Charmaine Chatsworth, Society Girl ~ A short story by Allen Kopp
Fifi opened the curtains, letting the sun in. Charmaine was instantly awake. She groaned and sat up in bed as if reveille had been sounded.
“You said you wanted to be up by seven, miss,” Fifi said.
She wanted to pick something up and throw it at Fifi for interrupting such a lovely sleep but, after all, she was only doing her job.
“Where are mummy and daddy?” she asked.
“Breakfast is being served on the terrace, miss.”
She got slowly out of bed and went into the bathroom. After brushing her teeth and dabbing at her face with a washcloth, she ran a brush over her hair, put on a dressing gown and went down to the terrace.
“Good morning, dear!” mummy said cheerily. “I hope you slept well.”
“I always sleep like a dog,” Charmaine said.
“I think that’s ‘sleep like a log’,” daddy said, not bothering to look up from the paper he was reading.
“Well, that’s a cliché,” mummy said. “We try to avoid clichés in our speech.”
The maid came with coffee for Charmaine.
“None of that,” Charmaine said. “I’ll just have some grapefruit juice and toast.”
“I’m afraid you’re not eating enough,” mummy said. “You’re as thin as a nail.”
“I think you mean ‘thin as a rail’,” daddy said.
“Isn’t that what all women strive for?” Charmaine said.
Daddy put the paper down and looked at Charmaine’s dressing gown. “Are we not even bothering to get dressed anymore?” he asked.
“I don’t know about you,” she said, “but I’m not getting dressed until there’s a good enough reason.”
“Why don’t we all just sit around in our drawers, then?” he said.
Chester came out onto the terrace, kissed mummy on the cheek and sat down at the fourth side of the table.
“Morning all,” he said.
“Yes, isn’t it?” Charmaine said.
Chester was two years younger than Charmaine and already quite a man. He was six feet, two inches tall, had blue eyes and a dimple in his chin. He looked nothing like either mummy or daddy. Nobody was more entranced by his handsomeness than he was himself.
“How’s my favorite son this morning?” mummy asked, reaching over and patting him on the hand.
“I’m your only son, mummy,” he said.
“Unless, of course, you count Rexford, my dog,” she said. “He’s like a son, really, when you think about it, except that I didn’t give birth to him.”
“Why are you all dressed up so early in the day?” daddy asked, pointing at Chester’s tie and jacket. “You’re not by any chance planning on doing any work today, are you?”
“Heaven forbid!” Chester said. “I stand to inherit a very large fortune. Why would I work for it when I don’t have to?”
“There’s a little thing called ambition,” daddy said.
“Of which I have none. No, I just have a little business in town, that’s all.”
“What kind of business?” mummy asked.
“I think it comes under the heading of private business.”
“You’ve just been told to mind your own beeswax, mummy.” Charmaine said.
“It’s not some intrigue with some woman, I hope.” daddy said.
“Nothing as tawdry as that,” Chester said. “I’m going to the travel bureau and then I’m having lunch at the Seafarers’ Club with Dexter and Louie.”
“Louie’s that musician fellow, isn’t he?” mummy asked.
“That’s the one.”
“I’m afraid he isn’t a very savory companion for you.”
Chester laughed. “I believe I can choose my own friends, if it’s all the same to you.”
“Well, I just want you to be careful with that sort.”
“I hear he smokes reefers,” Charmaine said to tease Chester. “And that’s just for starters.”
“Oh, he does not!” Chester said. “You stay out of it!”
“How about you, daddy?” Charmaine asked. “Aren’t you going in to the office today?”
“Not today,” daddy said. “I’m taking a few days at home.”
“It wouldn’t matter if he never went to that horrible old office again,” mummy said. “He’s already got a hundred and seventy-five million dollars. Let those other people scramble and claw at each other to make money. Daddy doesn’t have to do that anymore.”
“Three years ago, in 1929, I had two hundred million,” he said.
“This awful Depression,” mummy said. “I don’t know what people are supposed to do.”
“Yes,” Charmaine said. “Isn’t it awful to have to squeak by on a hundred and seventy-five million?”
“The way you females spend money,” daddy said, “I’m wondering how long it’ll take you to run through the hundred and seventy-five million.”
