October 3, 2013
Author: Chilton Williamson
Excerpt from The Hundredth Meridian
The Hollows, Hasty and Happy, hardly ever knew where they were. At times, they did not know who they were, either, but it never mattered for them because they were very, very rich.
Hasty was from Chicago originally, Happy from Mississippi where she had earned half a degree from Ole Miss. In the days when they still had identities, individually and as a couple, as well as a primary residence (it was a coop apartment on the Gold Coast where they spent as much as three months out of the year) and were therefore able to entertain, the Hollows had been known to their friends as Gucci and Pucci, respectively. Since they sold the coop, bought a string of condos around the country in places that included West Palm Beach, Bermuda, Sea Island, Oklahoma City, Santa Fe, Jackson Hole, and Monterrey, and stopped going out except to take a taxi to and from the nearest airport, they hadn’t bothered with friends or clothes either, except for twenty or thirty dressing gowns apiece by Ralp Lauren.
Their drink was Johnny Walker Black, and plenty of it. Hasty took his straight on the rocks, but Happy preferred hers with soda water and a lime twist. After more than thirty years both Hollows smoked Players cigarettes, chiefly because it had become a habit for them and they could no longer taste tobacco, anyhow. They would get up at around two-thirty in the morning to smoke a cigarette before going to back to sleep, and again at about six o’clock, when they had their first drink. By ten they were pleasantly adrift, watching television in their Ralph Laurens or hanging out beside the swimming pool with the paperback mysteries they’d swap with each other after reading the first twenty or thirty pages. It was because all the condos looked more or less alike, were furnished similarly, and had the same clothes hanging in the walk-in closets that the Hollows could afford the luxury of uncertainty at any given moment whether they were in Florida or California, just as the basic uniformity of United Airline’s fleet and VIP lounges made air travel easy for them. Being unable to recall for very long the slights, resentments, and petty quarrels that make so many marriages miserable, Hasty and Happy had a good marriage, except for a real blowout now and then when they yelled and threw things at each other, set something on fire, or called their separate lawyers to demand that divorce proceedings be initiated. Depending on which one of them you talked to, they’d been divorced three times or four, possibly as many as five. It didn’t really matter, because Hasty’s lawyer charged not more than $200 an hour and Happy’s $175 only, and they had a lot more fun out of it all than they got from watching the soaps. Basically, divorce and the subsequent remarriage were just something to do, since in spite (or maybe because) of each of them having more money than God, neither one of them felt able to afford divorcing the other.
Their sensitivity on the subject of money increased after they bought the house near Durango, Colorado. They hadn’t intended to buy an entire house anywhere, especially not a full-size one, but it happened anyway. They were attempting to fly from San Francisco to Santa Fe in May, 2000, when they boarded the wrong plane and landed in Phoenix instead. The next flight up to Santa Fe wasn’t for almost three hours, and when Happy became depressed by the number of old people hanging around the VIP lounge the Hollows decided to rough it on a Mesa Airlines puddle-jumper. The plane sat on the runway for nearly a hour before take-off, and after less than an hour in the air was diverted to Durango on account of bad weather. The entire trip, during which only water and soda pop were served, took forever, and by the time the Hollows landed through severe turbulence produced by a mountain storm cell they hadn’t had a drink for hours and were legally sober. Hasty suggested they go for a drink downtown, stay over the night, and catch a flight to Santa Fe in the morning.
At the bar up front of a French restaurant that evening, the Hollows ran into into a real estate fellow named Squire.
“So you’re a Johnny Walker Black man, too?” Happy asked him. “That tells me all I need to know about anyone, I always say.”
Bob Squire said he’d spotted them for Johnny Walker drinkers the moment they walked through the door. JWB folks, he said, had class. He himself was in the high-end realty business and so he could tell class when he saw it. Squire asked what brought them to Durango and when Hasty explained they were on their way to spend time at their condo in Santa Fe, he looked doubtful. Santa Fe, he said with a sigh, was becoming passé. It was a shame, because by the time Santa Fe property owners woke up to what had happened, Durango would have been discovered already and property values would be out of sight there. Right now, if you owned a condo in Santa Fe you could sell it to Julia Roberts or somebody for big bucks, and buy three or four times the home in Durango for the same price. Plus, the West Slope was still a laid back place with an Old West atmosphere where people were willing to live and let live, and neighbors knew how to keep to themselves. The West was all about elbow room, Squire explained as he ordered a round from the barman, and that was the business he was in-selling elbow room to people that had never known what it was to have it before, helping them own a piece of the West.
The house the agent showed them next day was built at the edge of a forest overlooking a creek five miles north from town. It had 7500 square feet of floorspace: twenty-nine rooms on three storeys, a mezzanine with a gallery running round the clerestorey above the livingroom, six baths, an indoor swimming pool, workout room, and sauna, and an eight-car garage, and it was floored completely downstairs with marble flagstone imported direct from Carrera, Italy. The asking price was well into the eight-figure range but Happy was sold, Hasty-who saw the property would require a fulltime caretaker-less so. “So we drink Johnny Walker Red for the next year,” Happy told him. “Big deal. It’s worth it just to own a piece of the West, isn’t it, darling? It’s not as if we’re planning on living here, you know.”
Before they left for Santa Fe, the Hollows had found a caretaker from Ridgeway, a hamlet north of Ouray on the opposite side of Red Mountain Pass (elevation 11,018 feet). She was a cowgirl named Lynette Lyon whose family owned a small cattle ranch south of Montrose. Her father was a quarter Ute, Lynette said, but she didn’t look Indian: a tall willowy blonde with a long waist, large hands and small feet, a thin mouth, sharp blue eyes, and a pointed nose like a fox. Hasty finally agreed to pay her a thousand dollars a month to check on the property once a week, after she’d refused to work for $750. Later he boasted to Bob Squire about the bargain he’d made, and Squire congratulated him on it. He didn’t see any reason to mention Red Mountain Pass was mostly closed from October until May of each year. The locals, him included, needed to make a living somehow.
