Tales of the Jazz Age
by F. Scott Fitzgerald
May Day Chapter I
- Year Published: 1922
- Language: English
- Country of Origin: United States of America
- Source: Fitzgerald, F.S. (1922) Tales of the Jazz Age. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons
- Flesch–Kincaid Level: 12.0
- Word Count: 3,047
- Genre: Realism
- ✎ Cite This
Fitzgerald, F. (1922). May Day Chapter I. Tales of the Jazz Age (Lit2Go Edition). Retrieved June 06, 2023, from https://etc.usf.edu/lit2go/224/tales-of-the-jazz-age/5767/may-day-chapter-i/
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. "May Day Chapter I." Tales of the Jazz Age. Lit2Go Edition. 1922. Web. <https://etc.usf.edu/lit2go/224/tales-of-the-jazz-age/5767/may-day-chapter-i/>. June 06, 2023.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, "May Day Chapter I," Tales of the Jazz Age, Lit2Go Edition, (1922), accessed June 06, 2023, https://etc.usf.edu/lit2go/224/tales-of-the-jazz-age/5767/may-day-chapter-i/.
There had been a war fought and won and the great city of the conquering people was crossed with triumphal arches and vivid with thrown flowers of white, red, and rose. All through the long spring days the returning soldiers marched up the chief highway behind the strump of drums and the joyous, resonant wind of the brasses, while merchants and clerks left their bickerings and figurings and, crowding to the windows, turned their white–bunched faces gravely upon the passing battalions.
Never had there been such splendor in the great city, for the victorious war had brought plenty in its train, and the merchants had flocked thither from the South and West with their households to taste of all the luscious feasts and witness the lavish entertainments prepared—and to buy for their women furs against the next winter and bags of golden mesh and varicolored slippers of silk and silver and rose satin and cloth of gold.
So gaily and noisily were the peace and prosperity impending hymned by the scribes and poets of the conquering people that more and more spenders had gathered from the provinces to drink the wine of excitement, and faster and faster did the merchants dispose of their trinkets and slippers until they sent up a mighty cry for more trinkets and more slippers in order that they might give in barter what was demanded of them. Some even of them flung up their hands helplessly, shouting:
"Alas! I have no more slippers! and alas! I have no more trinkets! May heaven help me for I know not what I shall do!"
But no one listened to their great outcry, for the throngs were far too busy—day by day, the foot–soldiers trod jauntily the highway and all exulted because the young men returning were pure and brave, sound of tooth and pink of cheek, and the young women of the land were virgins and comely both of face and of figure.
So during all this time there were many adventures that happened in the great city, and, of these, several—or perhaps one—are here set down.
At nine o'clock on the morning of the first of May, 1919, a young man spoke to the room clerk at the Biltmore Hotel, asking if Mr. Philip Dean were registered there, and if so, could he be connected with Mr. Dean's rooms. The inquirer was dressed in a well–cut, shabby suit. He was small, slender, and darkly handsome; his eyes were framed above with unusually long eyelashes and below with the blue semicircle of ill health, this latter effect heightened by an unnatural glow which colored his face like a low, incessant fever.
Mr. Dean was staying there. The young man was directed to a telephone at the side.
After a second his connection was made; a sleepy voice hello'd from somewhere above.
"Mr. Dean?"—this very eagerly—"it's Gordon, Phil. It's Gordon Sterrett. I'm down–stairs. I heard you were in New York and I had a hunch you'd be here."
The sleepy voice became gradually enthusiastic. Well, how was Gordy, old boy! Well, he certainly was surprised and tickled! Would Gordy come right up, for Pete's sake!
A few minutes later Philip Dean, dressed in blue silk pajamas, opened his door and the two young men greeted each other with a half–embarrassed exuberance. They were both about twenty–four, Yale graduates of the year before the war; but there the resemblance stopped abruptly. Dean was blond, ruddy, and rugged under his thin pajamas. Everything about him radiated fitness and bodily comfort. He smiled frequently, showing large and prominent teeth.
"I was going to look you up," he cried enthusiastically. "I'm taking a couple of weeks off. If you'll sit down a sec I'll be right with you. Going to take a shower."
As he vanished into the bathroom his visitor's dark eyes roved nervously around the room, resting for a moment on a great English travelling bag in the corner and on a family of thick silk shirts littered on the chairs amid impressive neckties and soft woollen socks.
