Skip to main content

Bread from Stones


ISSUE:  Autumn 1958

I do not know very much about rich people. I have been among them sometimes and was always more or less accepted because I was Southern and it was all right to be Southern and poor if your ancestors had been Southern and rich. Still, I find them very strange. I can give you a couple of examples. Once I had luncheon at the country home of some rich New York people and it happened that I sat between a successful Dutch merchant and his wife. The only clear memory I have of him is of a round bright blond head bent forward over a plate. His wife I remember better, She was an astonishingly beautiful woman, fragile and pale-faced with wide amazed blue eyes like an expensive china doll. She told me that she was studying the Eastern philosophies, had been for years, and was continuing her work at an American university. I was interested in what she had to say because I don’t know anything about Eastern philosophies. She spoke to me in a kind of breathless urgency like a child sharing an awful secret. I tried vainly to follow her words and all of the nuances her lovely voice implied; but I couldn’t, chiefly because all the time she was talking to me her sharp-nailed hand was busy and deft as a spider along my thigh under the table. Of course after we rose from the table I never saw her again.

Or take the time I went with a girl to call on her uncle who was a rich Texan. He lived on a yacht, an enormous one as white and pretty as a birthday cake, and we drove up the Hudson to call on him. When we came on board, he asked us to sit down and have a drink with him.

“This is a nice yacht you have,” I said.

“You think so?”

“Yes, sir,” I said. “That’s what I think.” I didn’t know what else to say.

“Well,” he said, “the yacht’s all right- If you’ve got to live somewhere a yacht is as good a place as any. I can’t stand living in a house.”

“Did you ever try a trailer?”

“Boy,” he said, “you don’t understand much. Don’t ever trust your snap judgments about people and things. You probably even think I’m a happy man. Look at me.”

I looked at him, a big red-faced man, lolling comfortably in a deck chair. He reminded me of a great big teddy bear, which is about the happiest thing I can think of offhand.

“You look happy to me.”

“Well, you’re wrong.”

“Okay.”

“Quite wrong.” He went on. “My personal tragedy is as follows. All my life all I’ve wanted to be is a cattle rancher. Now every time I would buy a cattle ranch, the damn fools came and drilled and struck oil. Whamo! There went my cattle ranch.”

“Are you still trying?”

“Hell no,” he said. “I quit trying years ago.”

I have no idea where this discussion would have ended, because just then the girl interrupted us.

“Uncle Ed,” she said, “do you remember when I was a little girl and used to come and visit you and one time you said you would give me a quarter if I learned ‘Break, Break, Break’?”

“I sure do,” he said. “She did it too. She earned that quarter.”

“I’ve never forgotten it.”

“Can you still say it?”

“Oh yes.” And without any hesitation she began to recite the poem. I was watching her, a picture of intense concentration as she summoned up the melancholy of the poem. Then I heard him gasp, and when I looked I saw the tears rolling down his cheeks. He sat there for a minute or so, sobbing quietly after she had finished, and then, apparently on a sudden impulse, leapt to his feet and disappeared into a stateroom. He came back after a while, all smiles, waving a check like a pennon so the ink would dry.

“Here,” he said to her, “take this. It’s the least I can do.”

The check was for more money than I make in a month. Afterwards, when we were driving back to the city, she seemed pensive and a little sad.

“What’s the matter with you?” I asked.

“It’s all so tragic.”

“What is?”

“Being rich,” she said. “It’s tragic to be very rich.”

“Yes,” I said. “I reckon it must be.”

I couldn’t see any point in arguing with her. That wasn’t what I had in mind at all. She got most of her ideas from a passing familiarity with the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Anyway, I didn’t care about it one way or the other. I’ve never been around rich people that much.

