The mournful wail of the cop sirens is drawing ever closer, but I feel an explanation is necessary.
From the first time I read the book, I was not satisfied with their account of the accident. I was inclined to believe a collusion had been perpetrated on the reader. A collusion in which Fitzgerald had taken part.
Nick’s portrayal of himself as an innocent recipient of unwanted confidences; his position as an unwitting observer of a booze-fuelled rich, but empty lifestyle, did not ring true, no matter how many times I read the book or studied its notes.
So, dressed in the fashion of the day and armed with a copy of the book, I entered the plot. Where else to enter it but at one of the parties? After all you didn’t need to be invited; you just went there.
I decided to join that one party where Nick arrives as a stranger. I could then introduce myself and strike up a friendship around my interest of dealing in bonds. With my knowledge of that roaring decade’s Wall Street, we would soon be rich.
Dressed in white flannels similar to Nick’s, I parked my freshly purchased, light green roadster amongst the other automobiles from New York, already five deep in the drive.
The music drifted out of the grand house and through the summer evening. Men dressed in black or white provided a chequer board backdrop over which women flowed in iridescent colours. The bar was in full swing and easy laughter gushed around the ever forming then dissolving groups of revellers. A woman dressed in shimmering opal danced across a canvas platform, her partner a fresh cocktail, embraced for the performance. The orchestra blended its rhythm around her while the chatter of rumour and innuendo swelled and the lights grew brighter. An unwanted sun dropped to a more grateful hemisphere as blue shadows flowed through the garden of exotic drinks and gaudy gaiety. The party had begun.
I meandered through the swirls of people, accepting one of the offered cocktails from a passing waiter. There was Nick, his expression of unease making him easy to identify. Having prior knowledge and a purpose of my own, I blended into the party attracting a bright young flapper. She settled on my arm like an effervescent moth, and we followed Nick into the house. There he saw Jordan and greeted her as a man adrift would greet a life raft. We watched as they gave an ear to two girls in twin yellow dresses, then sauntered along behind them to a table where we all sat and exchanged gossip about our host. My companion, Esme, asked me if I knew him and of course, I said I did, quite well in fact. This drew gasps of astonishment and more questions than it was possible to answer.
The first supper was being served and Jordan invited Nick, Esme and me to sit with her companions. I knew from the book that Jordan would soon grow bored and lead us away to find our host. In the meantime, I talked to Nick, informing him of my interest in the bond market. He was eager to hear of my progress, and when I mentioned I lived by myself in New York he invited me to share his bungalow just across the garden from the house.
Jordan announced that the company was too polite for her and we moved off to the bar, a tour of the house, and finally back out into the garden where the party was expanding in hilarity and riotous entertainment. The moon and its reflection in the water watched and trembled as we settled at a table with a rowdy girl and a man of similar age to Nick and me. It was Gatsby.
Nick had relaxed and was enjoying himself. Jordan, for all her detached coolness, was enamoured with Gatsby’s handsome intelligence. Esme watched Gatsby with the acuity of a doe caught in the headlights of her own demise. I sat back in my chair with cold champagne at my lips and hot jazz in my ears, watching Fitzgerald’s creation transmute around my influence.
Gatsby looked at Nick and myself and inquired politely, ‘Your faces look familiar. Weren’t you in the First Division during the war?’
‘Why yes, I was in the Twenty-eighth infantry,’ said Nick.
‘I was in the Eighteenth.’
‘I was in the Sixteenth until June 1918,’ said Gatsby. ‘I knew I had seen you somewhere before.’
We shook hands and I introduced myself as Robert Whetstone. The three of us talked for a moment about France. Gatsby then told us he had just bought a hydroplane and he was going to try it out the next morning.
‘Want to go with me old sports? Just near the shore along the sound.’
‘What time?’ Nick inquired.
‘Any time that suits you best.’
Jordan looked at Nick and smiled, ‘Having a gay time now?’ she asked.
‘Much better,’ he answered. ‘Particularly now that I’ve met my host.’
‘I thought you knew old sport, I’m afraid sometimes I’m not a very good host.’
