“The Great Gatsby” entered the public domain on January 1, 2021
The dog was sitting in the middle of the hallway when I got off the elevator. Jimmy, the elevator boy, had warned me of its existence.
“They bought a dog. You ain’t suppose to have dogs in this building. But the one she comes with, he gave me twenty bucks. He’s one of those guys who think a twenty can fix everything. I took his money just to teach him a lesson.”
The dog was small. A puppy of open minded lineage. But he had the beginnings of a lupine snout so I felt he would grow up to look like a proper dog, not one of those yipping pin-cushions rich women carry around for some reason.
This was the Sunday before the Fourth of July and the city was starting to empty out. No one wants to be in Manhattan in the summer. The air takes on an almost oily thickness and the heat rises up from the pavement like the mercury in a thermometer. The subways become ovens, the nights never cool down enough that you can get any sleep so you always start the next day half dead. It’s really not much of a place, Manhattan. I should have stayed in Binghamton.
The puppy was very, very young. Not more than a few weeks old. Sort of a brown, curly coat with some Airedale deep in a very egalitarian mix of breeds. Brown, but with paws of pure white. As if the dog had been dipped in a pan of white paint.
There was noise from the open apartment door at the end of the hallway. The puppy looked back at the sound and wagged its tail. I figured that’s where he must have belonged.
The people in the apartment at the end of the hall were not my favorite neighbors in spite of the fact I don’t think they used the place more than a handful of days each month. But they made up for that when they were there. They had the sort of parties where everyone feels obliged to make as much noise as possible in order to convince everyone, themselves included, what a wicked and fabulous time they were having.
Records were played, people laughed the sort of mad-laughs you’d expect to hear in some asylum, dishes were broken…which always sparked more laughter.
Even when they didn’t have parties the two people could do a fine job irritating the other tenants all by themselves. A man and a woman. In their thirties. Everybody assumed they weren’t married. They were all certain this was some kind of “love nest” the couple had arranged for themselves. A cozy pocket of adultery in one of the apartment houses that line 158th Street like a long white cake.
They would arrive in the afternoons (this I learned from Mrs. Kelso who lived across the hall) and stay for a few hours, leaving together when they had finished what needed to be finished.
Sometimes they were leaving when I was coming home from the music store at seven-thirty. No pleasantries were exchanged; I was not entitled to acknowledgment.
I rode up in the elevator with them one Saturday and you could learn what there was to learn about them between the lobby and the top floor.
He was big and solid and could have been a stevedore except for his clothes. They were expensive and he knew how to inhabit them and you knew he’d been wearing clothes like that his entire life. Clothes that magically appeared on the stand next to his bed, waiting for him every morning without question. He had the look of one of those men who come from a family that’s been wealthy for so long the members consider money not so much a thing to be earned as an inherited trait, like the color of their eyes.
But the woman he was with put the lie to his patrician history. She was compressed. As if she was once taller and life had pressed down on her, one disappointment after another, pushing her closer to the ground, spreading her into a slightly rounder shape. But she carried her surplus flesh sensuously as some women can.
They filled the elevator car with a sort of weary squalor. They had chosen each other for reasons they’d never examined and would continue to move along their current course until acted upon by some outside force.
The only sound in the car aside from the metal complaint of the elevator being hoisted up through the core of the building was Jimmy the elevator boy whistling “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby” through his teeth, occasionally singing under his breath.
“Oh, by the way. Oh, by the way. When we meet the preacher, I’ll say…”
“Can it, will ya?” the man said.
Jimmy stopped whistling and singing. I thought the man was being a high-hatted jerk. Jimmy’s only domain was that metal cage. I believed strongly he should be the soul arbiter of its rules.
I picked up the puppy which turned out to be a female and walked down the hall to the open door.
Standing in the doorway I could see the layout of the apartment was close to the one of mine, except being at the end of the hall there were windows on two sides. Otherwise it had the same small living room, the same small dining room with its closet-sized kitchenette and I could see the open door to the small bedroom I knew would be connected to the bath.
The living room was crowded to the doors with a set of tapestried furniture entirely too large for the space. Crossing this room would set you dancing and dodging past ladies swinging in the gardens of Versailles. The only art in the room was a photograph of a stout old lady wearing a bonnet and looking at the photographer with what was either beatific peace or approaching senility.
The room was crowded with diligently amused people. There were my two neighbors; the McKees, a couple from the flat below; a slender redhead of milky complexion and ruthlessly plucked then redrawn eyebrows; and a trim, uncomfortable looking young man in a good, but not new, suit sitting on the sofa. He was trying to be invisible, a copy of Simon Called Peter open on his lap. He was the only one in the apartment who didn’t seem to care if people thought he was having a marvelous time. Frankly, he looked like he was waiting for a train. Impatiently waiting.
“Excuse me. Your dog was in the hallway.”
In the next moment the apartment was silent and all eyes had turned toward the stranger at the door.
The apartment wasn’t completely silent. There was a rhythmic hiss and bump from the Victrola. Someone had played a record and when the music ended no one noticed and the needle started a futile orbit of the last groove and the edge of the label.
