This story, originally called The League of Unfortunate Gentleman, is a piece I originally wrote years before I attended college. Although dated now by the flowery style of my writing, it is still one I enjoy for the mere atmosphere and setting in the story. Although I have never been to Louisiana, I hope that people will be charmed by my imagination of how it must be, and what the history of this time period must have been like.
The League of Unfortunate Gentleman
On the banks of the Mississippi just above New Orleans, there is a Club House that was built a very long time ago around the turn of the century. A man by the name of Warhouse, who had made his millions in some ambiguous field of industry over in Europe, had it built and then sentimentally named St. Claire— supposedly for the little town where his factories were…
The club St. Claire stands on a golden stretch of road in the back swamps of Louisiana— it has for right around a hundred years now, though it doesn’t seem like it. It looks out over the Mississippi like a man who has forgotten what he meant to do. Once upon a time, the plantation-style house had not been grown over with vine and moss, and the trees in the yard had not been dark and old and crooked hung with creeper that shifted in even the slightest breeze. Once, it had been a place full of light and yet somehow every bit as mysterious as it is today with its shuttered veranda windows, and its dusty, leaf-strewn eves. Once, the club St. Claire had been alive; cars rode down that gray stretch of road at all hours of the night and sat in the lawns along the drive until the rose-blush of dawn touched the sky over the forest and swamp.
I remember the place well; mostly at times when summer’s blush of heat lies mellow at night, and the smell of the rich earth and smooth foliage startles in the gray twilight. The birds seem to chirp and speak of things past, and it comes all back— I don’t know why because what comes back is not something I saw at all, but something that was told to me by an old man named Jay— William Jay— sometime in the late Fifties just before they closed up St. Claire and drove down its golden drive one last time.
Mr. Jay, who was then an older man of undistinguishable age, invited me to dinner at the club one night. He wore a tailored suit and sat at one of the corner tables in the upstairs lounge near an open window that looked out over the river. Because of his liver, he no longer drank any booze, but he did enjoy a coffee once in a while— black. He was drinking it that night when I walked up through the half-empty dining room. He gazed out the window blankly as I approached, his old eyes watery in their dissipation of memories. The moon shone full, and the swampy forest stretched off into darkness, interrupted only by the lazy winking of fireflies. The night spoke softly upon the breeze as it stirred the curtains, a twittering Louisiana night.
“Hullo, Will,” I said, pulling out the chair across from him. “How’ve you been?”
He glanced at me as if surprised and raised spider-wrinkled lips in an unconvincing smile. “Better than some, I suppose,” he said, and there was something about his gray eyes that said he was lying.
There were times in those last few months when I could see his pain, like a blackness, hiding behind his gaze. “That woman from the old home treating you well?”
Will made a face and tapped his fingers against the tablecloth. “I don’t need a nurse. I’m just fine on my own, but my son’s a knucklehead— he doesn’t listen to reason. Not like you, Andy. You’re made of good stuff.” He winked at me as if this was some sort of conspiratorial attribute. “Few men like you these days.”
“So they keep telling me…” which was a lie because, besides Jay, no one had ever told me that in my life.
The waiter, George, approached then and handed me a dish of coffee. He refilled Will’s cup, as well.
When he had gone, Will leveled his eyes at me. “Sometimes, I get the feeling you don’t believe me, boy,” he said, watching me with his hawk eye. “Sometimes, I think you only come here to laugh at me.”
“I laugh at your jokes, Will. Not at you.” I retrieved my cigarette case from inside my jacket. In those days, everyone smoked. “Would you like one?”
He sighed and shook his head. “No, I gave that up a long time ago. Made my voice scratchy.” He chuckled abruptly, the sound a harsh thunder in the quiet room. “Listen to me, would you? Before you know it I’ll be trying to convince you that I was some bright baritone.” He laughed again and took a sip of his coffee, lost for a moment in the succulence of his merriment.
He had aged a lot since I had first met him, which was only two years prior to this. Looking back at moments like this one, I feel as if I had never known him at all.
“You hungry, Andy?” he asked after a moment. He peered at me with that shrewd squint I had come to know well.
“Not particularly,” I assured him a bit morosely. I lied a lot in those days, but only because I thought people expected it.
His smile was sedate. “Good— neither am I. That Swedish fish of a nurse stuffs me so full you’d think I was a turkey. Coffee and cigarettes is much more the order of the night, don’t you think?”
He glanced up at me from under thick gray brows, and there was something deep in that gaze. “Pain ages a man, Andy. You know that?”
I hesitated. “I’ve been told so.”
“Well, it does.” He folded one arm across the table and lifted the other up to scratch his spotted forehead. “Can I tell you something completely dramatic and expect you to take it like anything ordinary?” His gray eyes were tired when he looked at me, and grimaced slightly.
Sometimes I wonder, looking back, what made me answer, because I really didn’t want to know what I thought he was going to tell me. “You can tell me anything, Will. You know that. Stop being silly.”
“I’m dying,” he said with a funny tilt to his brows, and just then the Louisiana night stirred through the curtains and brought up the salty scent of the flats, the murky stick of the balmy air. The thudding fans of the club did little to dispel the heavy cloak of heat. And William Jay smiled. “Yes, it’s silly, isn’t it? I’m really not that old— but then I guess when your number’s up… your number’s up.” Suddenly, he frowned. “Oh, heck— George!” He raised him arm and waved. “Bring me a cigar, would you?” Turning back to me, he added: “Might as well give in while I still can.”
Once George had brought the cigar and I had supplied the light, Will puffed appreciatively. He smiled as the smoke poured from his mouth, and then he winked at me. “It’s been a long time,” he sighed and leaned back in his chair. “Oh, yes— it’s been a very long time.”
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know what to say, so I just sat watching him.
“You know, Andy, a man sees a lot in his life, and— well, I know the movies and books make it seem clichéd— but I really would like to go out of here with a clean conscience.” Those wrinkled gray eyes watched me meditatively over the bright end of his cigar. “I’ve never told anyone what I’m about to tell you. I’ve kind of never had the guts, and I guess it takes having nothing to lose in order to make a man honest.” Suddenly a darkness, like a shadow, passed over his face, and he pressed a hand to his stomach, pausing. “I don’t know how long I have. Maybe a week, maybe a month—” he shrugged. “Longer, maybe… who knows! So— I want to tell you something… one last story before… well, you know,” he shrugged again.
I let out a stream of cigarette smoke and licked my lips. “All right,” I said and nodded. “I’d like to hear a story.”
He turned to look back out at the black velvet night. “Have I ever told you many stories about the club?” He shook his head, and his eyes drifted far away somewhere. “No, I guess not. I suppose I come to the club— I don’t talk about it.” He frowned, and we sat there in the empty, amber light of the upper lounge, two solitary figures hemmed in by the silk of twilight. Sometimes I still shiver when I remember what that empty room felt like as William Jay gave me his confession.
“Part of the story you already know,” he began…