About half way between West Egg and New York the motor-road hastilyjoins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile, so as toshrink away from a certain desolate area of land. This is a valley ofashes--a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges andhills and grotesque gardens where ashes take the forms of houses andchimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, ofmen who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.Occasionally a line of grey cars crawls along an invisible track, givesout a ghastly creak and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-greymen swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloudwhich screens their obscure operations from your sight.
But above the grey land and the spasms of bleak dust which driftendlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg. The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue andgigantic--their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face but,instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over anonexistent nose. Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there tofatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himselfinto eternal blindness or forgot them and moved away. But his eyes,dimmed a little by many paintless days under sun and rain, brood on overthe solemn dumping ground.
The valley of ashes is bounded on one side by a small foul river, andwhen the drawbridge is up to let barges through, the passengers onwaiting trains can stare at the dismal scene for as long as half anhour. There is always a halt there of at least a minute and it wasbecause of this that I first met Tom Buchanan's mistress.
The fact that he had one was insisted upon wherever he was known. Hisacquaintances resented the fact that he turned up in popularrestaurants with her and, leaving her at a table, sauntered about,chatting with whomsoever he knew. Though I was curious to see her Ihad no desire to meet her--but I did. I went up to New York with Tom onthe train one afternoon and when we stopped by the ashheaps he jumpedto his feet and taking hold of my elbow literally forced me from thecar.
"We're getting off!" he insisted. "I want you to meet my girl."
I think he'd tanked up a good deal at luncheon and his determination tohave my company bordered on violence. The supercilious assumption was thaton Sunday afternoon I had nothing better to do.
I followed him over a low white-washed railroad fence and we walkedback a hundred yards along the road under Doctor Eckleburg's persistentstare. The only building in sight was a small block of yellow bricksitting on the edge of the waste land, a sort of compact Main Streetministering to it and contiguous to absolutely nothing. One of thethree shops it contained was for rent and another was an all-nightrestaurant approached by a trail of ashes; the third was agarage--Repairs. GEORGE B. WILSON. Cars Bought and Sold--and I followedTom inside.
The interior was unprosperous and bare; the only car visible was thedust-covered wreck of a Ford which crouched in a dim corner. It hadoccurred to me that this shadow of a garage must be a blind and thatsumptuous and romantic apartments were concealed overhead when theproprietor himself appeared in the door of an office, wiping his handson a piece of waste. He was a blonde, spiritless man, anaemic, andfaintly handsome. When he saw us a damp gleam of hope sprang into hislight blue eyes.
"Hello, Wilson, old man," said Tom, slapping him jovially on theshoulder. "How's business?"
"I can't complain," answered Wilson unconvincingly. "When are you goingto sell me that car?"
"Next week; I've got my man working on it now."
"Works pretty slow, don't he?"
"No, he doesn't," said Tom coldly. "And if you feel that way about it,maybe I'd better sell it somewhere else after all."
"I don't mean that," explained Wilson quickly. "I just meant----"
His voice faded off and Tom glanced impatiently around the garage. ThenI heard footsteps on a stairs and in a moment the thickish figure of awoman blocked out the light from the office door. She was in the middlethirties, and faintly stout, but she carried her surplus flesh sensuouslyas some women can. Her face, above a spotted dress of dark bluecrepe-de-chine, contained no facet or gleam of beauty but there was animmediately perceptible vitality about her as if the nerves of her bodywere continually smouldering. She smiled slowly and walking through herhusband as if he were a ghost shook hands with Tom, looking him flush inthe eye. Then she wet her lips and without turning around spoke to herhusband in a soft, coarse voice:
"Get some chairs, why don't you, so somebody can sit down."
"Oh, sure," agreed Wilson hurriedly and went toward the little office,mingling immediately with the cement color of the walls. A white ashendust veiled his dark suit and his pale hair as it veiled everything inthe vicinity--except his wife, who moved close to Tom.
"I want to see you," said Tom intently. "Get on the next train."
"I'll meet you by the news-stand on the lower level."