I watched Gatsby charm Nick with a reassuring smile making him feel as though he was the most interesting person in Gatsby’s life. He turned his smile to me and it vanished, to be replaced by a puzzled, quizzical look.
‘The Eighteenth you say?’
‘Yes,’ I lied. ‘We were in reserve outside of Albert.’ Gatsby found me familiar because of the number of times I had read Fitzgerald’s text. Of all of the gate crashers, party friends and hangers-on that night, I knew him best. He nodded as his false memory deceived him.
‘Yes of course old sport, I remember now.’ A butler appeared at his side with the information that Chicago was calling him on the wire. He excused himself with a bow. ‘If you want anything, just ask for it old sports,’ he urged us.
It was now almost two and the four of us raised ourselves from our chairs and made ready to leave. Esme gave me her card as I told her of my arrangement with Nick. We walked through the gardens to the driveway where a coupé had crashed into a sharp jut of a wall, tearing off a wheel. In the book the coupé had belonged to Owl Eyes, now though it had a different owner. The ripples of my presence were spreading quickly. The band played its last number as Gatsby re-joined us. We apologized for staying so late.
‘Don’t mention it old sports,’ he enjoined. ‘Don’t give it another thought, and remember our ride on the hydroplane tomorrow morning.’ Then the butler was again at his shoulder.
‘Philadelphia wants you on the phone sir.’
‘Yes, well tell them I’m coming. Good night old sports.’
We said goodbye to Jordan and Esme, and I walked across the lawns with Nick to his bungalow where he had offered me a room for the night. My plan was working out well. Later, when I heard Nick snoring, I advanced myself through the chapters of the book to where Nick met Gatsby and Meyer Wolfsheim for lunch. By then I had moved into West Egg, so I was invited too.
Nick and I were now making a fair killing on the stock market, creating our own small vortex around which other investors were beginning to circle. People recognized us in New York restaurants. Wolfsheim knew of us. He was a small, flat-nosed Jewish man of the kind who prompted you to count your fingers after shaking hands with him. His venality ran so deep I wondered how there could have been any doubt whether Fitzgerald, along with half of America at that time, was anti-Semitic. The idea that Wolfsheim was a handy cliché, a foil to Nick’s supposed innocence, unravelled before my eyes. There was, though, the name of Wolfsheim’s business, The Swastika Holding Company. The swastika meant nothing here in 1922; the glittering savagery of Kristallnacht was sixteen years away, the innocence of America still in full bloom.
Fitzgerald however, was well-travelled on the continent, in with the Paris café society. He must have been aware of Hitler and his nascent Nazi party; discussed their dreadful potential across a table somewhere with Hemingway; seen the writhing in the serpent’s egg.
‘You boys are making a name for yourselves,’ Wolfsheim observed after Gatsby made the introductions. He looked us over, ‘You got some kinda inside knowledge?’ I flared in anger at his casual but well observed insult, but it was Nick who spoke first.
‘No Mr Wolfsheim, we don’t have inside knowledge, we are just very good at what we do.’ Wolfsheim looked us over again.
‘Yeah, right,’ he remarked. ‘I’m also very good at what I do, and what I do is to make money where ever I see the opportunity.’
‘With the Swastika Holding Company?’ I intervened.
‘That’s right,’ he said, ‘Herr Hitler is a good investment for the future of Germany.’
There it was, Fitzgerald had been well aware of the Nazis.
‘Hitler hates the Jews.’
‘That’s the point. When he realizes how much money the New York Jews have raised for his party, he will think again and include the German Jews in his government and structures. We will make money on both sides of the Atlantic.’
I shook my head in disbelief.
‘Don’t worry old sport,’ said Gatsby, ‘Mr Wolfsheim is a smart man.’ Nick said nothing. Gatsby and Wolfsheim reminisced for a while about an incident at the old Metropole before Wolfsheim jerked back his coffee and stood up.
‘Don’t hurry Meyer,’ said Gatsby.
‘You’re very polite,’ said Wolfsheim, ‘but I’m from another generation.’ He looked at Nick and me. ‘You boys ever want to broaden your investments, just let me know.’ We shook hands and turned away. After he had gone Nick asked Gatsby what Wolfsheim actually did.
