lying there in a full-body cast, with the wife and the new-born baby, and they’re starving. No bread at all, being dunned by everybody—about to get killed by the house-payments guy, the car-payments guy, the guys with the furniture, TV…all of it. Murder. Wipeout. Now the wife, Mary, she would call the other girl, Sally, and the could talk, on the phone…it was really the high point of her day, her conversations with Sally, the hat-check girl. You see, she could never get out of the house because she was stuck with the paralyzed husband and the kid. Actually, she was very much in love with her husband—which is what gives this whole story a certain ‘je ne sais quoi,’ ha—I mean it wasn’t like she was being a ball-breaker about it, it was just a really terrible situation. And so she was sort of living vicariously on the phone, through her friend Sally, who would tell her all about her day—her night actually—at the club…you know, who came in with who, etcetera…and so on that same level, or just interesting day-to-day trivia, she mentions the guy, Al, and the proposition he made—but only referring to it as something that happened at the club, no more than that. But a couple of days later, Mary calls and says that she’s been thinking about that thing, that proposition. ‘It’s horrible, I know,’ she says, ‘but we’re just so desperate that I think maybe I ought to do it—I mean, you know, if you think he would want to.’ Well, Sally knew the guy would go for Mary, because she was even better looking than Sally was. But she said, ‘Well, what about Bill? What’s he going to say?’ And Mary says, ‘Well, he won’t say anything, because he won’t know. I mean, I’ll just tell him I’ve got to go to this meeting, or something like that, and then maybe you can come over and pick me up, and you know, take me there—and when it’s over I’ll have the money and take a cab home…and well, he’ll just never know anything about it. I mean, I realize it’s terrible, and I hate it, but I just don’t know what else to do.’ Because she really did love the guy, of course, and that’s the key to it, of you see—the whole caper—that she’s this totally innocent person, this very nice girl, who is really in love with her husband, and had never dreamed of making it with anyone else, or with anyone for money, ever, but their terrible circumstances—and the amount of money being offered…well, it was tempting. Of course Sally was completely surprised, she could hardly believe it. ‘Mary,’ she says, ‘I don’t think you should do it—I mean it’s too weird, it might affect your relationship with Bill—even if he didn’t find out about it.’ And Mary starts crying and says, ‘Yes, I know, I know…I guess you’re right, it’s just that I’m so desperate…’ And she cries for a little bit on the phone, and Sally cries, and then they drop the subject, and that’s the end of it—except that a few days later, when they’re about to turn off the electricity, Mary calls Sally and says, ‘I know it’s crazy, but that thousand dollar thing—with the older man from New York—could you try to find out more about it?’ And she tells her about the electricity, and everything. So the next time Al comes in the club, Sally asks him if he’s found a girl yet for his friend. And Al says, ‘No, as a matter of fact I haven’t, and the guy is coming out in about a week, and I’m getting a little nervous about it.’ And so Sally tells him about her friend Mary, who she says is sort of thinking about it. And she goes on to describe her—‘a very beautiful, really nice, nice girl, who loves her husband very much,’ and so on, but that they have these terrible financial problems, and she tells the whole story to Al—the guy’s broken back, the electricity about to be shut off, and so on, and asks him, Al, to tell her more about the guy. So he lays this heavy rap on her again about what a wonderful, gentle, sweet, attractive, generous man this guys is. ‘I mean, she’s really going to like him a lot,’ he says, ‘he’s a truly nice man. And if she doesn’t like him, you know, she can just leave.’
“So they set the thing up. The cover story, for Bill, was that Mary was going out for the evening with a girl-friend, to see a movie. She would go out at seven—the baby would have had its bottle by then, and she would put it next to the husband on the bed, because he can barely get around—he can move, but it wasn’t the easiest thing to do, you dig, in this full-body cast.