Gordon rose and, picking up one of the shirts, gave it a minute examination. It was of very heavy silk, yellow, with a pale blue stripe—and there were nearly a dozen of them. He stared involuntarily at his own shirt–cuffs—they were ragged and linty at the edges and soiled to a faint gray. Dropping the silk shirt, he held his coat–sleeves down and worked the frayed shirt–cuffs up till they were out of sight. Then he went to the mirror and looked at himself with listless, unhappy interest. His tie, of former glory, was faded and thumb–creased—it served no longer to hide the jagged buttonholes of his collar. He thought, quite without amusement, that only three years before he had received a scattering vote in the senior elections at college for being the best–dressed man in his class.
Dean emerged from the bathroom polishing his body.
"Saw an old friend of yours last night," he remarked. "Passed her in the lobby and couldn't think of her name to save my neck. That girl you brought up to New Haven senior year."
"Edith Bradin? That whom you mean?"
"'At's the one. Damn good looking. She's still sort of a pretty doll—you know what I mean: as if you touched her she'd smear."
He surveyed his shining self complacently in the mirror, smiled faintly, exposing a section of teeth.
"She must be twenty–three anyway," he continued.
"Twenty–two last month," said Gordon absently.
"What? Oh, last month. Well, I imagine she's down for the Gamma Psi dance. Did you know we're having a Yale Gamma Psi dance to–night at Delmonico's? You better come up, Gordy. Half of New Haven'll probably be there. I can get you an invitation."
Draping himself reluctantly in fresh underwear, Dean lit a cigarette and sat down by the open window, inspecting his calves and knees under the morning sunshine which poured into the room.
"Sit down, Gordy," he suggested, "and tell me all about what you've been doing and what you're doing now and everything."
Gordon collapsed unexpectedly upon the bed; lay there inert and spiritless. His mouth, which habitually dropped a little open when his face was in repose, became suddenly helpless and pathetic.
"What's the matter?" asked Dean quickly.
"What's the matter?"
"Every God damn thing in the world," he said miserably, "I've absolutely gone to pieces, Phil. I'm all in."
"I'm all in." His voice was shaking.
Dean scrutinized him more closely with appraising blue eyes.
"You certainly look all shot."
"I am. I've made a hell of a mess of everything." He paused. "I'd better start at the beginning—or will it bore you?" "Not at all; go on." There was, however, a hesitant note in Dean's voice. This trip East had been planned for a holiday—to find Gordon Sterrett in trouble exasperated him a little.
"Go on," he repeated, and then added half under his breath, "Get it over with."
"Well," began Gordon unsteadily, "I got back from France in February, went home to Harrisburg for a month, and then came down to New York to get a job. I got one—with an export company. They fired me yesterday."
"I'm coming to that, Phil. I want to tell you frankly. You're about the only man I can turn to in a matter like this. You won't mind if I just tell you frankly, will you, Phil?"
Dean stiffened a bit more. The pats he was bestowing on his knees grew perfunctory. He felt vaguely that he was being unfairly saddled with responsibility; he was not even sure he wanted to be told. Though never surprised at finding Gordon Sterrett in mild difficulty, there was something in this present misery that repelled him and hardened him, even though it excited his curiosity.
"It's a girl."
"Hm." Dean resolved that nothing was going to spoil his trip. If Gordon was going to be depressing, then he'd have to see less of Gordon.
"Her name is Jewel Hudson," went on the distressed voice from the bed. "She used to be 'pure,' I guess, up to about a year ago." Lived here in New York—poor family. Her people are dead now and she lives with an old aunt. You see it was just about the time I met her that everybody began to come back from France in droves—and all I did was to welcome the newly arrived and go on parties with 'em. That's the way it started, Phil, just from being glad to see everybody and having them glad to see me."
"You ought to've had more sense."
"I know," Gordon paused, and then continued listlessly. "I'm on my own now, you know, and Phil, I can't stand being poor. Then came this darn girl. She sort of fell in love with me for a while and, though I never intended to get so involved, I'd always seem to run into her somewhere. You can imagine the sort of work I was doing for those exporting people—of course, I always intended to draw; do illustrating for magazines; there's a pile of money in it."
"Why didn't you? You've got to buckle down if you want to make good," suggested Dean with cold formalism.
"I tried, a little, but my stuff's crude. I've got talent, Phil; I can draw—but I just don't know how. I ought to go to art school and I can't afford it. Well, things came to a crisis about a week ago. Just as I was down to about my last dollar this girl began bothering me. She wants some money; claims she can make trouble for me if she doesn't get it."
"I'm afraid she can. That's one reason I lost my job—she kept calling up the office all the time, and that was sort of the last straw down there. She's got a letter all written to send to my family. Oh, she's got me, all right. I've got to have some money for her."
There was an awkward pause. Gordon lay very still, his hands clenched by his side.