Now my cousin Raymond was always trying to be around rich people. He had even been slightly rich once or twice himself. Raymond was the Black Sheep of our family. Almost any old Southern family has its quota of Black Sheep, and I could tell you something about that, too, but it’s beside the point. Take my word for it. Raymond ran away instead of going to Yale, spent the money for his tuition in New York, and then became a professional ballroom dancer. Raymond was a wonderful dancer, I’ll say that for him. He was tall and slender and darkly handsome, etc., and he looked just fine in a white tie and tails. The family didn’t much object to his dancing, even though they wished he had gone to Yale. They did object to the fact that he changed his last name to a Spanish one. He maintained that his new last name was more exotic than Singletree and nobody would disagree with him on that. The crux of the matter was: did Raymond need an exotic name to be a dancer? He seemed to think so. The other thing they disapproved of was his dancing partner, Vivian. She was a glazed and beautiful blonde, absolutely perfect for a nightclub dance team, but all the aunts grimly insisted that she was “common.” Raymond said they were married, but nobody took that assertion at face value. Oh, he had a grand time before the war, dancing in nightclubs all over the world, his pockets jingling and bulging with easy money. Then the war came and when he returned from three years in the infantry, ETO, he was ravaged, his face grey and lined and most of his hair gone from wearing a steelpot so much of the time. Vivian had left him for a saxophone player and most of the money was gone.

One Christmas week I ran into him. He was skulking along the sidewalk, dressed outlandishly. He had on a cheap trench-coat with the collar turned up and he wore a snap brim hit pulled down over his eyes. He looked for all the world like a gangster in a grade-B movie.

“Raymond!” I cried. “Where are you going, to a masquerade?”

“I beg your pardon,” he said. “I’m afraid I don’t know you from Adam.”

“Don’t kid me,” I said. “You’re Raymond Singletree and I know it.”

He stood there, glaring at me under the brim of his hat, while the quick crowd flowed all around us.

“All right,” he said at last. “So what?”

“I’m glad to see you, that’s all. Where have yon been and what are you up to?”

“I’ve been down and out,” he said. “At the moment I’m on the way to stick up Macy’s.”

I started to laugh.

“Don’t laugh,” he said. “I have it all figured out so I think I can get away with it.”

“All right, Raymond,” I said. “But before you go and rob Macy’s, how about having a drink with me for old time’s sake?”

Once I got him into a booth and he had a drink in his hands, it was clear that he was quite serious about trying to stick up Macy’s single-handed. He explained that he was flat broke and that it was especially awkward for him to be broke at this time because he had a marvelous chance to get his hands on a couple of million dollars. All he needed was to get his good clothes out of hock and a little extra pocket money.

“This couple of million,” I said, “is it a sure thing?”

“It’s a woman,” he said simply.

Raymond has always been a lover, and I have to admire his beautiful, resigned honesty about it. He went on to tell me that this woman was the daughter of a financier. She was divorced and she loved to go out drinking and dancing. He added that it was a crime to let such an opportunity go beg-

“You’re really serious about robbing Macy’s, then?”

“Sure,” he said. “It’s the only way.”

And with that he fished out a huge Army forty-five pistol and plunked it down on the table. It glistened in the soft light like a blacksnake.

“Get it out of sight,” I said. “Don’t you know it’s against the law to carry a gun like that?”

“Oh,” he said and he put the pistol back in bis pocket.

“Are you crazy, Raymond? Don’t you have any idea what you’re doing?”

“Sure I know what I’m doing,” he said. “I’m taking a chance to get some money. I’m sick of being poor.”

“You make me tired,” I said. “You don’t have to be poor. You could make a living doing a lot of things. You could always teach dancing. Arthur Murray’s would probably be glad to hire you.”

“Arthur Murray’s!” he said. “Oh my God! Anyway, I don’t want to just make a living. I want to be rich.”

“Listen, nobody in our family, nobody, has been rich since the War Between the States.”

“That’s it,” he said. “That’s it exactly. All my life I’ve had to hear about the wonderful times they had down on the old plantation, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. I grew up in a crummy little apartment in Atlanta eating off of fine leftover china with fine leftover silver. What we ate was leftover too or out of a can. My old man divided his time between dodging bill collectors and telling me what a privilege it was to be a Singletree. The chosen people! The hell with it.”

“That’s right,” I said. “The hell with it.”

“No,” he said, “on the contrary, I’m going to show some people a thing or two. Believe me, I’m going to show them.”