‘He’s a gambler,’ explained Gatsby. ‘In 1919 he fixed the World Series.’ I could see that the idea staggered Nick. What I missed as the waiter came to clear our table, was the glitter in Nick’s eyes.
Later that night in West Egg, as Nick dreamed of Jordan and money, I ruminated on Fitzgerald’s manipulation of Wolfsheim. Why use an ugly old Jew to display the swastika? Was it a coded signal of his knowledge and availability for the German and American Jews? To make money as a go-between? After all he had a serious drinking habit to support, not to mention Zelda and ‘Scottie’.
My primary concern though, lay with the events of that fateful evening in the valley of ashes. With my presence now secure in Gatsby’s world, I advanced myself through the chapters to the hottest day of the summer and to Daisy and Tom.
Gatsby, on Daisy’s request, invited us over the Buchanan’s house for lunch. Jordan and Esme would be there. Nick said something was up and told me Gatsby had been seeing Daisy alone at his house, replacing his serving staff with Wolfsheim’s men to avoid gossip and rumours spreading in the village. I knew the lunch would begin with the confrontation between Gatsby and Tom, leading to the ill-advised trip to New York and the incident with Myrtle.
Nick had been spending more time with Gatsby and Wolfsheim. Once, I had seen Nick in deep conversation with Wolfsheim as they entered the Metropole back in town. When I mentioned this to Nick, he said he was working with Wolfsheim on an investment and would talk it over with me if it came to fruition. Our business was making an ever-increasing impact on the Market. Having taken cognizance of Wolfsheim’s remark, I had tried cooling our success. Nick was not to be cooled though and seemed to have an instinctive feel for speculative investment. I wondered if it was a natural talent, or if my future knowledge was permeating through the book and inhabiting his awareness. The Wall Street Crash was seven years away, but I had already noticed a quickening of pace around us; the flicker in the eyes of young bond salesmen; their anticipation of financial rewards beyond a moderate profit. Fast money for fast times.
As I walked down Fifth Avenue, watching its romantic women and breathing in the racy air, I was determined not to precipitate events. My own investments, if they were to bear their substantial fruit in the twenty-first century, depended on the affairs of the next few decades remaining undisturbed.
Nick and I went to Daisy’s house in my roadster. Gatsby’s yellow Rolls Royce convertible stood in the drive in the full heat of the sun. I dropped off Nick and drove down the street to find shade under the trees of a neighbouring garden.
A butler received me at the house and showed me into a cool, darkened salon. Esme, Jordan, and Daisy lay upon an enormous couch complaining about the heat. Jordan was holding Nick’s hand. Esme got up to lightly kiss my cheek. Our affair had developed enough for casual sex, though I believed it would quietly disperse if either of us found other interests. Gatsby stood in the middle of the room, gazing around him with fascinated eyes.
‘And Mr Thomas Buchanan?’ Nick enquired.
Simultaneously we heard Tom’s loud voice at the hall telephone.
Daisy looked at Gatsby and laughed a sweet, warbling laugh.
It was the first time I really had a chance to look at her. She was pretty in a delicate, vulnerable way. Certainly not a classic beauty, and gave no apparent reason for Gatsby’s infatuation. It was what she represented, the idea of her that drew him to her pale flame.
Tom’s voice rose again in annoyance as he said he would not sell his car and didn’t appreciate being bothered in the afternoon. The phone crashed down and the door was flung open as Tom hurried into the room. His large thick body making the space feel smaller and hotter with his irritated energy.
‘Mr Gatsby!’ he offered his hand with well-concealed dislike. He offered the same broad, flat hand to me with open curiosity. ‘Mr Whetstone, I am very pleased to meet you sir.’ He turned to Nick and greeted him with enthusiasm before turning back to me to say, ‘You seem to have a remarkable nose for the future Mr Whetstone. I too have a second sight that tells me what to do. Though it is not the crystal ball you seem to possess.’ I waited for Nick to make his customary protest, but he just kept staring at me with a wry smile and I realised he didn’t look so young and innocent any more.
‘Trends,’ I said. ‘Trends and keeping your ear to the ground. Nick also has a real talent for investment.’
‘Yes,’ said Tom. ‘A talent you seem to have brought out in him.’