She nodded and moved away from him just as George Wilsonemerged with two chairs from his office door.
We waited for her down the road and out of sight. It was a few days beforethe Fourth of July, and a grey, scrawny Italian child was settingtorpedoes in a row along the railroad track.
"Terrible place, isn't it," said Tom, exchanging a frown with DoctorEckleburg.
"It does her good to get away."
"Doesn't her husband object?"
"Wilson? He thinks she goes to see her sister in New York. He's so dumbhe doesn't know he's alive."
So Tom Buchanan and his girl and I went up together to New York--or notquite together, for Mrs. Wilson sat discreetly in another car. Tomdeferred that much to the sensibilities of those East Eggers who might beon the train.
She had changed her dress to a brown figured muslin which stretchedtight over her rather wide hips as Tom helped her to the platform inNew York. At the news-stand she bought a copy of "Town Tattle" and amoving-picture magazine and, in the station drug store, some cold creamand a small flask of perfume. Upstairs, in the solemn echoing driveshe let four taxi cabs drive away before she selected a new one,lavender-colored with grey upholstery, and in this we slid out from themass of the station into the glowing sunshine. But immediately sheturned sharply from the window and leaning forward tapped on thefront glass.
"I want to get one of those dogs," she said earnestly. "I want to get onefor the apartment. They're nice to have--a dog."
We backed up to a grey old man who bore an absurd resemblance to JohnD. Rockefeller. In a basket, swung from his neck, cowered a dozen veryrecent puppies of an indeterminate breed.
"What kind are they?" asked Mrs. Wilson eagerly as he came to thetaxi-window.
"All kinds. What kind do you want, lady?"
"I'd like to get one of those police dogs; I don't suppose you got thatkind?"
The man peered doubtfully into the basket, plunged in his hand and drewone up, wriggling, by the back of the neck.
"That's no police dog," said Tom.
"No, it's not exactly a polICE dog," said the man with disappointmentin his voice. "It's more of an airedale." He passed his hand over thebrown wash-rag of a back. "Look at that coat. Some coat. That's a dogthat'll never bother you with catching cold."
"I think it's cute," said Mrs. Wilson enthusiastically. "How much is it?"
"That dog?" He looked at it admiringly. "That dog will cost you tendollars."
The airedale--undoubtedly there was an airedale concerned in it somewherethough its feet were startlingly white--changed hands and settled downinto Mrs. Wilson's lap, where she fondled the weather-proof coat withrapture.
"Is it a boy or a girl?" she asked delicately.
"That dog? That dog's a boy."
"It's a bitch," said Tom decisively. "Here's your money. Go and buy tenmore dogs with it."
We drove over to Fifth Avenue, so warm and soft, almost pastoral, on thesummer Sunday afternoon that I wouldn't have been surprised to see a greatflock of white sheep turn the corner.
"Hold on," I said, "I have to leave you here."
"No, you don't," interposed Tom quickly. "Myrtle'll be hurt if you don't come up to the apartment. Won't you,Myrtle?"
"Come on," she urged. "I'll telephone my sister Catherine. She's said tobe very beautiful by people who ought to know."
"Well, I'd like to, but----"
We went on, cutting back again over the Park toward the West Hundreds.At 158th Street the cab stopped at one slice in a long white cake ofapartment houses. Throwing a regal homecoming glance around theneighborhood, Mrs. Wilson gathered up her dog and her other purchasesand went haughtily in.
"I'm going to have the McKees come up," she announced as we rose in theelevator. "And of course I got to call up my sister, too."
The apartment was on the top floor--a small living room, a smalldining room, a small bedroom and a bath. The living room was crowded tothe doors with a set of tapestried furniture entirely too large for itso that to move about was to stumble continually over scenes ofladies swinging in the gardens of Versailles. The only picture wasan over-enlarged photograph, apparently a hen sitting on a blurredrock. Looked at from a distance however the hen resolved itselfinto a bonnet and the countenance of a stout old lady beamed downinto the room. Several old copies of "Town Tattle "lay on the tabletogether with a copy of "Simon Called Peter" and some of the smallscandal magazines of Broadway. Mrs. Wilson was first concerned withthe dog. A reluctant elevator boy went for a box full of straw andsome milk to which he added on his own initiative a tin of largehard dog biscuits--one of which decomposed apathetically in the saucerof milk all afternoon. Meanwhile Tom brought out a bottle of whiskeyfrom a locked bureau door.
