From birth, Jack Dillon is a golden child. Blessed with blond locks, glittering eyes, and a perfect voice, he is the most popular child singer in Baltimore. But when puberty robs him of his voice and the stock market wipes out his family fortune, Jack is forced to rebuild. Over the next fifteen years, Jack will see it all. From Maryland to California and back again, he will become a football star, a soldier, and a tramp. Through it all, he never loses his eye for beauty, or his hunger for a woman he has known since childhood. To find happiness in the face of the Depression, Jack will have to remember that no matter how the world has changed him, part of his soul remains as pure as the first note he sang.
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By James M. Cain
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1948 James M. Cain
All rights reserved.
THE FIRST THING I remember was a big luna moth. I saw it in Druid Hill Park, which is up the street from our house, in Baltimore, on Mt. Royal Terrace. On cloudy days it's a little dark out there, and things like fireflies and bats and swallows get their signals crossed up and come out. Well, one day when the sky was about the color of a wet slate shingle, I was over there with Jane, my colored nurse, and this thing began flying around. I followed it quite a while, to a wall and a hedge and a bush, and then I ran off to find Jane so she could see it too. When I got back, there was a boy, I guess ten or twelve years old, but to me then bigger than any Yale guard was, later. He had a stick, and he was whacking at the moth to kill it. Never in my whole life, in a dream or on a battlefield or anywhere, have I felt such horror as I did then. I screamed my head off. When Jane got there she told the boy to stop, but he kept right on whacking. She jerked the stick out of his hands. He kicked at her, and she let him have it on the shins. Then he spit, but I didn't pay any attention. All I saw was that beautiful green thing, all filled with light, fluttering off through the trees, alive and free. It was a feeling I imagine other people have when they think about God in church. It makes no sense, does it, to say that a few times in my life, when something was happening inside of me, I could tell what it meant by the pale, blue-green, all-filled-with-light color the feeling had?
There's no law it has to.
The next thing I remember was a Bartlett pear. It was given me by my aunts the first week of school, to take to my teacher, Miss Jonas. A tree was in the backyard, and they got the idea Miss Jonas should have a pear, so my Aunt Sheila went out and picked a big yellow one with a pink cheek on it, and sent me off with it. The school was three blocks away. The second block I smelled the pear. The third block I ate it. When I got to the school I didn't have it, and began to worry. It was the day we were given cards with our names on them, and I found out I was John, not Jack. That was quite a piece of news, but I didn't have my mind on it. When I got home there was Aunt Nancy, in a gingham apron and one of my father's felt hats on, out in the yard raking leaves. She brought me in and sat me down and gave me milk, and then here it came: Had I remembered to tell Miss Jonas I hoped she enjoyed the pear, instead of just handing it to her? And I heard my mouth take over and hand out the damndest line of chatter you could imagine—all about how Miss Jonas had been tickled blue, had said she certainly would enjoy the pear, and especially because there was no tree in her backyard, so it would be a special treat to her, and it sure was swell to be remembered. It got by and it never bounced. And yet under it all was a sense of guilt, maybe the first time I ever felt it, that's been down under some things I've pulled, quite a few of them, a pink, hot-faced sensation as much the color of that pear as my high spots have been the color of the moth.
My aunts had no brogue in their speech, though they were older than my father was, because they grew up in this country, while he stayed in Ireland till he was twenty-four. His father, Francis Dillon, was a stationary engineer, and an uncle in New York had got him a job on a new project just then starting up, a powerhouse to run electric lights on Broadway. So he came across, in 1881, and the two girls came with him. But my grandmother stayed in Derry, where they all came from, as my father wasn't born yet, and the idea was she'd come later. But that wasn't how it worked out. Why I don't know, and my father didn't. A little interfamily friction may have had something to do with it, or it may have been my grandmother was doing pretty well for herself, and hated to up-hook and start over again. Or it may have been there weren't enough kisses on the end of the letters she got from my grandfather. Anyhow, soon after my grandfather and his daughters moved to Baltimore, she moved from Derry to Dublin, where she opened first a little shop, then later a rooming house off Merriam Square. Of course, the old home was really Londonderry, but in the family it's always been Derry, as it was in olden times, before the city of London adopted it for some kind of stepchild. The old lady must have done all right, because she put my father through Trinity College, and had just got him started at law when she died. He took that hard, and while her affairs were being settled, the doctors said he should take a sea trip for his health. So he joined some Irish players on their way to the St. Louis Fair. He didn't turn out to be much of an actor, and left, but on his way back he stopped at Baltimore, and at last the Dillon family met Patrick, whom they had never seen. I guess they went a little nuts and he did. Anyway, he stayed, and it wasn't long before he was practicing law, with all of them pretty proud of him for being so high-toned. By that time my grandfather had charge of a West Baltimore powerhouse, and as a matter of fact, he lived two or three years after my father got there. Then he died, and my father and his sisters kept house in Walbrook, a suburb, some distance from the house we're in now. They worshipped him, he did them.
