Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Highsmith / The Mobile Bed-Object

Edward Hopper
Morning Sun, 1952
Ohio, Columbus Museum of Art


There are lots of girls like Mildred, homeless, yet never without a roof — most of the time the ceiling of a hotel room, sometimes that of bachelor digs, of a yacht’s cabin if they’re lucky, a tent, or a caravan. Such girls are bed-objects, the kind of thing one acquires like a hot-water bottle, a traveling iron, an electric shoe-shiner, any little luxury of life. It is an advantage to them if they can cook a bit, but they certainly don’t have to talk, in any language. Also they are interchangeable, like unblocked currency or international postal reply coupons. Their value can go up or down, depending on their age and the man currently in possession.
Mildred considered it not a bad life, and if interviewed would have said in her earnest way, ‘It’s interesting.’ Mildred never laughed, and smiled only when she thought she should be polite. She was five feet seven, blondish, rather slender, with a pleasant, blank face and large blue eyes which she held wide open. She slunk rather than walked, her shoulders hunched, hips thrust a bit forward — the way the best models walked, she has read somewhere. This gave her a languid, pacific air. Ambulant, she looked as if she were walking in her sleep. She was a little more lively in bed, and this fact travelled by word of mouth, or among men who might not speak the same tongue, by nods or small smiles. Mildred knew her job, and it must be said for her that she applied herself diligently to it.
She had floundered around in school till fourteen, when everyone including her parents had deemed it senseless for her to continue. She would marry early, her parents thought. Instead, Mildred ran away from home, or rather was taken away by a car salesman when she was barely fifteen. Under the salesman’s direction, she wrote reassuring letters home, saying she had a job in a nearby town as a waitress and was living in a flat with two other girls.
By the time she was eighteen, Mildred had been to Capri, Mexico City, Paris, even Japan, and to Brazil several times, where men usually dumped her, since they were often on the run from something. She had been a second prize, as it were, for one American President-elect the night of his victory. She had been lent for two days to a sheikh in London, who had rewarded her with a rather kinky gold goblet which she had subsequently lost – not that she liked the goblet, but it must have been worth a fortune, and she often thought of its loss with regret. If she ever wished to change her man, she would simply visit an expensive bar in Rio or anywhere, on her own, and pick up another man who would be pleased to add her to his expense account, and back she would go to America or Germany or Sweden. Mildred couldn’t have cared less what country she was in.
Once she was forgotten at a restaurant table, as a cigarette lighter might be left behind. Mildred noticed, but Herb didn’t for some thirty minutes which were mildly worrying for Mildred, though Mildred never got really distressed about anything. She did turn to the man sitting next to her – it was a business lunch, four men, four girls – and she said, ‘I thought Herb had just gone to the loo – ’
‘What?’ the heavy-set man next to her was an American. ‘Oh. He’ll be back. We had some unpleasant business to talk over today, you know. Herb’s upset.’ The American smiled understandingly. He had his girl friend by his side, one he’d picked up last night. The girls hadn’t opened their mouths, except to eat.
Herb came back and got Mildred, and they went to their hotel room, Herb in utmost gloom, because he’d come out badly in the business deal. Mildred’s embraces that afternoon failed to lift Herb’s spirits or his ego, and that evening Mildred was traded in. Her new guardian was Stanley, about thirty-five, pudgy, like Herb. The trade took place at cocktail time, while Mildred sipped her usual Alexander through a straw. Herb got Stanley’s girl, a dumb blonde with artificially curled hair. The blondness was artificial too, though a good job, Mildred observed, make-up and hair-do being matters Mildred was an expert in. Mildred returned to the hotel briefly to pack her suitcase, then she spent the evening and night with Stanley. He hardly talked to her, but he smiled a lot, and made a lot of telephone calls. This was in Des Moines.
With Stanley, Mildred went to Chicago, where Stanley had a small flat of his own, plus a wife in a house somewhere, he said. Mildred wasn’t worried about the wife. Only once in her life had she had to deal with a difficult wife who crashed into a flat. Mildred had brandished a carving knife, and the wife had fled. Usually a wife just looked dumb-founded, then sneered and walked off, obviously intending to avenge herself on her husband. Stanley was away all day and didn’t give her much money, which was annoying. Mildred wasn’t going to stay long with Stanley, if she could help it. She’d started a savings account in a bank somewhere once, but she’d lost her pass-book and forgotten the name of the town where the bank was.
But before Mildred could make a wise move away from Stanley, she found herself given away. This was a shock. An economist would have drawn a conclusion about currency that was given away, and so did Mildred. She realized that Stanley came out a bit better in the deal he had made with the man called Louis, to whom he gave Mildred but still —
And she was only twenty-three. But Mildred knew that was the danger age, and that she’d better play her cards carefully from now on. Eighteen was the peak, and she was five years past it, and what had she to show for it? A diamond bracelet that men eyed with greed, and that she’d twice had to get out of hock with the aid of some new bastard. A mink coat – same story. A suitcase with a couple of good-looking dresses. What did she want? Well, she wanted to continue the same life but with a sense of greater security. What would she do if her back was really to the wall? If she, kicked out maybe, not even given away, had to go to a bar and even then couldn’t pick up more than a one-night stand. Well, she had some addresses of past men friends, and she could always write them and threaten to put them in her memoirs, which she could say a publisher was paying her to write. But Mildred had talked with girls twenty-five and older who’d threatened memoirs, if they weren’t pensioned off for life, and she’d heard of only one who had succeeded. More often, the girls said, it was a laugh they got, or a ‘Go ahead and write it’ rather than any money.
