Saturday, March 13, 2010

10. BELLE WATLING'S OPINION

GONE WITH THE WIND caricatured Belle Watling as if she was illiterate trash.  This served Scarlett’s vanity, of course.  However, Belle held a much more complex role than Scarlett, in Southern society and in Papa’s life.  She was at least as literate as Scarlett, since she too conducted a business.  When I first learned of her, I was too young to accompany Papa to her house.  He didn’t keep it a secret from me, so I endeavored to visit for myself as soon as I could.
 Eventually, he allowed me meet him there on occasion, in order to run our errands for the day.  I arrived at Ms. Watling’s first thing in the morning, and waited outside at the hitching post alongside a faithful hound dog or two.  This cured my jitters about missing a day’s activities.  The gentlemen seemed unnaturally rushed when they departed there, and neglected to return my greeting. 
I never cared that Papa was lodging away from Scarlett, nor did Scarlett herself complained about it.  In fact, by the time I first arrived at the chalet, Papa had already taken a separate bedroom from her, which enabled him to come and go discretely. 
            I visited Belle’s on my own for the first time on an errand for Papa, when I was sixteen or seventeen.  I was lucky to be received by Belle herself, since I arrived at midday, rather than the cocktail hour when Belle would have been occupied with a crowd of clients.  I’d never before entered her establishment, so I hadn’t seen her parlor before.  The drapes on the front windows had always been closed, which, of course was no hindrance to a curious youth like me.  But peeping through the curtains at women with bare backs didn’t begin to satiate my interest.
The parlor had an empty look and the floor was scuffed from dancing.  The walls were lined with sofas, and we sat down. Opposite the fireplace was the piano, whose song repertoire I could recite from memory.  The parlor adjoined the dining room, which had been commandeered from its intended purpose by a dog-eared deck of cards, which occupied the center of the square table.  Alongside the cards were ashtrays stacked with wagering chips. 
I recall that I had expected her to be prettier, before I finally came face to face with her.  She looked fairly plain, I thought, too old and fat to suit Papa.  Of course, at age nineteen, I thought all women over thirty looked old, especially those as plump as her.  I hadn’t yet learned the skill of imagining how the old ones might have looked years earlier when they fresh and slender.  Despite Belle’s nail polish, her hands also showed me she’d worked a shift or two at every job under the sun.  She was like one neighbor I had known in New Orleans, who was a precious, but common kind of woman, who managed to keep my uncles content, year after year.
After I introduced myself to   her,   she said,” His son?  You
don’t favor him at all.”
I explained, till she cut me off.  “He adopts folks like us, son.  There’s no accounting for it - - he just knows who he likes, and that settles it for good, whether we’re shunned by others or not.”
“Were you shunned, when you met him?”
“I still am.”
That caught me off guard, and I heard myself reply, “Me too.”  I blushed, not
wishing to explain myself.  
She nodded, as if she knew exactly what I meant.  I presented Papa’s envelope to
 her, which was not addressed to anyone.  She looked up to confirm it was for   her,   and I nodded.  She clutched it to her breast.   
“Why didn’t Rhett himself come?” 
I offered his apologies.  I was glad for the first time, however, that I was on my
 own.  “If he had come, I’d have never gotten your attention for myself.”   
Her cheek made a dimple.  “Just the same, you tell him he ought not neglect me.”  I’d say no such thing to him, and she knew it.  Again, she glanced at the blankness of the envelope.  Without opening it, she said,” What can I do for you?”
She made me feel like the only person she’d ever asked it.  “Lordy me, Miss Watling.  After two minutes with you, I just feel like I’ve known you forever.”
She yawned.  “Like brother and sister, eh?  Rhett said that too, the first time he met me - - so do most fellows who come to call.  That’s why I keep on running this hotel, I like to please people.  And you’re probably wonderin’ if I feel the same about you - - like you’re my long lost brother?  No.  Sorry, son, but I don’t feel it.  You’re a fine lookin’ fellow, though you don’t favor Rhett at all.  But that’s about all I can say for you.”
I still felt it.
“But Rhett Butler, he’s different.  Me and him are like brother and sister, according to the stars - - the zodiac.  He’s a Sagittarius, and guess who else happened to be a November baby?” 
I was slow on the uptake. 
“Miss Belle Watling, that’s who!”  She nodded so hard her curls flopped in her face.  You’ve never seen two astrological charts so close, as mine and his.  We’re not just brother and sister, we’re twins!”