‘Make us a cold drink,’ cried Daisy.
Tom left the room and Daisy got up and kissed Gatsby on the mouth murmuring how she loved him. Jordan and Esme complained there were ladies present. Daisy argued with them and guiltily sat down again, just as a starched nurse leading a little girl came into the room. Daisy billed and cooed around the child before sending her over to greet the men. I watched Gatsby as he stared. He had been in denial about Daisy and Tom’s marriage; their child represented an uncompromising reality.
The nurse pulled the child away just as Tom entered the room with a tray of gin rickeys, the glasses clouded with condensation as they clicked full of ice.
We had luncheon in a dining room also darkened against the heat, cold ale quenching our nervous tension, keeping the false gaiety of the occasion afloat. Daisy was becoming unsettled and distracted, engaging each of us in turn while constantly looking over at Gatsby. Tom made light conversation about sailing, with the occasional serious enquiry in my direction about the nature of precognition in speculative finance. I deflected his enquiries with remarks about experience and a nose for what was in the air. Esme and Jordan chatted about golf while they were watching our drama unfold. Gatsby could only look at Daisy, her white dress enhancing the halo of his infatuation. Nick watched me, the detail of his expression hidden in the shadow, then revealed by a shaft of hot sunlight hustling in between the drapes as he leaned forward and said in a voice thick with rickeys and ale:
‘Do you, by any chance, know an old sport by the name of Fitzgerald?’
I raised a glass of ale to find time. The liquid shaking to a froth.
‘Fitzgerald, you say?’
‘Yes Robert, Fitzgerald.’ Nick’s expression was one of contempt.
Daisy was now becoming distressed by the heat, crying out her confusion and insisting we go to town. She saw Gatsby admiring her and blurted out how cool he looked, how he always looked so cool. It was an obvious declaration of love and it silenced the party. I watched Tom, his shock as palpable as mine at an unexpected twist in the day. His own trembling hand raising his glass to swallow the last bitter drops of his naivety.
I let myself be carried along by the tides of the debate over whether or not we should go to town. Daisy insisted, and Tom, Gatsby, Nick and I found ourselves outside, circling each other on the blazing gravel drive while the women went to change.
‘Shall we take something to drink,’ yelled Daisy from an upper window.
‘I’ll get some whiskey,’ said Tom and went inside.
Gatsby stood stiff legged while Nick clenched his hands into sweaty fists.
‘She has an indiscreet voice,’ said Nick.
‘Her voice is full of money,’ retorted Gatsby.
There it was. The money. The reason we were standing around kicking hot pebbles in the heat of the afternoon. Tom for his position in society; Gatsby for the trappings of wealth to capture the fickle Daisy; Nick and I for the greed of success.
‘She will kill you,’ I said, but Gatsby was too distracted to hear.
‘You should know,’ remarked Nick.
I turned to confront him. ‘What do you know about Fitzgerald?’
‘He came to the bungalow while you were in town. He showed me the story, our story,’ Nick waved his arms to encompass Gatsby, the house, and the drive. ‘Only you are not in it. He said you must have come from a different book, one written after his. It’s how you know about the market. You are not a wiz bonds man at all, you’re a fraud!’
‘It’s too hot to fight, old sports,’ said Gatsby quietly.
It had never occurred to me that Fitzgerald would inhabit his book. In my time, it was nearly ninety years old, Fitzgerald had died of a booze induced heart attack in ’44. But here in 1922 he was still in his creation and he knew I was causing it to change.
Tom came out of the house wrapping a bottle in a towel followed by Daisy, Jordan and Esme. The argument began over the cars. I tried to clear my head from the fading ale and a profound sense of disorientation. Esme was tugging at my sleeve.
‘Robert, Robert, stop daydreaming, the others are going. Where is your car?’
I looked up to see Gatsby and Daisy leaving in Tom’s coupé. I had meant to be their passenger, to be in their car on the return journey to witness the accident. Events were slipping away from me. I hurried out of the drive with Esme running behind me.
‘For heaven’s sake Robert, it’s too hot to run.’
Esme was wrong. I had been guilty of over-confidence and felt a sense of urgency to pick up the traces of the plot before it whipped along to its deadly conclusion.