“Now then, Al gives Sally full instructions about how it’s to be done. Discretion, that was the main concern—you’ve got to be discreet. This was because the guy doesn’t want to be seen in the lobby of the hotel, or anything like that. He’s staying at the hotel, but he feels it will be more discreet and more comfortable, and so on, if they do their thing in a bungalow. So Mary is to book it, Bungalow ten, a big mother, at the Beverly Hills Hotel, book it in her name, go there, sign in and register. Bring a bag, and in the bag have a couple of bottles of really fine Scotch, and a bottle of good brandy. Get some mixer—club soda, and some ice, wrap it all in a towel so it doesn’t rattle, and put it in the best bag she’s got, check in, and go to the bungalow. ‘Listen,’ she asks Sally, ‘where am I going to get money for the whiskey?’ Well, Sally was short and couldn’t come up with it, so she went to a neighbor, whom she barely knew, and said she was desperate, she had to raise fifty dollars, could she loan it to her. So the neighbor took the money out of her sugar bowl, but emphasized that she would have to have it back the next day, because it was the household-money and so on. And then Mary didn’t have a really smart bag, so she borrowed that from Sally—who picked her up on her way to the hatcheck-joint, and dropped her at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where she had already called up and reserved Bungalow ten. The boy took the bag to the bungalow, showed her in, and she waited there. See, the idea of bringing the booze in was that the guy didn’t want anybody coming to the room while he was there, because of the big discretion thing—him being a famous person, well-known at the Beverly Hills Hotel—and he just couldn’t afford any indiscretion at all. So she, Mary, was instructed to get there at about seven, order a nice dinner for herself, anything she wanted—he recommended the pheasant, and a particular wine, very expensive—and he would eat elsewhere and then join her at about nine. And that way they would avoid the whole room-service scene and any risk of him being recognized. So she went to the hotel, about six-thirty, registered her name, went to the bungalow, had the pheasant, the wine, etcetera, signed the check, and waited. Then, at about nine, he called. ‘Is everything all right?’ trying to sound pleasant and cheerful. He says that he’ll come down now, down from his room, and meet her, if it’s convenient. She says, yes of course, and so he arrives in a few minutes—and he’s a really nice attractive guy, very thoughtful and considerate and cultured. So the anxiety she had felt began to disappear. See, she had been getting sort of panicky about it. I mean, she hadn’t been to bed with anybody in about six months, because of her husband’s busted back, and then she’d had the baby…and so this was going to be the first fuck she’s had in quite a while, and she was kind of uptight about it, about the whole thing, but he really put her at ease, and began to sort of draw her out, and she told him all about her husband and about the baby, and all the depressing stuff about their situation, and she cried a little bit, and he was terrific—perfect father-guy, and she found him attractive, and they drank some of the booze, and then they went to bed, and it was okay. I mean, it wasn’t in any way sordid or vile, or anything like that, and she really dug him, and he was very interested in her and said that he understood there had been this money arrangement, this thousand dollars, and that was fine, but he didn’t want that to be the main thing. He’d gotten to really like her, he said, and he wanted to take an active part in helping her and her husband out of this predicament, and maybe even taken an interest in the child, the child’s education and so on. And they talked some more and made love again, and now it was about eleven o’clock, and he takes out this ring—this beautiful diamond ring—and he tells her that he bought it for his daughter’s birthday, and he wants to know what she thinks of it. And she says, ‘Well, it’s really beautiful. Absolutely fabulous.’ It’s still in the velvet case, you know, and he says, ‘Well, you see, I’d like you to have one just like it, because I think you’re a blah-blah-blah wonderful girl and the ring really suits you,’ and blah-blah-blah. It’s a big stone, very impressive. ‘Oh, I couldn’t,’ she says. ‘Don’t be silly,’ he says, ‘I insist.’ Then he gets on the phone and calls the jeweler at the jeweler’s home. ‘Yes, you know the ring I bought this afternoon—well, I’m leaving first thing in the morning, and I want to get another one like it. Could you come over to the hotel now? No, I’ve got an early flight, and I just won’t have any time at all tomorrow. Yes, the same ring exactly. Just call Bungalow ten when you get here and I’ll meet you in the lobby and pick it up. No, I don’t know the size, so bring an assortment, and we’ll determine the size when you get here. All right, see you soon. Thank you.’