The near silence continued for what felt like an eternity coldly segmented by the Victrola.
“I’m your neighbor. From down the hall,”
And somehow saying that was enough of a shibboleth to grant me safe passage across the threshold.
“Of course you are!” This confirmation from the woman who occupied the apartment. She wore an elaborate afternoon dress of cream colored chiffon that rustled as she swept across the room to take the dog from me. Then she turned to the others.
“Everybody, this is my neighbor…”
She looked at me not in forgetfulness but in expectation that it was my job to claim my name.
“Phillip,” I said. It always feels odd to say your own name out loud.
“Phillip!” she shouted as if terribly pleased I’d answered the question correctly. “Tom! Tom! Get Phil here a drink. He saved my little angel from god knows what might have happened to him.”
Tom, who looked at me as if I was bringing the red death to Prospero’s masquerade, turned toward the ice and glasses and whisky on the dining room table.
“That dog’s a bitch. I told you,” he said.
The redhead turned the record over and placed the needle at the edge. A reedy tenor started singing about Juanita.
My hostess dragged me toward the young man on the sofa.
“Nick, this is Phil,” she said as if presenting a prized possession. “Nick’s a friend of Tom’s. You’ll have a lot to talk about. Nick is in bonds.”
Why she thought I would be interested in bonds I don’t know. She must have thought everybody should be interested in bonds.
My host was suddenly behind me offering a glass. He traded the whisky for his wife who he pulled from my side, leaving me with Nick who was in bonds of which I know nothing. I indicated the open book on his lap.
He looked at the book. I thought he was surprised to find it in his hands.
“Either it’s terrible stuff or I’m drunk. It doesn’t make any sense to me. Myrtle said you were in bonds.”
Nick pointed across the room to where my hosts were standing beyond the clutter of the dining room table. They were Myrtle and Tom. They had names. That made me feel a little less like an intruder.
They were Tom and Myrtle. The man on the sofa was Nick. The pale feminine man from downstairs was Mr. McKee. Mrs. McKee was near the record player. She was shrill, languid, handsome and horrible. That left only the redhead unidentified.
“The woman with the red hair and the eyebrows?” I asked.
“Catherine. I gather she’s Myrtle’s sister.”
“I only me her today. Myrtle and then Catherine and then all this.”
“You’re friends with Tom.”
“He’s married to my cousin.”
He must have seen something on my face at the mention Tom was married. Not merely married, but married to this man’s cousin who appeared untroubled by knowledge of Myrtle and this apartment. He put the book aside and drank the last of his whisky.
“I’m sorry,” I said. I had nothing to feel sorry about, but I said it anyway. “The two of them… This apartment… He doesn’t seem to worry about being… Discreet?”
“It’s my experience that Tom Buchanan is one of those men who take a kind of pride in what others might conclude to be a weakness of character.”
“I know the type. I’ve just never seen such an open display.”
“Don't get too righteous. Remember he dragged me here and expects some sort of masculine brotherhood will keep me from telling my cousin. Tom seems confident I’m either a swine or a coward.”
“Which one are you?” I asked.
“I haven’t made up my mind yet.”
Nick stood and without further comment crossed the apartment to pour more whisky in his glass.
I thought this would be an opportunity to escape, but before I could get to my feet Catherine, the woman Nick indicated as my hostess’s sister, came toward me on a wave of incessant clicking produced by the innumerable pottery bracelets that jingled up and down her arms.
She sat next to me with instantly proprietary and disturbing closeness.
“Myrtle tells me you’re in the bond game. I wish I could find someone to trust in that racket.”
She crossed her legs at me, making a point of tapping the toes of our shoes together. A bar of golden afternoon light came through the blinds to fall on her stockinged calf. I could see the threads of black silk very clearly, and tiny motes of dust that idled in the air above her foot like attendant fairies.
“No, I’m not in bonds,” I told her.
She was startled by this, or else it was the artificial shape of her brows, as black as India ink, that gave her a constant expression of surprise.
“That’s what Myrtle told me. Why would she tell me that if it wasn’t true?”
I couldn’t tell if she was angry at me or at Myrtle for the deception.
“I don’t know,” I told her.
“You were sitting here with Nick. He’s in bonds, too. At least Myrtle said so. Or are you trying to tell me my sister’s a liar about that, too?”
She squinted at me having determined the safest course of action, the one that would require the least effort, was to identify me as the liar.
This was not a conversation I wanted to have so I took what I hoped would be a quick way to kill it.
“Nick said Tom’s married to his cousin. Nick’s cousin. Does Myrtle know about that?”
Saying this had the opposite effect from the one I desired. Catherine’s eyes opened wide and we were now mutual connoisseurs of the cosmopolitan distractions of marital infidelity.
“Oh, everybody knows all about that. Nobody cares.”
“Maybe Myrtle’s husband hasn’t figured it out yet.”
“Myrtle’s married as well?”
“Sure she is, but he’s dumb as a ferry boat.”