So Mildred made the best of it for a few days with fat old Louis. He had a nice tabby cat, of which Mildred grew fond, but the most boring thing was that his apartment was a one-room kitchenette and dreary. Louis was good-natured but tight-fisted. Also it was embarrassing for Mildred to be sneaked out when she and Louis went out for dinner (not usually, because Louis expected her to cook and to do a little cleaning too), and when Louis had people it to talk business, to be asked to hide in the kitchenette and not to make a sound. Louis sold pianos wholesale. Mildred rehearsed the speech she was going to make soon. ‘I hope you realize you haven’t any hold over me, Louis… I’m a girl who’s not used to working not even in bed…’
But before she had a chance to make her speech, which would mainly have been demand for more money, because she knew Louis had plenty tucked away, she was given away to a young salesman one night. Louis simply said, after they’d all finished dinner in a roadside safe, ‘Dave, why don’t you take Mildred to your place for a nightcap? I’ve got to turn in early.’ With a wink.
Dave beamed. He was nice looking, but he lived in a caravan, good God! Mildred had no intention of becoming a gypsy, taking sponge baths, enduring portable loos. She was used to grand hotels with room service day and night. Dave might be young and ardent, but Mildred didn’t give a damn about that. Men said women were all alike, but in her opinion it was even truer that men were all alike. All they wanted was one thing. Women at least wanted fur coats, good perfume, a holiday in the Bahamas, a cruise somewhere, jewellery – in fact, quite a number of things.
One evening when she was with Dave at a business dinner (he was piano distributor and order-taker, though Mildred never saw a piano around the caravan), Mildred made the acquaintance of a Mr. Zupp, called Sam, who had invited Dave to dine in a fancy restaurant. Inspired by three Alexanders, Mildred flirted madly with Sam, who was not unresponsive under the table, and Mildred simply announced that she was going home with Sam. Dave’s mouth fell open, and he started to make a fuss, but Sam – an older, more self-assured men – most diplomatically implied that he would make a scene if it came to a fistfight, so Dave backed down.
This was a big improvement. Sam and Mildred flew at once to Paris then to Hamburg. Mildred got new clothes. The hotel rooms were great. Mildred never knew from one day to the next what town they would be in. Now here was a man whose memoirs would be worth something, if she could only find out what he did. But when he spoke on the telephone, it was either in code or in Yiddish, or Russian, or Arabic. Mildred had never heard such baffling languages in her life, and she was never able to find out just what he was selling. People had to sell something, didn’t they? Or buy something, and if they bought something, there had to be a source of money, didn’t there? So what was even the source of money? Something told Mildred that it would soon be time for her to retire. Sam Zupp seemed to have been sent by Providence. She worked on him, trying to be subtle.
‘I wouldn’t mind settling down,’ she said.
‘I’m not the marrying kind,’ he retorted with a smile.
That wasn’t what she meant. She meant a nest egg, and then he could say good-bye, if he wanted too. But wouldn’t it take a few nest eggs to make a big nest egg? Would she have to go through all this again with future Sam Zupps? Mildred’s mind staggered with the effort so see so far into the future, but there seemed no doubt that she should take advantage of Mr. Zupp, at least, while she had him. These ideas, or plans, frail as damaged spider webs, were swept away by the events of the days after the above conversation.
Sam Zupp was suddenly on the run. For a few days, it was aeroplanes with separate seats, because he and Mildred were not supposed to be travelling together. Once police sirens were behind them, as Sam’s hired driver zoomed and careered over an alpine road, bound for Geneva. Or maybe Zurich. Mildred was in her element, ministering to Sam with handkerchiefs moistened in eau de cologne, producing a sandwich de jambon out of her handbag in case he was hungry, or a flask of brandy if he felt his heart fluttering. Mildred fancied herself one of the heroines she had seen in films – good films – about men and their girl friends fleeing from the awful and so unfairly well-armed police.
Her daydreams of glamour were brief. It must have been in Holland – Mildred didn’t know where she was half the time – when the chauffeur-driven car suddenly screeched to a halt, just like in the films, and Mildred was bundled by both chauffeur and Sam into a mummylike casing of stiff, heavy tarpaulin, and then ropes were tied around her. She was dumped into a canal and drowned.
No one ever heard of Mildred. No one ever found her. If she had been found, there would have been no immediate means of identification, because Sam had her passport, and her handbag was in the car. She had been thrown away, as one might throw away a cricket lighter when it is used up, like a paperback one has read and which has become excess baggage. Mildred’s absence was never taken seriously by anyone. The score or so people who knew and remembered her, themselves scattered about the world, simply thought she was living in some other country or city. One day, they supposed, she’d turn up again in some bar, in some hotel lobby. Soon they forgot her.

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