I didn't worship them, because they didn't have my respect, but I loved them the way you can only love something you pity. Why they didn't have my respect was that they were such fools. I guess the pear, and forty-seven hundred other things like it, had something to do with it. They were born gulls, and would fall for anything, so it was romantic and silly and impossible. They were nuts about music, all three of them, but the Old Man didn't kid himself he was a musician the way they did. Of course, being from the north of Ireland, they were Episcopalians, and Nancy sang in the church choir, up to the time they put the boys in, and closed her eyes and put expression in it. She was small and dumpy and dark, so when she sang We Praise Thee, O God she looked exactly like Slicker, our black cat, when he began yawning around ten o'clock. She always said I had inherited her voice, though how this came about she never explained. I had quite some voice for a little angel between nine and thirteen, and quite some left hook for a little rat of the same age. But what voice she had I couldn't tell you, because in spite of all the faces she made, I never heard one sound come out of her you could hear above the organ.
Sheila was tall and had brown hair and played the piano, with the stool raised just so and her dresses spread out all around her and the music corners bent to little ears and one hand crossing over the other. But if she ever played a piece through and played it right, I don't know when it was, and fact of the matter, when I came along as the boy wonder of North Baltimore and had to have somebody to play for me, it speedily became clear, kind of crystal clear, that Sheila wouldn't do, and it led to quite a few things. At that time she put on an act about not being able to play accompaniments, as though accompaniments were just an unimportant sideline to a big-time pianist, and in her own imagination I think she really thought she was one. But just when and where and how she had done all that important work she never bothered to explain. There was plenty of music in Baltimore as the Peabody Conservatory is there, but she and Nancy and my father were always going up to New York to hear some special brand, and one time, just three or four years after he came over, they got a surprise. The attraction was Mme Luisa Tetrazzini in Lucia, and right after the curtain went up who should come out in a plumed hat but the boy who led the olio in St. Louis. His name was John McCormack.
The first I remember of my father was when he took me down to North Avenue one day and held my hand while we walked along, and I chirped it was easy to tell how tall I was, as I was exactly half as tall as he was. He said it was easy now, but the question was: Would I stay that way? I think it was my first encounter with the idea I was growing and next year might not be the same size as I was then. We were on our way to his garage. He hadn't started out to be a garage man but became one by accident. Around 1908 he bought a car. He was driving it along, and pulled out for a traction engine and wound up in the ditch. He swore, though he's never convinced me, that the steering gear was defective, and sued. So the company made propositions, but as they didn't have much, he settled for an agency, selling the car. Later, he said he wanted something on paper, a commitment he could put a price on when they'd be in shape to buy him out, and never expected to peddle the things because it was a cross between enlarging pictures and insurance. But when I came along in 1910 he was making more money from cars then five lawyers were making from clients, because the car became a very celebrated one, even though it was cheap, that you'd know if I chose to name it.
So a lawyer that was doing fair turned into a mechanic that was doing terrific. If you asked me, it made his life bitter. To an American, a business is a life. To an Irishman, especially one with a university education, it's not, because there's no such intellectual snob. I've heard him prove it a thousand times, that the automobile has done more for man than anything since Moses. Law, he said, makes property, steam makes power, but petroleum makes light, and the great light lit up when they put the stuff on wheels, so the lowliest "wight" could drive out of his village and see what the wide world looked like. I've seen him take a ball bearing from his pocket and orate on its being the finest jewel ever made. And yet, in their shelves around his study, I think those books, row on row of them in leather bindings, looked down to mock him. When he closed them something went out of his life, and money didn't take its place. And there may have been a family angle too. His mother, as I piece it together, never liked that title, "stationary engineer," that was worn by my grandfather. The automobile agency was not quite the same as superintendent of a powerhouse, but it was like it, and I imagine he wondered what she would have thought of it.