"I'm all in," he continued, his voice trembling. "I'm half crazy, Phil. If I hadn't known you were coming East, I think I'd have killed myself. I want you to lend me three hundred dollars."
Dean's hands, which had been patting his bare ankles, were suddenly quiet—and the curious uncertainty playing between the two became taut and strained.
After a second Gordon continued:
"I've bled the family until I'm ashamed to ask for another nickel."
Still Dean made no answer.
"Jewel says she's got to have two hundred dollars."
"Tell her where she can go."
"Yes, that sounds easy, but she's got a couple of drunken letters I wrote her. Unfortunately she's not at all the flabby sort of person you'd expect."
Dean made an expression of distaste.
"I can't stand that sort of woman. You ought to have kept away."
"I know," admitted Gordon wearily.
"You've got to look at things as they are. If you haven't got money you've got to work and stay away from women."
"That's easy for you to say," began Gordon, his eyes narrowing. "You've got all the money in the world."
"I most certainly have not. My family keep darn close tab on what I spend. Just because I have a little leeway I have to be extra careful not to abuse it."
He raised the blind and let in a further flood of sunshine.
"I'm no prig, Lord knows," he went on deliberately. "I like pleasure—and I like a lot of it on a vacation like this, but you're—you're in awful shape. I never heard you talk just this way before. You seem to be sort of bankrupt—morally as well as financially."
"Don't they usually go together?"
Dean shook his head impatiently.
"There's a regular aura about you that I don't understand. It's a sort of evil."
"It's an air of worry and poverty and sleepless nights," said Gordon, rather defiantly.
"I don't know."
"Oh, I admit I'm depressing. I depress myself. But, my God, Phil, a week's rest and a new suit and some ready money and I'd be like—like I was. Phil, I can draw like a streak, and you know it. But half the time I haven't had the money to buy decent drawing materials—and I can't draw when I'm tired and discouraged and all in. With a little ready money I can take a few weeks off and get started."
"How do I know you wouldn't use it on some other woman?"
"Why rub it in?" said Gordon, quietly.
"I'm not rubbing it in. I hate to see you this way."
"Will you lend me the money, Phil?"
"I can't decide right off. That's a lot of money and it'll be darn inconvenient for me."
"It'll be hell for me if you can't—I know I'm whining, and it's all my own fault but—that doesn't change it."
"When could you pay it back?"
This was encouraging. Gordon considered. It was probably wisest to be frank.
"Of course, I could promise to send it back next month, but—I'd better say three months. Just as soon as I start to sell drawings."
"How do I know you'll sell any drawings?"
A new hardness in Dean's voice sent a faint chill of doubt over Gordon. Was it possible that he wouldn't get the money?
"I supposed you had a little confidence in me."
"I did have—but when I see you like this I begin to wonder."
"Do you suppose if I wasn't at the end of my rope I'd come to you like this? Do you think I'm enjoying it?" He broke off and bit his lip, feeling that he had better subdue the rising anger in his voice. After all, he was the suppliant.
"You seem to manage it pretty easily," said Dean angrily. "You put me in the position where, if I don't lend it to you, I'm a sucker—oh, yes, you do. And let me tell you it's no easy thing for me to get hold of three hundred dollars. My income isn't so big but that a slice like that won't play the deuce with it."
He left his chair and began to dress, choosing his clothes carefully. Gordon stretched out his arms and clenched the edges of the bed, fighting back a desire to cry out. His head was splitting and whirring, his mouth was dry and bitter and he could feel the fever in his blood resolving itself into innumerable regular counts like a slow dripping from a roof.
Dean tied his tie precisely, brushed his eyebrows, and removed a piece of tobacco from his teeth with solemnity. Next he filled his cigarette case, tossed the empty box thoughtfully into the waste basket, and settled the case in his vest pocket.
"Had breakfast?" he demanded.
"No; I don't eat it any more."
"Well, we'll go out and have some. We'll decide about that money later. I'm sick of the subject. I came East to have a good time.
"Let's go over to the Yale Club," he continued moodily, and then added with an implied reproof: "You've given up your job. You've got nothing else to do."
"I'd have a lot to do if I had a little money," said Gordon pointedly.
"Oh, for Heaven's sake drop the subject for a while! No point in glooming on my whole trip. Here, here's some money."
He took a five–dollar bill from his wallet and tossed it over to Gordon, who folded it carefully and put it in his pocket. There was an added spot of color in his cheeks, an added glow that was not fever. For an instant before they turned to go out their eyes met and in that instant each found something that made him lower his own glance quickly. For in that instant they quite suddenly and definitely hated each other.