“So, from her point of view, everything has gone just great—she’ll have the money, she’ll have the ring, she has this fantastic new friend who’s going to be like a godfather to the child, and help them all out, and so on. Now her only concern is how she will handle it in terms of her husband, how to explain about the money and about the ring. And the guy advises her on that, too—he asks how well does her husband know her background. Is it conceivable for instance, that she had an aunt or uncle, that Bill didn’t know about, who could have died and left it to her? She thinks about this for a minute, and says yes it is possible, there could have been this aunt in Youngstown, or someplace…so that little problem is settled. Now it’s about twelve-thirty, and the phone rings. It’s the jeweler, down in the lobby. The guy starts out, to go meet him and pick up the ring, and just as he gets to the door, the instant before he goes out, he remembers about not knowing her ring size, so she takes off her wedding-ring and gives it to him so he can match it for size. He says he’ll have a quick drink with the jeweler, in the Polo Lounge, just to be sociable, pick up the ring and be back in ten minutes or so, probably less. So she turns on the TV, finishes getting dressed, and sits there waiting for him. Time passes. One-thirty, two-thirty…three-fifteen. She starts to get panicky, calls the Polo Lounge, the Lounge in closed. Calls the desk, asks for his room—he isn’t registered, they never heard of him. Never. Now she calls Sally at the club. Closed. Calls Sally’s house. No answer. So she’s sitting there, alone, four o’clock in the morning, no money, a hundred and ninety-five dollar hotel bill…desperation time. Finally, nothing left but to bottom-line it—call the husband. She tells him where she is—Bungalow ten at the Beverly Hills Hotel—he’ll have to pick her up because there’s no money for a cab, and there’s no way to get a cab without alerting the hotel that she’s about to skip. So—now dig this—the husband, Bill, wearing his full body-cast, moving like something out of a horror movie, has to wake this neighbor he doesn’t even know very well, at four in the morning, borrow his car, put the baby on the seat beside him, try to drive from the Valley to Beverly Hills, cruise the hotel until she can sneak out—without the bag in case she’s spotted—get in the car, and drive back. And on the way back, she has to tell him what happened… about the money she owes the hotel, the neighbor, the bag she has to replace, the wedding-ring…and you know, man, the whole story.”
And with that, the sun sinking behind the Hollywood hills silhouetting him, Art gave me his All-American, boss-charm, hero-of-many-battles smile. “Now, I ask you,” he said softly, sliding the snuffbox across the table, “wasn’t that a heavy put-away?”
We sat in silence then, watching the sun slowly go down, and having a few unobtrusive toots.
“Listen,” I finally said, “those guys…they must have been really…well, one thing I’m a little hazy about is just how to characterize their motivation.”
Art smiled, raising his brows, as in surprise. “Oh yeah?” He turned his eyes towards the distant hills, where the last rays of the sun bled out all along the horizon—but he didn’t reply.
“Well,” I went on, “I think you’ll agree there is a certain ambiguity here…I mean, let’s just run it down in a re-cap—what did they get out of it? Okay, one: the guy gets laid, by a beautiful young girl—that’s a plus…”
“A really nice girl,” added Art, nodding his head to emphasize that aspect of it.
“Right. A beautiful young really nice girl…who hasn’t made it with anyone in six months. Okay, that’s all a definite plus. But is that enough—to justify such an elaborate ruse? I mean, what else did they get out of it?”
He looked at me, with something close to pity. “I should’ve thought it was obvious,” he said, a slightly painted smile on his lips.
“Well, let’s see, there was her wedding ring—probably a simple, narrow gold band—what was that worth? Fifty bucks? A hundred?”
“A hundred tops,” said Art, “probably less.”
“Well, that doesn’t seem like much…for all that trouble.”
He laughed. “You’ve got a pretty materialistic slant on things, don’t you?”