My mother I saw once, to know it. She was born in Baltimore, but she and my father didn't meet for some years after he got here. Then at a Christmas party, when she was home from school, they danced together, and before New Year's got married, in Elkton, after running away. She was sixteen, he twenty-eight. You'd think they were the right age to be happy, and that they'd got started the right way. But his hair had started to gray, and from things I've heard from Nancy and Sheila and others, he got the idea the difference in their ages was an Irish Sea between them. And then he began figuring she moved in a world of kids that thought he was funny. Three years after I was born in 1910, a rich boy came down from Philly. It was over him they had the bust-up, and it was on account of him, or what the Old Man got in his head about him, that it was put in the settlement he should keep me. But I'll go to my grave believing it was all his imagination, and I've got my reasons for thinking he went to his grave believing so too. The bust-up knocked him galley-west, and he never remarried. He and she had set up shop in Roland Park, with Nancy and Sheila staying in the Walbrook house. But after she left he sold both houses, and he and his sisters moved to the house on Mt. Royal Terrace, and they even started going to a different church, which I'll call St. Anne's. So far as they were concerned there had never been a Louise Thorne, and I was a boy that had really been brought by a stork, and had a father and aunts but no mother.
All that, though, was before I was four years old, and I had no memory of what she looked like, and no pictures of her were around. All I knew about her was from a little trunk I found in the attic, that I doubt if the Old Man or my aunts even knew about. It had in it some of her clothes, especially a dark-blue velvet dress I loved to touch, and a black leather case with a nail file in it, a buffer, an orange stick, a powder box, a fluffy puff, and a little bottle of perfume with a glass stopper. By the time I was ten I must have smelled that perfume a thousand times, and when something had gone wrong, I'd go up there in the attic, open the trunk, touch the velvet dress, and smell the perfume. Well, came the time when I was the wonder child of Baltimore, the sweet singer of Mt. Royal Terrace, the minstrel boy of Maryland, with the church full whenever I sang, pieces about me in the papers all the time, and money rolling in, specially those twenties for Abide with Me at funerals, very joyous occasions in the life of a cute boy singer. And one morning we hadn't even finished the first hymn, when I noticed this number on the aisle in the second pew, that was alone, and seemed most interested in me. By that time, though I was only thirteen, I'd had plenty of admiration from the female sex, partly from how I sounded, but partly from how I looked, with my big blue eyes and bright gold hair, in my little white surplice. But if you think I had got bored with it in any way, you've formed a false impression of my character. And if she looked older than I was, I had already found out even if they were older, the pretty ones could be awful sweet. She was plenty pretty. Her hair was gold, but the light from the Resurrection, streaming in through the stained glass window behind her, turned it red. Her eyes, though, were blue, and they stared straight at me.
So when we got to the offertory and I started the Schubert Ave Maria, I gave out with plenty, and beamed it right at her. After about three bars of it she looked away quick, and then back at me again, and I knew she'd got it, I was singing to her. When I finished and sat down, our eyes crossed and she nodded and this beautiful smile crept over her face, and for the first time I began to wonder if there was something about her that was more than a pretty girl that had liked how I sang. I was still crossed up when we started out, and she put out her hand as I went by, and gave me a little pat. We robed in the basement, not because there wasn't plenty of room in the vestry, but so we could file out through the church, singing a recessional a cappella, and our voices would die away in the distance as we went down the stairs.
I had already passed her when it hit me, the perfume she had on, and I knew who she was. I wanted to turn around and speak to her, but I was afraid. I was afraid I'd cry. So I kept on, one step at a time, just like the rest, and hoped nobody would notice that I wasn't singing any more. We got back to the basement at last, and I tore off the robes and ran back upstairs. People were all over the place, in the vestibule and outside, just leaving, some of them talking with Dr. Grant, the rector. She wasn't there. It was part of the deal, I know now, that she would never visit me, and the way I dope it out, somebody had tipped her that my aunts and the Old Man were on one of their trips to New York, with me left behind with some friends, so she could see me without anybody knowing who she was, and hear me. But I hadn't doped out anything then. All I knew was she was beautiful, and my mother, and I wanted to touch her, the way she had touched me. And when I couldn't find her I went down to the basement again and cracked up, but good. The organist was a young guy named Anderson, that could play all right but thought he was a wonderful cutup. He winked at the other boys, and began to whistle A Furtive Tear, from The Elixir of Love, or Una Furtiva Lagrima, as I sang it, in Italian. I almost killed that organist. I beat him up so bad even the boys got scared, and the men, the basses and tenors, called a cop. But when he got there I was gone.
Excerpted from The Moth by James M. Cain. Copyright © 1948 James M. Cain. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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