It was a gloomy occasion. Here it was with Christmas coming on and I hadn’t seen Raymond for years. It should have been a wonderful reunion. It should have been like the times when I first came to New York and we’d meet once in a while in some bar, and over a drink we’d hatch fantastic conspiracies, the conspiracies of two lonely Southern boys a long way from home. I had always admired Raymond, and when I started working at the bank, how I envied him his nimble feet and the bright, bitter world of nightclubs I couldn’t afford to go to, and the shining kiln-baked finish of his dancing partner, Vivian, an adolescent daydream. Once in a while in those days I’d get a postcard from some far off, improbable place, from Paris, Mexico City, Montevideo. I still have one he sent me from Rio. It’s a brilliant color view of the harbor. I remember that it came one rainy cold winter day. I remember sitting in my room and just looking at it for a long time while the rain fell heavy on the gray city outside. All it said was: “This is the life. You should he here. Yours sincerely, Raymond.”

“Raymond,” I said, “I’ll buy that forty-five from you.”

“It’s worth a lot of money.”

“How much?”

“I could make do with three hundred dollars,”

“I guess it’s worth that much to me,” I said.

I gave him most of the cash I had with me and wrote out a check for the balance. It was the most expensive pistol I ever bought. He seemed to be very grateful and said he would get in touch with me soon. After he left I went into the Men’s Room and put the pistol in the wastebasket, hidden underneath a pile of used paper towels. I often wonder what the janitor, or whoever it was, thought when he found it.

A few months later I heard from Raymond again. It was in early April, I think, because I remember walking from the bus stop and noticing how beautiful the first frail green leaves were in the park. Raymond was waiting for me at the apartment building. He was parked right in front in a shining, low-slung sports car. He looked quite different. He was wearing an expensive sports jacket and an ascot. He had some kind of wig on that looked perfectly natural. He looked about ten years younger and he was all smiles.

“Hey you!” he said. “You’re coming with me.”

“Okay,” I said. I didn’t have anything else to do, so I just got in. We eased into the traffic with a spectacular growl of horsepower.

“Like it?”

“Sure,” I said. “Who does it belong to?”

“Me,” he said cheerfully. “It’s all mine.”

“Where are we going?”

“To meet Chickee.”

“Who?”

“Don’t you remember?” he said. “She’s the one I was telling you about at Christmas time.”

“You’re not married, are you?”

“Not yet,” he said. “Not just yet.”

We drove on downtown and parked the car in a parking lot.

“Listen,” he told me as we walked along, “there’s one thing I ought to tell you. She’s Jewish.”

“So what?”

“I knew you wouldn’t disapprove,” he said. “Some of the family wouldn’t understand, but I knew you would. Anyway, she’s descended from Spanish Jews, and that’s all right.”

We went into a cocktail lounge and climbed a set of wide, carpeted stairs. She was sitting at a table waiting. She was a tail, handsome woman, a little gray, a little fat, but elegantly dressed, and you could tell that she had been beautiful as a girl.

“Hello, honey,” she said. “Raymond told me all about you. You work in a bank.”

“Yes,” I said. “That’s about the size of it.”

“You’re kind of cute,” she said. “Raymond said you were terribly serious, but I think you’re cute.”

She seemed fairly tight already, but we all sat down and had a drink.

“You know,” she said to me, “Raymond dances divinely. He’s an angel. He can dance better than Rumpelstiltskin.”

“Rumpelstiltskin?” Raymond said. “Who the hell is he? What kind of a name is that?”

“He’s in a fairy tale,” I said. “But I think—I hope—Chickee has it mixed up.”

“I know it,” she said. “I always mix them up—like the names of popular songs, He was the first one I could think of. I meant it’s all like a fairy tale.”

“I don’t get it,” Raymond said.

“But you do,” she said to me. “You get it, don’t you?

“Sure,” I said. “It’s something like Cinderella.”

“That’s right,” she said. “That’s exactly right, more or less.”

Everything was very pleasant until we started to leave. When we stood up, I noticed that she was wobbly on her high heels, but Raymond didn’t seem concerned, so I didn’t worry about it. At the top of the stairs she tripped, and over and over she went, rolling slowly downstairs in a soft blur of shiny clothes and pale flesh. When she hit the bottom, she just curled up like a big cat going to sleep. The manager came tearing over. He was terribly excited. He thought she might be dead or something.