“Oh, you exaggerate so!” mummy said.
“You ever notice how much of the conversation in this family centers around money?” Chester said.
“Well, since you’re not using Liggett this morning,” Charmaine said, “I thought I could get him to drive me in to town.”
“Oh, not you, too!” mummy said. “Why do both of my children have to go to town today when it’s a perfectly lovely spring day and we have this charming old thirty-five room house to knock around in?”
“I’m sure Rexford won’t want to go,” Chester said.
“Well, it’s like this,” Charmaine said. “I haven’t seen my friend Claudia Millet for ages. I told her I’d spend the day with her today and I might even stay the night if she invites me. We’ll probably see a show or something.”
“Well, if you think you should,” mummy said. “I have to keep reminding myself that you’re a grown-up person now.”
“I was going to take a cab to town,” Chester said, “but since Liggett is going to drive you, Cha-Cha, I’ll just tag along. He can drop me off at the travel bureau. I can walk to the Seafarers’ Club from there and I’ll take a cab home.”
“Oh, why must you use that horrible nickname?” mummy asked. “I cringe every time I hear it.”
“What’s wrong with Cha-Cha? It’s a perfectly logical diminutive of Charmaine.”
“It sounds like a floozy or a harlot or something.”
“Well, isn’t that what she is?”
“Watch who you’re calling names, buster!” Charmaine said. “Two can play at that game. I might think of some names to call you that you wouldn’t especially like.”
Charmaine ordered the car for nine o’clock. Liggett was waiting for them at the front door. All the way into town, she and Chester spoke little. Chester closed his eyes and appeared to be dozing, while she looked out the window at the trees, which were just beginning to come into full leaf.
Liggett dropped Chester off first and then turned around in the front seat and asked Charmaine where she wanted to go.
“Just let me out at the library,” she said, “and I’ll walk from there.”
As she was getting out of the car, she dismissed Liggett for the day. She was spending the night in town, she said, and wouldn’t need him. He looked pleased that he wasn’t going to have to wait for her and could go back home and do as he pleased until he was needed again. He touched the brim of his hat in a kind of salute and drove away.
From the library, she walked six blocks to a different part of the city. She turned at a corner as if she knew where she was going and walked two blocks down until she came to an old hotel on a corner opposite an empty warehouse. She went inside and engaged a room for the night. The desk clerk told her she could have the room only if she paid for it in advance.
Alone in the room with the door securely locked, she put her little suitcase on the bed and opened it. She took off her expensive-looking dress and changed into an ugly gray one like a female prisoner would wear. She changed her stylish shoes for a pair of scuffed oxfords and then put her dress, shoes and leather handbag into the suitcase and put the suitcase under the bed. She wiped the lipstick and makeup off her face and put on a brown felt hat that completely covered her hair. Checking herself over in the mirror, front and back, she then went back down the dark, foul-smelling stairs to the street.
From the hotel, she walked five blocks and turned and began walking toward the river. She could smell the river and feel it in her mouth from a long way off. Finally when she came to a charity soup kitchen in a building whose windows had been covered with newspaper, she paused for a moment and then went inside. She found the man who ran the soup kitchen, a Reverend Peebles, and told him she was there to help. He gave her an apron and put her behind the counter.
She ladled soup into bowls until the pot was empty and somebody from the kitchen came and replaced the empty pot with a full one. She was sweating and her feet ached. Still the indigents came, an endless flow of them. The bowl of soup and slice of bread was all the food most of them would have all day.
After a couple of hours she spotted him far back in the line. His turn came, finally, and she filled his bowl. She smiled at him and he smiled back. When she saw him take a seat at the back of the room and begin eating, she gave her ladle to the girl standing closest to her and said she needed to take a little break. She took off the apron and went to where he was sitting and sat down across from him.
“Hello,” she said. “I was hoping you’d be here today.”
“Well, here I am,” he said.
“Are you feeling better than the last time?”
“No. I think I’m dying.”
“You should see the doctor at the free clinic.”
“What if I told you I don’t care that I’m dying?”
“Everybody wants to live,” she said.
“Let’s not quarrel.”
“I read the first six chapters of your book.”
“Are you going to tell me I’m a lousy writer?”
