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The Magic Christian
By Terry Southern
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2002 Terry Southern
All rights reserved.
When not tending New York holdings, Guy Grand was generally, as he expressed it, "on the go." He took cross-country trips by train: New York to Miami, Miami to Seattle—that sort of thing—always on a slow train, one that made frequent stops. Accommodation on these trains is limited, and though he did engage the best, Grand often had to be satisfied with a small compartment fitted with scarcely more than the essentials of comfort. But he accepted this cheerfully; and so today, on a summer afternoon at precisely 2:05, it was with buoyant step (considering his girth—for, at fifty-three now, he was rather stout) that he climbed aboard the first Pullman of the Portland Plougher, found his compartment, and began the pleasant routine of settling in for the long slow journey to New York. As was his habit, he immediately rang the porter to bring round a large bottle of Campari and a bottle of finely iced water; then he sat down at his desk to write business letters.
It was known that for any personal service Grand was inclined to tip generously, and because of this there were usually three or four porters loitering in the corridor nearby. They kept a sharp eye on the compartment door, in case Grand should signal some need or other; and, as the train pulled out of the station, they could hear him moving about inside, humming to himself, and shuffling papers to and fro on his desk. Before the train made its first stop, however, they would have to scurry, for Grand's orders were that the porters should not be seen when he came out of his compartment; and he did come out, at every stop.
At the first of these stops, which was not long in occurring, Grand went quickly to the adjoining day coach and took a seat by the window. There he was able to lean out and observe the activity on the platform; he attracted little attention himself, resembling as he did, with his pleasant red face, any honest farmer.
From the train window one could see over and beyond the station the rest of the small New England town—motionless now in the summer afternoon, like a toy mausoleum—while all that seemed to live within the town was being skillfully whipped underground and funneled up again in swift urgency onto the station platform, where small square cartons were unloaded from a central car.
But amidst the confusion and haste on the platform there was one recognizable figure; this was the man who sold hotdogs from a box he carried strapped to his neck.
"They're red hot!" he cried repeatedly, walking up and down parallel to the train and only a foot from it—while Grand, after a minute of general observation, focused all his attention on this person; and then, at exactly one minute before departure, he began his case with the hotdog-man.
"Red hot!" he shouted; and when the man reached the window, Grand eyed him shrewdly for a second, squinting, as though perhaps appraising his character, before asking, tight-lipped:
"Twenty cents," the hotdog-man said hurriedly—for the train was about to pull out—"... mustard and relish, they're red hot!"
"Done!" said Grand with a sober nod, and as the train actually began to move forward and the hotdog-man to walk rapidly in keeping abreast of the window, Guy Grand leaned out and handed him a five-hundred-dollar bill.
"Break this?" he asked tersely.
The hotdog-man, in trying to utilize all their remaining time, passed the hotdog to Grand and reached into his change pocket before having looked carefully at the bill—so that by the time he made out its denomination, he was running almost full tilt, grimacing oddly and shaking his head, trying to return the bill with one hand and recover the hotdog with the other. During their final second together, with the hotdog-man's last overwhelming effort to reach his outstretched hand, Grand reached into his own coat pocket and took out a colorful plastic animal mask—today it was that of pig—which he quickly donned before beginning to gorge the hotdog through the mouth of the mask, at the same time reaching out frantically for the bill, yet managing somehow to keep it just beyond his fingers' grasp, and continuing with this while the distance between them lengthened, hopelessly, until at last the hotdog-man stood exhausted on the end of the platform, still holding the five hundred, and staring after the vanishing train.
When Grand finally drew himself back from the window and doffed his pig mask, it was to face a middle-aged woman across the aisle who was twisted halfway around in her seat, observing Grand with a curiosity so intense that the instant of their eyes actually meeting did not seem to register with her. Then she coughed and glanced away—but irresistibly back again, as Guy Grand rose, all smiles, to leave the day coach, giving the woman a wink of affectionate conspiracy as he did.
"Just having a laugh with that hot-frank vender," he explained. "... no real harm done, surely."
He returned to his compartment then, where he sat at the desk sipping his Campari—a drink the color of raspberries, but bitter as gall—and speculating about the possible reactions of the hotdog-man.
Outside the compartment, even at the far end of the corridor, the idle porters could often hear his odd chortle as he stirred about inside.
By the time the train reached New York, Guy Grand had gone through this little performance four or five times, curious fellow.CHAPTER 2
Out of the gray granite morass of Wall Street rises one building like a heron of fire, soaring up in blue-white astonishment—Number 18 Wall—a rocket of glass and blinding copper. It is the Grand Investment Building, perhaps the most contemporary business structure in our country, known in circles of high finance simply as Grand's.
Offices of Grand's are occupied by companies which deal in mutual funds—giant and fantastic corporations whose policies define the shape of nations.