I have been drunk just twice in my life and the second time was thatafternoon so everything that happened has a dim hazy cast over italthough until after eight o'clock the apartment was full of cheerfulsun. Sitting on Tom's lap Mrs. Wilson called up several people on thetelephone; then there were no cigarettes and I went out to buy some atthe drug store on the corner. When I came back they had disappeared soI sat down discreetly in the living room and read a chapter of "SimonCalled Peter"--either it was terrible stuff or the whiskey distortedthings because it didn't make any sense to me.
Just as Tom and Myrtle--after the first drink Mrs. Wilson and I calledeach other by our first names--reappeared, company commenced to arriveat the apartment door.
The sister, Catherine, was a slender, worldly girl of about thirtywith a solid sticky bob of red hair and a complexion powdered milkywhite. Her eyebrows had been plucked and then drawn on again at a morerakish angle but the efforts of nature toward the restoration of theold alignment gave a blurred air to her face. When she moved aboutthere was an incessant clicking as innumerable pottery braceletsjingled up and down upon her arms. She came in with such a proprietaryhaste and looked around so possessively at the furniture that I wonderedif she lived here. But when I asked her she laughed immoderately, repeatedmy question aloud and told me she lived with a girl friend at a hotel.
Mr. McKee was a pale feminine man from the flat below. He had justshaved for there was a white spot of lather on his cheekbone and hewas most respectful in his greeting to everyone in the room. Heinformed me that he was in the "artistic game" and I gathered laterthat he was a photographer and had made the dim enlargement of Mrs.Wilson's mother which hovered like an ectoplasm on the wall. His wifewas shrill, languid, handsome and horrible. She told me with pridethat her husband had photographed her a hundred and twenty-seven timessince they had been married.
Mrs. Wilson had changed her costume some time before and was nowattired in an elaborate afternoon dress of cream colored chiffon, whichgave out a continual rustle as she swept about the room.With the influence of the dress her personality had also undergone achange. The intense vitality that had been so remarkable in the garagewas converted into impressive hauteur. Her laughter, her gestures, herassertions became more violently affected moment by moment and as sheexpanded the room grew smaller around her until she seemed to berevolving on a noisy, creaking pivot through the smoky air.
"My dear," she told her sister in a high mincing shout, "most of thesefellas will cheat you every time. All they think of is money. I had awoman up here last week to look at my feet and when she gave me thebill you'd of thought she had my appendicitus out."
"What was the name of the woman?" asked Mrs. McKee.
"Mrs. Eberhardt. She goes around looking at people's feet in their ownhomes."
"I like your dress," remarked Mrs. McKee, "I think it's adorable."
Mrs. Wilson rejected the compliment by raising her eyebrow in disdain.
"It's just a crazy old thing," she said. "I just slip it on sometimes whenI don't care what I look like."
"But it looks wonderful on you, if you know what I mean," pursuedMrs. McKee. "If Chester could only get you in that pose I think he couldmake something of it."
We all looked in silence at Mrs. Wilson who removed a strand of hair fromover her eyes and looked back at us with a brilliant smile. Mr. McKeeregarded her intently with his head on one side and then moved his handback and forth slowly in front of his face.
"I should change the light," he said after a moment. "I'd like to bringout the modelling of the features. And I'd try to get hold of all theback hair."
"I wouldn't think of changing the light," cried Mrs. McKee. "I thinkit's----"
Her husband said "SH!" and we all looked at the subject again whereuponTom Buchanan yawned audibly and got to his feet.
"You McKees have something to drink," he said. "Get some more ice andmineral water, Myrtle, before everybody goes to sleep."
"I told that boy about the ice." Myrtle raised her eyebrows in despairat the shiftlessness of the lower orders. "These people! You have to keepafter them all the time."