The closing was at the end of July. The Hollows flew in from somewhere–later, they thought Jackson Hole-and out again the next day on their way back to Santa Fe. They didn’t return until June of the following year, when they arrived at the Durango airfield without calling ahead and hired a taxi to drive them out to the property. Eight or ten pickup trucks stood parked in front of the house where Lynette Lyon, dressed in a powder-blue Western outfit and matching cowboy hat, was holding a Western Swing class on the Carrera marble floor in front of the walk-in fireplace. Lynette did not appear surprised at all to see them, and Hasty and Happy went on upstairs to the master bedroom accompanied by the driver, who brought up their bags.
“Kitty what’s-her-name’s kind of a cute girl, don’t you think?” Happy asked Hasty. “Even in that tacky outfit she has on. We’re definitely in Colorado now, Tootsie!”
The Hollows didn’t go anywhere for a few days, recovering from their trip. By the fourth day they were already vague again when Hasty took a call from Lynette Lyon, calling from Durango where she’d given a Western Swing lesson to remind him she hadn’t received her monthly paycheck in the mail. He had trouble recalling who she was, but after Lynette made him understand he invited her to stop by the house on her way up to the pass and collect the check in person.
The Hollows were sitting out on the porch that ran all the way around the house on the first floor when she arrived, driving a cherry-red Ford pickup truck and wearing her powder-blue outfit. Hasty, who’d already forgot she was coming, went indoors to look around for his checkbook, while Happy chatted on the porch with Lynette. Was Western Swing the “in” thing around here? she wanted to know. Lynette explained it wasn’t “in” exactly, just Western, and that everyone in Colorado who liked to dance knew how. She offered to teach Happy if she wanted to learn, and Happy said, “Oh, really!” Later, when Lynette had gone and Hasty brought “tea” out on a tray, she said, “Honey.”
“Honey what?” Hasty asked her, setting down the tray with the bottle of Johnny Walker Black on it.
“Colorado’s so backward and romantic, I think it would be nice if we could feel we really fit in, somehow. Lynette’s offered to give us private lessons at home for half-price, seeing as she’s a salaried employee. We wouldn’t have to actually go out anyplace, Lynette says you can buy fiddle music on CD. I’ve been remembering how, years ago, we used to love to dance together when we went out drinking. Our marriage could stand a little pepping up after all these years, don’t you agree?”
After ten days, Hasty found learning Western Swing more enjoyable than he’d expected, while Happy had abruptly lost interest and wanted to move on to Santa Fe. They had a fight about it one afternoon when both of them had been drinking more than usual. Hasty suggested Happy go ahead by herself, but she wouldn’t hear of it: They’d always traveled together to provide support for one another. “And,” Happy added, “don’t think I haven’t noticed the little bitch snuggling close to you, out there on the floor.” Hasty denied having in interest in Lynette, but the fight ended anyway with her calling her lawyer in Chicago and demanding a divorce. The secretary said Mr. von Sternberg was out of the office for two days but promised to have him call immediately when he returned.
That was on a Tuesday. Late Thursday afternoon Hasty was sitting out in white flannels on the porch with a newly-freshened drink when his wife appeared before him, looking like Lady MacBeth in the Sleepwalking Scene. “Something terrible has happened,” she said in a spectral voice. “We’ve been legally divorced since Easter.” Von Sternberg, in response to her call following their last fight, had filed the prepared legal papers and obtained the decree. Someone had even signed their names, she couldn’t think who. “We can’t afford to be divorced,” Happy wailed. “You know that, Hasty. If one of us was to have an accident, or drop dead.!!”
She was sober already; he groped to become alert. Their quarrel was forgotten entirely. They had no time to lose, both agreed. There were the plane tickets to Vegas to be purchased, the bloodwork to be done and the license procured in Nevada. Also they had their bags to pack for a week, and the house required to be shut up. “I’m calling Lynette,” Hasty declared in a take-charge voice. “We need her out here, pronto.”
Even with Lynette’s help it took them thirty-six hours to get squared away for the trip, and then Happy had a breakdown from the strain. Wrapped in a dressing-gown and closeted in her bedroom with a glass and bottle, she suffered a psychotic spell in which she saw a gentleman in a scarlet coat, tight white trousers, and top hat with a cane on his arm, standing in the driveway, looking up at her. Hasty did his best to reason with his wife through the locked door, but she refused to listen.
“You don’t fool me!” Happy yelled. “You’re not my husband, you’re the Scarlet Pimpernel wanting to drag me back to Paris to be guillotined. Get off my property right now, you–you pimp!”
In these circumstances, Hasty was compelled to resort to the bottle himself. He drank without stop, neither sleeping or eating for two days. On the afternoon of the second day, Lynette discovered him sitting on their luggage at the foot of the stairs in the foyer and staring at the empty glass in his hand, like a fish wanting back into its fishbowl.
“I need my wife to go with me to Las Vegas so we can be married,” he said thickly.
“Don’t worry, honey,” Lynette Lyon said, putting an arm round his shoulders. “I’ll be your wife, if you like.”
Hasty looked, and saw a woman beside him, approximately the size and shape of his wife and with blonde hair. It was a great relief to him to know she was still there.
“Thank God,” he said, prayerfully. “You call a cab, while I get us a bottle for carry-on.”