The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg watched us scurrying along the narrow road, through the cinder landscape in pursuit of the other cars. I realized Esme and I were isolated; out of the story. I would have to get to town at the same time as the others to stay in the continuum of the plot. It was as I had suspected, Nick and Fitzgerald were in collusion. Now they were trying to exclude my influence from the final chapters.
I stepped on the accelerator but the day became cool as twilight rushed in.
‘What’s happening?’ cried Esme. ‘Why is it getting dark so quickly?’
She was frightened by the advancing time frame but I knew it was Fitzgerald moving us through the book; he was regaining the ascendancy. With increasing desperation I drove faster. We careened around a corner to see Wilson’s garage and, in a cloud of ash dust, Daisy driving Gatsby’s car straight towards us. Esme screamed in fear and grabbed at my hands; Daisy’s white face distorted in open mouthed terror as Gatsby tried to take control. In stop frame timing I watched as Gatsby and I tried to avoid the collision, each of us struggling for the wheel. We nearly succeeded in the screaming dust and panic, but there was that dreadful metallic bang as we side-swiped, then a shudder as a large rag doll struck my fender and went over the hood. I skidded to a halt about a hundred yards further on. In the settling dust, the ticking of the cooling engine, and Esme’s sobs, I wondered why the doll had been there.
‘You’ve killed her!’ cried Esme.
‘That woman on the road, you hit her. She must be dead!’
‘Woman? What happened to Gatsby?’ I turned in my seat to look back.
‘They went around but you drove straight at her, you were going so fast, you’ve killed her!’
In front of the garage, a figure knelt down on the road. A man approached the figure, then hesitated as he drew nearer. I began to walk back then hurried into a run as I realised what the rag doll had been.
Myrtle Wilson was dead, her blood draining into the dust and her soft body torn open for her life to finally escape the valley of ashes.
The man was Mavromichaelis, the young Greek.
‘It was the green car that done it,’ he said.
‘No,’ I said, fresh panic thumping in my chest, ‘it was the yellow car.’
‘Yeah right, the yellow car done it, the one comin’ from town.’
I walked back to the roadster, my mind a cataclysm of emotions. I was responsible for the accident I came to witness. Fitzgerald had written me into the story as the driver of the other car, leaving me to utter the Judas denial and blame Gatsby for Myrtle’s death.
Esme was sobbing in shock and fear.
‘Is she dead?’ she wailed.
‘Yes, she’s dead.’
‘Oh my God! What are we gonna do?’ Silence. Then, ‘It wasn’t me, it was you, you were driving, it’s your fault!’
I felt very tired. ‘There is nothing more we can do here. The garage will call for an ambulance; I’ll take you back to New York.’ I climbed into the roadster, Esme shifted away from me, not wanting to be tainted with my guilt.
We said nothing driving back. Esme’s distress reduced to hiccupping snivels. I dropped her off in Manhattan, and started back to West Egg, my conscience getting the better of me. I would have to warn Gatsby; Myrtle’s husband George would come looking for him. Gatsby would have to make sure Wolfsheim’s men intercepted him before he could do any harm.
I pulled the car over to light a cigarette, an old habit I’d resurrected here in the Jazz age. The night air closed about me and I sat back in the seat, trying to order my thoughts.
A ship’s horn on the sound woke me in the full light of day. I stared out of the car windows, memory and realisation swarming back as I checked my watch: 1.15pm! I had slept away the morning. Gatsby, I had to warn Gatsby.
Hunched over the wheel I sped through the ash heaps towards West Egg, a meteor’s trail of dust behind me, driving on towards death in the warm afternoon.
I ground the wheel of the car against the curb outside of Gatsby’s house, just in time to see George lurching across the garden. Shouting, I ran around the trees to confront him at the pool. On the blue tranquil surface Gatsby was floating on his air bed. George pulled a heavy revolver out of his belt and took aim. I grabbed his arm and he started in surprise, as if the appearance of another human being was beyond his reckoning. In his world there was only him and Gatsby.
‘W-wha-’ he stuttered at me. ‘Who the hell…’
‘I know who killed Myrtle!’ I shouted at him. ‘It wasn’t Gatsby, it was me!’