She looked at me and laughed pointlessly. Then she flounced over to thedog, kissed it with ecstasy and swept into the kitchen, implying thata dozen chefs awaited her orders there.
"I've done some nice things out on Long Island," asserted Mr. McKee.
Tom looked at him blankly.
"Two of them we have framed downstairs."
"Two what?" demanded Tom.
"Two studies. One of them I call 'Montauk Point--the Gulls,' and theother I call 'Montauk Point--the Sea.' "
The sister Catherine sat down beside me on the couch.
"Do you live down on Long Island, too?" she inquired.
"I live at West Egg."
"Really? I was down there at a party about a month ago. At a man namedGatsby's. Do you know him?"
"I live next door to him."
"Well, they say he's a nephew or a cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm's. That'swhere all his money comes from."
"I'm scared of him. I'd hate to have him get anything on me."
This absorbing information about my neighbor was interrupted byMrs. McKee's pointing suddenly at Catherine:
"Chester, I think you could do something with HER," she broke out,but Mr. McKee only nodded in a bored way and turned his attentionto Tom.
"I'd like to do more work on Long Island if I could get the entry. AllI ask is that they should give me a start."
"Ask Myrtle," said Tom, breaking into a short shout of laughter asMrs. Wilson entered with a tray. "She'll give you a letter ofintroduction, won't you, Myrtle?"
"Do what?" she asked, startled.
"You'll give McKee a letter of introduction to your husband, so he cando some studies of him." His lips moved silently for a moment as heinvented. " 'George B. Wilson at the Gasoline Pump,' or something likethat."
Catherine leaned close to me and whispered in my ear: "Neither of themcan stand the person they're married to."
"Can't STAND them." She looked at Myrtle and then at Tom. "What I say is,why go on living with them if they can't stand them? If I was them I'd geta divorce and get married to each other right away."
"Doesn't she like Wilson either?"
The answer to this was unexpected. It came from Myrtle who had overheardthe question and it was violent and obscene.
"You see?" cried Catherine triumphantly. She lowered her voice again."It's really his wife that's keeping them apart. She's a Catholic andthey don't believe in divorce."
Daisy was not a Catholic and I was a little shocked at the elaboratenessof the lie.
"When they do get married," continued Catherine, "they're going west tolive for a while until it blows over."
"It'd be more discreet to go to Europe."
"Oh, do you like Europe?" she exclaimed surprisingly. "I just got backfrom Monte Carlo."
"Just last year. I went over there with another girl."
"No, we just went to Monte Carlo and back. We went by way of Marseilles.We had over twelve hundred dollars when we started but we got gyppedout of it all in two days in the private rooms. We had an awful timegetting back, I can tell you. God, how I hated that town!"
The late afternoon sky bloomed in the window for a moment like the bluehoney of the Mediterranean--then the shrill voice of Mrs. McKee called meback into the room.
"I almost made a mistake, too," she declared vigorously. "I almostmarried a little kyke who'd been after me for years. I knew he wasbelow me. Everybody kept saying to me: 'Lucille, that man's way belowyou!' But if I hadn't met Chester, he'd of got me sure."
"Yes, but listen," said Myrtle Wilson, nodding her head up and down,"at least you didn't marry him."
"I know I didn't."
"Well, I married him," said Myrtle, ambiguously. "And that's thedifference between your case and mine."
"Why did you, Myrtle?" demanded Catherine. "Nobody forced you to."
"I married him because I thought he was a gentleman," she said finally."I thought he knew something about breeding, but he wasn't fit to lickmy shoe."
"You were crazy about him for a while," said Catherine.
"Crazy about him!" cried Myrtle incredulously. "Who said I was crazy abouthim? I never was any more crazy about him than I was about that manthere."
She pointed suddenly at me, and every one looked at me accusingly.I tried to show by my expression that I had played no part in her past.