August Guy Grand himself was a billionaire. He had 180 millions cash deposit in New York banks, and this ready capital was of course but a part of his gross holdings.
In the beginning, Grand's associates, wealthy men themselves, saw nothing extraordinary about him; a reticent man of simple tastes, they thought, a man who had inherited most of his money and had preserved it through large safe investments in steel, rubber, and oil. What his associates managed to see in Grand was usually a reflection of their own dullness: a club member, a dinner guest, a possibility, a threat—a man whose holdings represented a prospect and a danger. But this was to do injustice to Grand's private life, because his private life was atypical. For one thing, he was the last of the big spenders; and for another, he had a very unusual attitude towards people—he spent about ten million a year in, as he expressed it himself, "making it hot for them."
At fifty-three, Grand had a thick trunk and a large balding bullet-head; his face was quite pink, so that in certain half-lights he looked like a fat radish-man—though not displeasingly so, for he always sported well-cut clothes and, near the throat, a diamond the size of a nickel ... a diamond now that caught the late afternoon sun in a soft spangle of burning color when Guy stepped through the soundless doors of Grand's and into the blue haze of the almost empty street, past the huge doorman appearing larger than life in gigantic livery, he who touched his cap with quick but easy reverence.
"Cab, Mr. Grand?"
"Thank you no, Jason," said Guy, "I have the car today." And with a pleasant smile for the man, he turned adroitly on his heel, north towards Worth Street.
Guy Grand's gait was brisk indeed—small sharp steps, rising on the toes. It was the gait of a man who appears to be snapping his fingers as he walks.
Half a block on he reached the car, though he seemed to have a momentary difficulty in recognizing it; beneath the windshield wiper lay a big parking ticket, which Grand slowly withdrew, regarding it curiously.
"Looks like you've got a ticket, bub!" said a voice somewhere behind him.
Out of the corner of his eye Grand perceived the man, in a dark summer suit, leaning idly against the side of the building nearest the car. There was something terse and smug in the tone of his remark, a sort of nasal piousness.
"Yes, so it seems," mused Grand, without looking up, continuing to study the ticket in his hand. "How much will you eat it for?" he asked then, raising a piercing smile at the man.
"How's that, mister?" demanded the latter with a nasty frown, pushing himself forward a bit from the building.
Grand cleared his throat and slowly took out his wallet—a long slender wallet of such fine leather it would have been limp as silk, had it not been so chock-full of thousands.
"I asked what would you take to eat it? You know ..." Wide-eyed, he made a great chewing motion with his mouth, holding the ticket up near it.
The man, glaring, took a tentative step forward.
"Say, I don't get you, mister!"
"Well," drawled Grand, chuckling down at his fat wallet, browsing about in it, "simple enough really ..." And he took out a few thousand. "I have this ticket, as you know, and I was just wondering if you would care to eat it, for, say"—a quick glance to ascertain—"six thousand dollars?"
"What do you mean, 'eat it'?" demanded the dark-suited man in a kind of a snarl. "Say, what're you anyway, bub, a wise- guy?"
"'Wise-guy' or 'grand guy'—call me anything you like ... as long as you don't call me 'late-for-chow!' Eh? Ho-ho." Grand rounded it off with a jolly chortle, but was quick to add, unsmiling, "How 'bout it, pal—got a taste for the easy green?"
The man, who now appeared to be openly angry, took another step forward.
"Listen, mister ..." he began in a threatening tone, half clenching his fists.
"I think I should warn you," said Grand quietly, raising one hand to his breast, "that I am armed."
"Huh?" The man seemed momentarily dumfounded, staring down in dull rage at the six bills in Grand's hand; then he partially recovered, and cocking his head to one side, regarded Grand narrowly, in an attempt at shrewd skepticism, still heavily flavored with indignation.
"Just who do you think you are, Mister! Just what is your game?"
"Grand's the name, easy-green's the game," said Guy with a twinkle. "Play along?" He brusquely flicked the corners of the six crisp bills, and they crackled with a brittle, compelling sound.
"Listen ..." muttered the man, tight-lipped, flexing his fingers and exhaling several times in angry exasperation, "... are you trying ... are you trying to tell ME that you'll give six thousand dollars ... to ... to EAT that"—he pointed stiffly at the ticket in Guy's hand—"to eat that TICKET?!?"
"That's about the size of it," said Grand; he glanced at his watch, "It's what you might call a 'limited offer'—expiring in, let's say, one minute."
"Listen, mister," said the man between clenched teeth, "if this is a gag, so help me ..." He shook his head to show how serious he was.
"No threats," Guy cautioned, "or I'll shoot you in the temple—well, what say? Forty-eight seconds remaining."
"Let's see that goddamn money!" exclaimed the man, quite beside himself now, grabbing at the bills.