‘You! You were having an affair with my wife?’
‘No that was Tom.’
‘Tom? Tom’s married to Daisy!’
‘Gatsby was having an affair with Daisy. Myrtle was Tom’s mistress.’
George made a gasping, strangled sound, shrugged off my hand, and brought up the gun to point at me.
‘You’re all bastards and bitches of whores. I’ll shoot the damn lot of yer’ like the dogs you are.’
‘What’s going on old sports?’ Gatsby was climbing off the air bed onto the edge of the pool. George flinched and I knocked away his arm. The revolver barked twice, bullets slapped into Gatsby’s chest, throwing him back onto the air bed and out across the water. George and I stared into each other’s eyes but saw no redemption, so we wrestled for the gun. He was stronger but I was younger. Wedged down between us the revolver barked and kicked. George danced a jig calling out for God, then collapsed. The bullet had blown a hole in his stomach and he died on the red grass without another word. I was holding the gun and the tragedy was complete.
There was a ripple of applause behind me. Stumbling with shock I turned around; Nick and Wolfsheim were standing beside the pool. Behind them stood a line of Wolfsheim’s men, all wearing suits and fedora hats. Nick had a cigar gripped into the corner of his mouth and a sardonic grin that washed away the last of his youth. He continued clapping as the others fell silent.
‘Well done Robert, well done. You’ve solved two of our problems; now there is just you.’
‘It was an accident,’ I said uselessly, ‘I came here to stop this.’ I waved my arms and realised I still had the revolver gripped in my hand. One of Wolfsheim’s men stepped forward and motioned at me with a Thompson submachine gun. I dropped the revolver onto the desecrated lawn. ‘It’s not my fault.’
‘Yeah,’ said Wolfsheim, ‘like Myrtle wasn’t your fault. Don’t worry, we heard all about it from Mr Fitzgerald here.’
Another man stepped forward and touched the brim of his fedora, ‘It’s my book Whetstone, but thanks to you I’ve got a new deal with Nick and Mr Wolfsheim.’
‘You remember,’ laughed Nick, taking the cigar out of his mouth, ‘the investment Wolfsheim and I were working on. Well we included Fitzgerald who also knows what’s supposed to happen next. Y’know the Wall Street Crash, the Great Depression, World War Two, the Nazis. He’s gonna help us change it. We make a lot of money, buy ourselves a President, and make a deal with Mr Hitler. You wanted to keep it all for yourself Robert, and to think, I trusted you.’
I looked at Fitzgerald, ‘Don’t do this, it’s not worth the money. I’ll leave, you rewrite the book the way it was. You can’t let the Nazis in.’
‘There are no second acts in American lives Whetstone,’ he said, taking a half pint bottle of whiskey out of his pocket. ‘That includes yours.’ He unscrewed the cap and took a long slug, then nodded to Wolfsheim.
The world shimmered. I saw Nick and Wolfsheim in the future, in their full-length black leather coats; the bullyboys behind them in their brown shirts and jodhpurs; Fitzgerald a spent force, consumed by whiskey, writing whatever they dictated to him until he was no longer necessary.
I ran. Hot needles of fear spread across my back waiting for the punch of uncaring bullets, but nothing came, just laughter.
I hammered my roadster back to New York, thinking if I re-entered Fitzgerald’s book I might be able to take things back to how they were. I had kept a small apartment in the city for the nights with Esme, but the book was not there, I’d left it at Nick’s bungalow. I was trapped in a world where I would be found guilty of multiple homicides, where America would gaze inwards at her own image until caught dreaming at the neglected gates of freedom.
Wolfsheim must have had me followed: the cop cars are squealing to a halt in the street four floors below. There is another way out; I brought another book with me, written by Hemingway. I can escape there; across the world to Spain in the 1930s. He may even be carrying an original copy of Fitzgerald’s book. I can hear the cops in the elevator lobby; soon they will be breaking down the door.
I entered the plot.
He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees…
 Ernest Hemingway (2004), For Whom the Bell Tolls (London: Arrow Books)
Enjoy short stories about literature? Then you should definitely read Wendy Holborow’s Crows Caw in Cwmdonkin Park.