I was going to ask her what made ferry boats sufficiently dim that they earn the status of simile when Myrtle was suddenly in front of us having heard Catherine mention that the geometry of her affair was not triangular but rectangular.
“Fuck George B. Wilson and all the tea in China!” she shouted.
No one paid any particular attention to this declaration. I looked past Myrtle to Tom who was standing by himself next to the Victrola. This was not the afternoon he had been hoping for and he cared not who knew it. He started to cross the room.
Nick appeared between the lovers. He took Myrtle by the arm and navigated her toward the kitchenette.
“I think the puppy would like some milk, don’t you?” he prompted.
When they were safely out of Tom’s reach and Tom had stepped to the window to face the sunset but not look at it, Catherine tugged at my sleeve.
“You see?” she insisted. “It’s really his wife that’s keeping them apart, She’s a Catholic and they don’t believe in divorce. Don’t let Myrtle fool you, she was nuts about George Wilson when they met. Then six months after the wedding a man showed up at the door and asked for his suit back. ‘What suit?’ she asks him. ‘The suit I lent George so he could get married in,’ he told her. First Myrtle’d heard of it. There she was standing there in the middle of the garage with this stranger realizing she’d married a man in a borrowed suit. As you can imagine it was all down hill from there.”
“You can’t tell me what I can and can not say in my own apartment!” Myrtle’s voice filled the room.
Catherine and I and everyone else turned to see that Myrtle had gotten away from Nick and was face to face with Tom by the window.
“And if I want to say her name I can say it all I want and you can’t stop me,” she said, looking up at her lover. To prove it she initiated a chant: “Daisy! Daisy! Daisy!”
Catherine’s lips were suddenly at my ear whispering, “Daisy’s the other woman.”
I was going to tell her that, technically, Myrtle was the other woman when something happened.
“I’ll say her name whenever I want!” Myrtle proclaimed with her hands on her substantial hips, then resumed the chant of her nemesis’ name: “Daisy! Daisy! Dai—-”
Making a short deft movement Tom broke Myrtle’s nose with his open hand.
The air stopped moving. On the Victrola someone complained about the “Vo Do De O Blues.” Myrtle’s cries arrived a moment later, along with the blood that flowed over her mouth and chin then down the front of her rustling chiffon dress, thick and preternaturally red in the setting sun.
Then something else happened.
I remember starting to get up, pushing off against the arm of the sofa. Then there was a brief interlude of burgundy colored mud. Then I was looking down at Tom Buchanan on the floor at my feet crawling away in the direction of the dining room. He looked like someone had punched him in the gut and sent him to the floor, gasping for breath.
I looked around to see who had done the deed and saw from the faces around me that I was the one who had done it.
Somebody had to. I barely knew the man, but I knew him well enough to punch him after he hit a woman who didn’t come up to his collar buttons. Surely there were others who had more reason than I. Nick for one. Why was I the only one who actually did something about him?
Then there were bloody towels upon the bathroom floor and women’s voices scolding and high over the confusion a long broken wail of pain.
I thought it best to withdraw at that juncture and did so. I left Mr. McKee pouring a drink at the dining room table, Mrs. McKee and Catherine scolding and consoling as they stumbled here and there among the crowded furniture with articles of aid, the despairing figure on the couch bleeding fluently and trying to spread a copy of Town Tattler over the tapestry scenes of Versailles, and Nick holding a wastepaper basket in front of Tom Buchanan who was on all fours vomiting prodigiously.
I walked out, closing the door behind me and went down the hall to my apartment, there to wait for the superintendent or a police officer or for Tom’s seconds offering me a choice of weapons.
But no one came to my door. So, I made a toasted cheese sandwich and enjoyed it with a glass of milk. Then the events of the day overtook me and I fell asleep on the sofa.
I woke in the dark several hours later and cautiously stepped out into the hallway. All I could hear was the traffic coming through the open window at the end of the hall. I walked down to the apartment where I had punched Tom Buchanan in the stomach and listened at the door. There were no sounds of human occupancy. But after a few moments I detected a faint scratching at the bottom of the door and a thin yet mournful whimpering. Wherever the humans had gone, they had left the puppy behind.
I put my shoulder to the door and forced it open with surprisingly slight effort. Once you’ve punched a stranger in the stomach as an act of chivalry there are no limits to your Quixotic behavior.
I picked up the frightened pup and stepped into the apartment. I took a hatbox from the bedroom closet, dumping the contents on the bed, and took some old movie magazines from the night stand before I went back to my apartment. There I shredded the magazines into the hatbox to make a bed for the puppy and prepared a dish of milk for her.
I don’t know why, but I think I have seen the last of Tom Buchanan and Myrtle Wilson. The apartment was never a home so abandoning it will be easy for them. Even if they did come back I’m confident they will have forgotten about the pup or have chosen to believe there never was a dog. They could excise the entire day from memory if it was to their advantage. Some people have the gift for doing that.
I have decided to name the dog…Daisy.
Joseph Dougherty is a writer living in California.