She asked me my sign, and I shrugged.  Who cared, since I knew I wasn’t a November baby?  As usual, I was a foreigner to their tribe.  Funny, how an outsider like her could suddenly sound as snobby as a socialite.
“Talk about being shunned!  Rhett Butler’s the only one in Dixie with a worse reputation than me.’”  He was nearly tarred and feathered in Charleston at the hands of his own family, but it was a story I’d never heard before.  Of course, I knew he despised those people, but I thought it was because they had blundered into war with the Union and dragged all of Dixie with them.  Somehow, Belle knew the dirt on Rhett, blow by blow, but was indignant as a sister on his behalf. 
I asked,” His reputation used to be the worst?”
  “Before her.”   
At that time, I didn’t yet know how strongly Belle felt towards Scarlett, or of Belle’s previous confrontations with her, which are briefly described in GONE WITH THE WIND.  But I had assumed Scarlett treated her shabbily, as most ladies did.
“Does she know you’re calling on me today?”  Her eyes bore down.  “She’s got no right to shun anyone.  Not you or me.  Any woman who propositions men on the public streets - - and I ain’t talking about selling lumber - - has got no room to talk.”
“Aunt Scarlet?” 
“Yep.  Hasn’t been ten years since she was hitchin’ rides out on the curb.  She met her last husband that way - - Mr. Kennedy - - hitchin’ a ride.”
 I raised my eyebrows at that, but I couldn’t be shocked, after a boyhood in the alleyways of New Orleans, and Belle seemed to know it.  I was street wise enough to know the value of dirt on an enemy’s reputation.  But Scarlett wasn’t my enemy, yet.  I loved her!  
“I hate a woman who cuts her husband down to size.    Before he married Scarlett, Rhett was the most fearsome rogue in town, who had dueled with two aristocrats and lived to brag about it.  He had spent a decade swindling the good ole boys out of their poker purses and brought the business of smuggling to town, all the way from Charleston.  These days, they’d call him a gangster.  But since Scarlett, he himself’s nothing but a fat cat.  He struts around City Hall and Sacred Heart, thinking his baby is cuter than anyone else’s.”
“That’s natural.”
“No no, not for him.  He had never been the marryin’ kind, till that woman coaxed him into it.  He himself said “I’ll never marry,” a thousand times.  Then he turned right around and married   her,   despite himself.  She tempted him and flirted with him for six, seven years, even while she was married to that old man.  Finally, Rhett couldn’t help himself anymore.  He promised her half his fortune in order to have his way with   her,   once and for all.”
 “Half of -”  My mind raced from the Chalet to the horses and buggies, everything that bore the brand “RB.”  The sight of his brand had meant that Papa, and Papa alone, could gather it up under his arm and tote it all across town or downstream, to anywhere in creation that he fancied.   
“That’s right, son.  She’s now got half of  Rhett’s, to add to the estate of old man Kennedy, which she already added to the estate of her first one, the boy - - Miss Pittypat’s nephew, who died at Bull Run.” 
I must’ve looked like an imbecile at that moment.
“You say he adopted you?  You’re his son, same as Bonnie’s his daughter?”
I hesitated.
“Inheritance?”  I had never said it before. 
She chuckled.  “Listen here.  Every man has an estate.  After he passes on, his children inherit - - they become the owners.  Each of ‘em gets his share.”
“After he passes on,” I said.
“What’s your business here?”
“I’m Rhett’s adopted son, Jacques Boudreau.”
“Well then, you better change your name to Butler, right away.”  She paused and seemed to think agan.  “No, don’t bother.  It would be a hornet’s nest.  I dare say Scarlett wouldn’t stand for it - - a stranger like you, waltzing into town and calling himself Butler, trying to help himself to her babies’ inheritance.” 
I shuddered, knowing the hornet’s nest was real.  I’d never dreaming I was stirring one up.  Until that moment I had felt lucky to have a roof over my head.  That was fortune enough for me.  I’d never dreamed I had a fortune to gain or to lose.  Owning a piece of anything, let alone the magnificent estate of Rhett Butler, was too sophisticated for me to grasp.
“We’ve got a heap of common interests,” she said.  “Every little trifle related to
Mr. Butler.  Well Mister,   Mister–“
“Boudreau.”
“Mr. Boudreau, what can I do for you?  Surely there’s more than this measly envelope you’ve delivered.”
I pondered her question.  “Miss Watling, if I may, I’d like to start calling more
 regularly.  To talk - - get advice - - that’s all.”
Her cheeks dimpled. “We’ll see what we can arrange.”
I thanked her for her kindness.  I felt that I had secured a precious ally against a
hostile world that had recently become more treacherous. 