"The only CRAZY I was was when I married him. I knew right away I made amistake. He borrowed somebody's best suit to get married in and nevereven told me about it, and the man came after it one day when he was out.She looked around to see who was listening: " 'Oh, is that your suit?' I said.'This is the first I ever heard about it.' But I gave it to him and then I lay downand cried to beat the band all afternoon."
"She really ought to get away from him," resumed Catherine to me."They've been living over that garage for eleven years. And Tom's thefirst sweetie she ever had."
The bottle of whiskey--a second one--was now in constant demand by allpresent, excepting Catherine who "felt just as good on nothing at all."Tom rang for the janitor and sent him for some celebrated sandwiches,which were a complete supper in themselves. I wanted to get out and walkeastward toward the park through the soft twilight but each time I triedto go I became entangled in some wild strident argument which pulled meback, as if with ropes, into my chair. Yet high over the city our line ofyellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to thecasual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up andwondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelledby the inexhaustible variety of life.
Myrtle pulled her chair close to mine, and suddenly her warm breathpoured over me the story of her first meeting with Tom.
"It was on the two little seats facing each other that are always thelast ones left on the train. I was going up to New York to see mysister and spend the night. He had on a dress suit and patent leathershoes and I couldn't keep my eyes off him but every time he looked atme I had to pretend to be looking at the advertisement over his head.When we came into the station he was next to me and his whiteshirt-front pressed against my arm--and so I told him I'd have to calla policeman, but he knew I lied. I was so excited that when I got intoa taxi with him I didn't hardly know I wasn't getting into a subwaytrain. All I kept thinking about, over and over, was 'You can't liveforever, you can't live forever.' "
She turned to Mrs. McKee and the room rang full of her artificiallaughter.
"My dear," she cried, "I'm going to give you this dress as soon as I'mthrough with it. I've got to get another one tomorrow. I'm going tomake a list of all the things I've got to get. A massage and a waveand a collar for the dog and one of those cute little ash-trays whereyou touch a spring, and a wreath with a black silk bow for mother'sgrave that'll last all summer. I got to write down a list so I won'tforget all the things I got to do."
It was nine o'clock--almost immediately afterward I looked at my watchand found it was ten. Mr. McKee was asleep on a chair with his fistsclenched in his lap, like a photograph of a man of action. Taking out myhandkerchief I wiped from his cheek the remains of the spot of driedlather that had worried me all the afternoon.
The little dog was sitting on the table looking with blind eyes throughthe smoke and from time to time groaning faintly. People disappeared,reappeared, made plans to go somewhere, and then lost each other,searched for each other, found each other a few feet away. Some timetoward midnight Tom Buchanan and Mrs. Wilson stood face to facediscussing in impassioned voices whether Mrs. Wilson had any right tomention Daisy's name.
"Daisy! Daisy! Daisy!" shouted Mrs. Wilson. "I'll say it whenever I wantto! Daisy! Dai----"
Making a short deft movement Tom Buchanan broke her nose with hisopen hand.
Then there were bloody towels upon the bathroom floor, and women'svoices scolding, and high over the confusion a long broken wail ofpain. Mr. McKee awoke from his doze and started in a daze toward the door.When he had gone half way he turned around and stared at the scene--hiswife and Catherine scolding and consoling as they stumbled here andthere among the crowded furniture with articles of aid, and thedespairing figure on the couch bleeding fluently and trying to spreada copy of "Town Tattle" over the tapestry scenes of Versailles.Then Mr. McKee turned and continued on out the door. Taking my hat fromthe chandelier I followed.
"Come to lunch some day," he suggested, as we groaned down in theelevator.
"Keep your hands off the lever," snapped the elevator boy.
"I beg your pardon," said Mr. McKee with dignity, "I didn't know I wastouching it."
"All right," I agreed, "I'll be glad to."
. . . I was standing beside his bed and he was sitting up between thesheets, clad in his underwear, with a great portfolio in his hands.
"Beauty and the Beast . . . Loneliness . . . Old Grocery Horse . . .Brook'n Bridge . . . ."
Then I was lying half asleep in the cold lower level of the PennsylvaniaStation, staring at the morning "Tribune" and waiting for the fouro'clock train.