“Get up, baby,” Raymond said. “You’re drawing a crowd.”

“Don’t want to,” she said. “Want to go sleepy-bye.”

“Go and get a cab,” Raymond told me. “It will be easier to get her home in a cab.”

I walked up the street and found a taxi. When we pulled up in front of the place, Raymond and a couple of waiters heaved her into the back seat like a sack of meal or mail. Everyone seemed calm by that time. Strictly routine.

“Listen,” Raymond said, “thanks a million. I’ll see you later.”

“Any time,” I said. And I stood for a moment and watched the taxi drive away.

It was midsummer before Raymond got in touch with me again. I was sitting in the apartment one Saturday afternoon considering what in the world to do with myself. In the morning I had walked in the park and watched the shrill discipline of the children playing and the old men on benches sleeping or just staring. There wasn’t even the ghost of a breeze to stir the listless leaves. I was thinking maybe I’d take in a movie, any air-conditioned movie, when the phone rang and it was Raymond.

“Well, old timer,” he said. “How’s it going?”

“All right.”

“Cheer up,” he said. “We’re going for a weekend in the country.”

“When?”

“I’ll be right over. Grab your toothbrush and let’s go.”

We drove out to Long Island in the sports car. It was fine with the warm air blowing over us and the trim feel of speed in the car, almost like sailing. Raymond looked good, suntanned and healthy, and he had dispensed with the wig.

“No hair again,” I said.

“Why should I try and fool myself? I’m not a kid any more, I might as well look my age.”

“By the way,” he added. “Don’t get the wrong idea about Chickee from last time.”

“I didn’t get any idea,” I said. “She was drunk.”

“That’s what I mean,” he said. “See what I mean? She drinks, sure, but getting drunk like that is a rare occasion. A very rare occasion.”

“Okay, if you say so.”

“Believe me, it’s the truth. She’s all right. She’s had her troubles, though.”

“I expect so.”

The estate we went to, carefully secluded by a few acres of piney woods, was fantastic. It was one of those turn-of-the-century chateaux that the expansive rich of that era built. It had been added to since then; a couple of TV aerials perched like forlorn metallic scarecrows on the roof and the wide slope of the lawn had been gouged for a swimming pool. Chickee came running down the path to meet us, bright in slacks and an Italian T-shirt and followed by two absurd poodles. They gamboled awkwardly around her like spectacular windup toys. As she ran towards us through the light and shadow that came through the leaves, she looked like a burlesque of Diana, the huntress. It wouldn’t have surprised me at that moment if she had been carrying a bow and arrow. She seemed glad to see us and was quite sober. She led us inside into rooms that had an oaken heaviness and the gloom and clutter of too many things. It was almost as if somebody had won a lot of prizes at a carnival, except, of course, everything was expensive.

“This is a crazy place,” Chickee said, “but I love it. My mother was an Italian opera singer. My old man had some taste, I think, but he humored her. As a matter of fact I don’t think he gave a damn as long as she was happy. She was like a big child, spoiled, but beautiful, very beautiful.”

“Wait ‘til you see the plumbing,” Raymond said. “It’s better than a highclass whorehouse.”

He was right. My bathroom was extraordinary. The walls and even the ceiling had colored mirrors so that the whole room rippled with broken light. It was like swimming underwater, The toilet and the basin and the enormous tub were made of black marble, and all of the pipes were some kind of gold plate. The bedroom was a dream of the Orient from the end of the nineteenth century. I sniffed for the only thing lacking, the odor of incense. On the walls there were a few small paintings of desperately ethereal pre-Raphaelite young ladies, and directly above the wide bed there was a painting of a boyish, almost sexless Pandora covering her slim nubility in shy, decorous astonishment as a swarm of evils ascended, batlike, from an open box.

We settled on the lawn in deck chairs and had tall summer drinks. After a while a governess brought Chickee’s little girl to meet us. They were dressed to swim, the governess chaste and dumpy in a singlepiece bathing suit, the pale child like a butterfly with her bright frilly suit and waterwings. She looked at us with sad questioning eyes as if she didn’t know whether she was going to be patted or spanked.