Grand allowed him to examine them as he continued to regard his watch, "Thirty-nine seconds remaining," he announced solemnly. "Shall I start the big count down?"
Without waiting for the latter's reply, he stepped back and, cupping his hands like a megaphone, began dramatically intoning, "Twenty-eight ... twenty-seven ... twenty-six ..." while the man made several wildly gesticulated and incoherent remarks before seizing the ticket, ripping off a quarter of it with his teeth and beginning to chew, eyes blazing.
"Stout fellow!" cried Grand warmly, breaking off the count down to step forward and give the chap a hearty clap on the shoulder and hand him the six thousand.
"You needn't actually eat the ticket," he explained. "I was just curious to see if you had your price." He gave a wink and a tolerant chuckle. "Most of us have, I suppose. Eh? Ho-ho."
And with a grand wave of his hand, he stepped inside his car and sped away, leaving the man in the dark summer suit standing on the sidewalk staring after him, fairly agog.CHAPTER 3
Grand drove leisurely up the East River Drive—to a large and fine old house in the Sixties, where he lived with his two elderly aunts, Agnes and Esther Edwards.
He found them in the drawing room when he arrived.
"There you are, Guy!" said Agnes Edwards with tart affection, who at eighty-six was a year senior to Esther and held the initiative in most things between them.
"Guy, Guy, Guy," exclaimed Esther happily in her turn, with a really beautiful pink smile for him—but she insisted then upon raising her teacup, so that all to be seen now was her brow, softly clouded, as ever, in maternal concern for the boy. Both women were terribly, chronically, troubled that Guy, at fifty-three, was unmarried—though perhaps each, in her way, would have fought against it.
Guy beamed at them from the doorway, then crossed to kiss both before going to his big sofa-chair by the window where he always sat.
"We're just having tea, darling—do!" insisted his Aunt Agnes with brittle passion, flourishing her little silver service bell in a smart tinkle and presenting her half-upturned face for his kiss—as though to receive it perfunctorily, but with eyelids closed and tremoring, one noticed, and a second very thin hand which, as in reflex, started to rise towards their faces, wavering up, clenched white as the lace at her wrists.
"Guy, Guy, Guy," cried Esther again, sharpening her own gaiety as she set her cup down—quickly enough, but with a care that gave her away.
"You will take tea, won't you, my Guy!" said Agnes, and she conveyed it in a glance to the maid who'd appeared.
"Love some," said Guy Grand, giving his aunts such a smile of fanatic brightness that they both squirmed a bit. He was in good spirits now after his trip—but soon enough, as the women could well attest, he would fall away from them, lapse into mystery behind his great gray Financial Times and Wall Street Journal for hours on end: distrait, they thought; never speaking, certainly; answering, yes—but most often in an odd and distant tone that told them nothing, nothing.
"Guy ..." Agnes Edwards began, turning her cup in her hand and forcing one of the warm playful frowns used by the extremely rich to show the degree of seriousness felt.
"Yes, Aunt Agnes," said Guy unnecessarily, even brightly, actually coming forward a bit on his chair, not turning his own cup, but fingering it, politely nervous.
"Guy ... you know Clemence's young man. Well, I think they want to get married! And ... oh I don't know, I was just wondering if we couldn't help. Naturally, I haven't said a thing to her about it—I wouldn't dare, of course ... but then what's your feeling on it, Guy? Surely there's something we can do, don't you agree?"
Guy Grand could have no notion what she was talking about, except that it was undoubtedly a question of money; but he spoke darkly enough to suggest that he was weighing his words with care.
"Why I should think so, yes."
Agnes Edwards beamed and raised her cup in a gesture both coy and smug, then the two women glanced at each other, smiling prettily, almost lifting their brows—whatever it was, it was a certain gain all around.
Grand's own idea of what he was doing—"making it hot for people"—had formed crudely, literally, and almost as an afterthought, when, early one summer morning in 1938, just about the time the Spanish Civil War was ending, he flew out to Chicago and, within an hour of arrival, purchased a property on one of the busiest corners of the Loop. He had the modern two-story structure torn down and the debris cleared off that day—that very morning, in fact—by a demolition crew of fifty men and machines; and then he directed the six carpenters, who had been on stand-by since early morning, when they had thrown up a plank barrier at the sidewalk, to construct the wooden forms for a concrete vat of the following proportions: fifteen feet square, five feet deep. This construction was done in an hour and a half, and it seemed that the work, except for pouring the concrete, was ended; in fact the carpenters had put on their street clothes and were ready to leave when, after a moment of reflection, Grand assembled them with a smart order to take down this present structure, and to rebuild it, but on a two-foot elevation—giving clearance beneath, as he explained to the foreman, to allow for the installation of a heating apparatus there.
Excerpted from The Magic Christian by Terry Southern. Copyright © 2002 Terry Southern. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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