Before I had on my hat, she had lost interest in me and dove into the envelope from Papa.
“He’s moving in!”  Her eyes bulged so far I hardly recognized   her,   and she shouted as if everyone in town should know.  “His trunk’ll be delivered here as soon as it’s packed.”  She leapt to her feet and kissed me on both cheeks, bumping my hat halfway off.
Again I was stunned, for the second or third time in that conversation.  Papa was moving into Belle’s place, and out of his own mansion, where we all loved him!  Which trunk was he referring to?  Why hadn’t he told me, and given me instructions for the move?  I reached for the letter.  “Can I see that, Ma’am?”
“Sir!” she feigned, and clutched it to her breast.
I didn’t doubt what she said, I just wanted more.  I had seen how distant he was from Scarlett, and how seldom he appeared in the morning for breakfast.  But I couldn’t stand seeing Papa banished from his own place.  I wanted him home.  He was all I had.  That’s why I’d never minded fetching him from Belle’s.  Now, it seemed like I’d assisted him with his plans to leave me.  Now Belle was the one with Papa’s confidence, not me.  She was Papa’s best friend on earth.  Scarlett was the cause of all his woes, and I too was vulnerable to her, simply for having slept in the lap of luxury, and learned to like it.  Belle’s parlor on the other hand, smelled like stale cigars.  But it began to feel good to me, the longer I stayed.
At that moment, when my mind was racing, Belle called back to the kitchen.  Out came a skinny blonde girl wearing a clean sundress whose straps had almost no shoulder flesh to cling to.  She wasn’t as old as me, but she look straight at me, as if we were the only two kids in the sandbox and said,
“I’ll be right with you, sir.”
By the time Belle had corrected her and sent her to fetch coffee, Ruthie had already shown her approval of my fine wool suit and waxed boots.  She had also taken note, without a bit of modesty, of my glance at her cute cleavage.  This child wasn’t afraid to play with boys.
Ruthie returned with two cups, cream and sugar.  Abruptly, Belle hopped up and told her to sit and keep me company, as if she wanted to match me up with Ruthie.  Belle liked what she saw, after the two of us were sitting together like a couple.
Ruthie spooned so much sugar into hers that it swelled to the brink.  She couldn’t stir it or lift the cup off the saucer, for fear of a mess.  To sip it, she leaned over and reached her lips to the rim.  She winced since it was still bitter.  I smirked at her.
“Drink,” she sulked.
I chuckled and shook my own cup, which clinked enough to spill.  She nodded at me to watch out.
I gulped it and said, “I’ve gotta go see Papa.”
She sat back, crossed her legs, and took in my expression.  “He’s had it with that woman, Scarlett, huh?”
“I don’t know.”  I must’ve looked bewildered.  I was but it didn’t keep me from admiring her bare knee, as thin as it was.  What a thrill to be within reach of her!
She patted my arm.  “Don’t worry, his secret’s safe with us.  He told Belle everything.  Of course, I got eyes in my head, and I seen her on the street every day, hawking lumber to any sweaty convict or nigger who would tote it away.  I swear to god she used to stand on the curb and hitch rides with any man with a buggy.  She climbed right up beside him, she did.”
“Scarlett?  What’re you saying?”  I didn’t like the sound of it, from a common girl like Ruthie.  Coming from Belle, a grown woman twice Scarlett’s age, it wasn’t so bad.
“Scarlett’s as shameless as any street-walker in town.”
“Shut your mouth, girl.”
She didn’t flinch.  “Sir, it’s our parlor, so I’ll say what I please.  Besides, I ain’t joking about Scarlett.  You’ll see her for yourself, large as life, if you walk down
Auburn Avenue
to Boulevard.  And don’t be surprised if the hem of her satin skirt’s brown from draggin’ through the muck.  If it’s too much for you, I suggest you go home to your mansion behind the iron gate.”     
“She tends shop,” I said.
“Surely does, and I think she’s the Queen of Sheba for having her own.  But shame on her for betraying a decent husband like Rhett , who never did her wrong.”
 “Who said so?”  I’d never heard of the scandal before.  It that had happened in the same month as my arrival in Atlanta, and of course it was hushed at the Chalet. 
“It’s all over town, Honey.  Has been for months.  She’s two-timing Rhett, out at her lumber mill, where she’s got Ashley Wilkes at her beckon call.  Lord knows what goes on out there, under cover of the woods.” 
Of course, I knew all about her mill, but I’d never yet heard the gossip, since I’d been trailing so close behind Papa.
Belle barged back in on us, and looked me in the eye.  “We mustn’t tell Scarlett.”
“Tell her?”
She stomped her foot with Ruthie joining in, “About Rhett moving!”

1 comment:

  1. I don't see Chapter 11--is this one going to be a "stinger"?

    Andi O Blume

    ReplyDelete