“Say hello to the nice people, honey,” Chickee said. “Can’t you say hello? You can say hello to your uncle Raymond. She’s shy. She usually speaks right up and says hello, hut she’s a little shy today. All right, you run along and have a nice swim before your supper.”

The little girl scampered away, immensely relieved, and we could hear her shrill voice as she shouted to her governess above the noise of splashing.

“I’ve invited some people for tonight,” Chickee said.

“I thought you said this was going to be a quiet weekend,” Raymond said.

“I thought it might he more fun for your cousin if we had a little party.”

“Don’t worry about me,” I said. “Anything is fine by me.”

“These people,” she said to me, “are a little kikey, but you may find them amusing. I gather from Raymond you’ve had a kind of sheltered life.”

“Sheltered?”

“Oh, you know what I mean,” she said smiling. “Going to a nice respectable college and then working in a nice respectable bank. It might be fun for you to see the other half. These people have lots of money, though. Oh yes, lots of money.”

I do not remember whether we had supper or not. I think not. We kept on drinking and before long things stopped being sequential and took on a montage aspect. I remember that when people began to arrive they were all dressed as hillbillies and cowboys. It turned out that Chickee had invited them for a square dance. With a reckless fury we cleared a large room—the music room, I guess, because there were two grand pianos—stacking everything in one corner in a great heap as if for a bonfire. Somebody put some square dance records on and Raymond began to call the dance. The room whirled and turned about us as we stamped and sweated. Everyone seemed as happy as can be. I remember crawling under one of the pianos to get a little rest. Curled up there on a folded rug, I watched the dizzy cycle of feet and legs, like a tribal dance, around me.

I must have dozed off because quite suddenly the room was empty and silent. I came out from under the piano to find the floor littered with shoes and clothing. A pink brassiere was festooned on the ornate chandelier and a record was spinning aimlessly on the turntable. I tried to switch it off, but only succeeded in starting it again and square dance music roared in the room. I went outside for some fresh air and then I heard laughter and shouting in the pool. I walked down to have a look and stood unsteadily staring into the darkness at the flash of bodies in the pool. The pool seemed to be swarming with bodies. It reminded me of a big tank of fish.

“There he is,” somebody shouted. “I knew he was still alive,”

“Pull him in.”

I remember that it seemed desperately important not to be pulled into the pool, and I fought off clutching hands, and, deft as a halfback, sprinted across the lawn to the house. Somehow I found my room. Leaning against the door in the dark, I heard voices and splashing in the black marble tub. I flopped on my bed and, as the room began to spin around me, fell asleep.

Sunday was depressing. The guests had all gone home and we three had hangovers and were a little on edge. There was a rather solemn luncheon outside at which the governess and the little daughter joined us and we strove to be pleasant to each other. Late in the afternoon Raymond drove me back to town. It was a long ride in the weaving, stalling lines of Sunday traffic.

“Boy,” he said, “you sure tied one on. How did you like it? Some place.”

“I think you can do better than that.”

“What do you mean? Didn’t you have a good time?”

“Sure,” I said. “It’s not that. I just wondered if you really want to live that way.”

“The trouble with you is no imagination. You’re so middleclass you get all upset by anything out of the ordinary. You end up moralizing everything.”

“Maybe you’re right.”

After that I didn’t see or hear of Raymond for quite a while. I heard from her, though. She called me up late one night. She was drunk, but she made good sense.

“Why did you have to go and spoil everything?” she asked.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Yes, you do,” she said. “You damnwell do know. Raymond wanted you to approve. That’s all he wanted from you and you wouldn’t.”

“What’s all this?”

“I say he wanted you to approve. The idiot! He wants some kind of sign of approval from that crummy Tobacco Road family.

“Talk about life on the old plantation,” she went on. “You make me sick. Don’t you want anybody else to have a good time? For Christ’s sake, you’d think it was royal blood or something. Who the hell does he think he is—the Duke of Windsor?”

“No,” I said. “I don’t believe he thinks that.” And she hung up.