“On the contrary. I’ve never read anything like it. You have a very interesting and unusual way of expressing yourself. I can’t wait to read the rest of the book.”
“There’s not going to be anymore,” he said. “I’ve given up writing. It’s a luxury I can no longer afford.”
“What about the six chapters?”
“Burn them. Use them for wrapping fish. I don’t care.”
“You can’t give up now.”
“I got us a room,” she said, hoping to change the subject.
“Does this room have a bathtub?” he asked.
He flashed one of his rare smiles at her and finished his soup.
When they were walking back to the hotel, she stopped at a little market and bought a loaf of bread, some cheese, a couple tins of sardines, a package of cigarettes, two apples and some oranges.
“First a room and now food,” he said. “Where is the money coming from?”
“I had a little saved,” she said.
“You’re not a prostitute, are you?”
She laughed. “I’ll try not to be too insulted by that,” she said.
At the hotel, she had to help him up the stairs to the room because he was so weak. She opened the door and when he saw the bed he went to it and lay down heavily on his back, gasping for air.
“When are you going to see a doctor?” she asked.
“Probably not until they’re doing the autopsy.”
“Ha-ha. What a wit.”
While he was taking a bath, she washed his underwear and socks the best she could in the sink and hung them up to dry. When he came out of the bathroom he got into bed and covered up because he had nothing to put on.
“You’re feeling much better now, aren’t you?” she said.
She lay down on the bed beside him, on top of the covers. She kissed him lightly on the lips and then lit a cigarette for him.
“I really don’t know what I see in you,” she said.
“Don’t you think I’m handsome?”
“What is it then?”
“I don’t know. It was something I felt the first time I saw you last fall. Something that can’t be explained in words. Some kind of mysterious connection.”
“I don’t believe in that kind of bull,” he said.
“What do you believe in?”
He took her hand and put it to his lips. “You look and smell so clean,” he said. “Not like the rest of us.”
“I had a bath before I walked over to the soup kitchen.”
“I know nothing about you,” he said. “Are you some kind of an angel or something?”
“Do you have family? A family of angels?”
She laughed. “I have a mother, father and brother, but I don’t think anybody would ever think of them as angels.”
“Where do they live?”
“Not far from here.”
“When do I get to meet them?”
“You know, don’t you, that you’re wasting your time with me?”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because I’m no good. When I was growing up, my old man was always telling me I was worthless and I see now that he was so right.”
“Everybody has worth,” she said.
“I want you to just forget about me.”
“I could help you if you’d let me.”
“How do you mean?”
“I could give you money while you finish your book.”
“I’d rather die than take money from you.”
“You could think of it as a loan and pay me back when the book is published.”
“The book won’t ever be published. I told you. I’m washed up as a writer. I won’t ever write another word.”
They talked through much of the night and slept intermittently. He wanted to know about her upbringing. She told him as much as she could without actually lying, omitting, of course, certain details such as the family yacht and vacations in the South of France. They ate the food she bought, talked some more and slept some more.
When a police siren woke her up before dawn, he was gone. She waited for the sun to come up and then changed her clothes and left the hotel and found a cab to take her home.
At mid-morning when she was dozing on the terrace in the sun, mummy came out of the house and sat down close to her. When she realized mummy was looking at her with more than the usual scrutiny, she opened her eyes all the way and sat up.
“Are you going to the dance tonight at the country club?” mummy asked.
“I suppose so.”
“What dress are you going to wear?”
“The peach, I guess.”
“Who are you going with?”
“He’s very good-looking, isn’t he?”
“But you don’t like him very much, do you?”
“Not very much.”
“He’s an accomplished polo player and already owns his own yacht.”
“I think it’s time for you to start thinking about finding a suitable husband.”
“Maybe you can find one for me and save me the bother.”
“Did you and Claudia Millet have a good time?”
“What show did you see?”
“Oh, we decided not to go to a show after all. We had lots of talk to catch up on.”
“Why don’t you tell me where you really were?” mummy said.
“I suppose it wouldn’t do any good to tell you it’s none of your business, would it?”
“No,” mummy said. “Not this time. I think you should see a doctor and have a thorough physical exam.”
“All right, mummy,” she said. “Anything you say.”
Copyright © 2013 by Allen Kopp