I sometimes wonder about myself. I have no idea why, without even trying, I manage to get involved in things. The truth is I really didn’t care what Raymond did. But when I think about it sometimes that seems worse than caring strongly one way or the other. Just being neutral, just watching things happen to other people, yon can acquire your share of guilt, and without meaning to. That’s ironic, when you think about it, because I suppose that’s the one thing—guilt, responsibility, call it what you will—I was trying to avoid by neutrality. I guess nobody but a saintly hermit can be really immune, and even that vocation is a career of danger and daring. Take St. Anthony for example.

When the summer was over I bought myself a dog, a little beagle pup. It was a selfish thing to do. A beagle is so full of energy and has such a fine sense of smell that it’s a shame to keep one cooped up in the city. But I wanted one and, in a way, he reminded me of my childhood when we always had beagle dogs around the place. I tried to give him plenty of exercise in the park. I used to take long walks there early in the morning and in the evenings when I got home from work. Early one October morning I was walking the dog. It was foggy with a chill in the air and the paths in the park strewn with the rich debris of autumn, the damp blown leaves, the broken twigs and branches. Raymond suddenly appeared, stepping from behind a tree. He held up his hand dramatically to stop me, like a traffic cop or the Ancient Mariner.

“I’ve been hanging around all week trying to get up nerve to speak to you,” he said. “I’ve watched you every morning.”

“That’s silly,” I said, “Why didn’t you just come to the apartment?”

“I wasn’t sure you’d understand.”

We began to walk along the path together.

“That’s a nice pup,” he said. “A real nice puppy dog,”

“Yes,” I said. “He’s a good one.”

“Listen,” Raymond said. “That gun. You remember that pistol I sold you last spring? I have to have it back.”

“Why in the world. . .?”

“I have to go out West.”

“You won’t need a gun,” I said. “The Indians are nil on reservations and the cowboys are in the movies.”

“Very funny!”

“If you need money,” I said, “Why don’t you sell the car? You can’t decide to go out and rob some place every time you’re short of cash.”

“Oh I couldn’t sell the car. I just couldn’t go out to California without the car. It’s all I have left.”

“What happened to Chickee?”

“We broke up,” he said. “The last I heard she was running around with some musician. Probably a saxophone player. It seems like all my women end up with saxophone players.”

“How much do you need?”

“A couple of hundred, that’s all. But I couldn’t just take it from you. I’ve got a little pride left.”

“Suppose we make it a straight loan?”

“No, I’d feel like you were just giving it to me.”

“We could write it down and make it official.”

“In that case,” he said, “maybe it would be all right.”

“Come on up to my apartment and let’s have a cup of coffee.”

We had coffee and I typed out a very official-looking statement to the effect that Raymond owed me two hundred dollars. Then I gave him a check for it.

“Well,” I said, “California ought to be good.”

“It’s great,” he said. “I always had a fine time there.”

“I’d like to go some day myself,” I said. “What do you expect to find?”

“I haven’t the slightest idea,” he said cheerfully. “Something will turn up. It always does.”

I had no more news of him until springtime when I received a scrawly letter from Los Angeles. “Things are going good out here,” he wrote. “I’m running around with this model. She’s gorgeous. You ought to see her. She’s a little mixed up, but who the hell isn’t? What would I ever do with myself if women weren’t so crazy about dancing? She makes a good living and we’re planning to pool our resources and open up a fancy camera shop out here. It ought to go over big and we will make a killing. We will probably even get married. I will send you her picture in my next letter. Take care of yourself.”

“By the way,” he added in a P. S., “I haven’t forgotten about the money. In my next letter I’ll enclose a payment.”

I haven’t heard from him since then, but I suppose he’ll turn up again one of these days, broke, down on his luck, but still believing that his luck will change and something, some kind of miraculous revelation, will still occur to atone for all the sad waste of the past. I imagine I’ll help him out again if I can. Not that I believe the myth he does. Not that I think we can change things much one way or the other or would if we could. I’ve been working in a bank too long to believe anything like that. Still, it makes me feel better that somebody I know believes it.

0 Comments

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading