Joy led me through a mad architectural theme park to a central staircase flanked by a pair of enormous picture windows that faced west where the sun was drowning in Lake Worth.
We were trailed by a pig-nosed, yes-sir, no-sir, three-bags full sir, valet who provided occasional blah blah commentary on a needles to know basis: “Mr. Kunt’s property extends from the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Worth. It is one of the largest private residences on Earth — 128 rooms over 110,000 square feet, with 58 bedrooms, 33 bathrooms, a ballroom, a theater, and a golf course. Our interiors were designed by Ziegfeld Follies scenic designer Joseph Urban. They are a fantasy of an American in love with the artistic splendor of Europe, featuring the Hispano-Moorish tiles from Spain; frescoes from Florence; Venetian arches to introduce and frame water passages; a ninety-foot castle tower for unimpeded panoramas of sea and sky —.”
The Adam suite — my berth for the night and our destination — was a shadow of its ornately carved and hand-painted, moreish, former-self, cluttered with mid-priced reproduction furniture including a cropped four poster bed that had been pushed against a row of three arched windows.
They looked north over what the valet called a porte-cochère, which the rest of us know as a driveway that’s covered so we can waltz out of our limos and yet stay dry in stormy weather, as the long dark shadows of a cloudless dusk and a breeze that brushed the top of the palm trees made its way noisily out to sea.
A welcome package sat on a lace-covered round card table that looked out of place at the foot of the bed. It contained a solid-gold membership card to Key Largo and a brochure detailing my ‘lifetime benefits,’ which apparently included Joy, who was perched cross-legged on the edge of the four-poster waiting for little me to say rollover, rollover.
I thought about it long and hard enough that I smelled onions frying in a sizzling glob of butter in the kitchen below us.
I sat down next to her with lusty intent, as was scripted. And tugged on the silver-crossed chain around her neck to guide her head onto my lap as was expected.
But, when she reached for my zipper, as was the plan, I unexpectedly improvised and brushed her hand away, claiming complications and that I needed to get ready for dinner.
She took the rejection badly, possibly because she’d been put up to my seduction, and/or due to half-sibling rivalry, and/or because rejection was so rare. Perhaps, it was all of the above.
Her first thought was that I was a, “Minga floja hijo de puta.”
Then she picked herself up off the bed quickly and left stage-right, lashing out over a spectacular pout that scrubbed her top lip against her nostrils: “You’ll never get Monica, if that's what your saving yourself for? Cuz, she likes snatch better!” And she left me with a made-to-measure disclaimer: “So, I wasn’t cliterfering, or anything disloyal like that.”
I’d worked out that I wasn’t the first and wouldn’t be the last chancer to fall for an illusion and I had just about come out the other end of feeling sorry for myself, when the house phone rang with an invitation from Kunt, by way of his butler, to meet him in the Library Bar at 7:00 PM.
A few minutes later, I was struggling to knot my lucky red Hermes Double Baucher tie, when Marc Antony a bitter prune, with pea-sized resentful brown eyes dead and buried in deep sockets, knocked. He introduced himself as Kunt’s butler and ‘confidante’ and Key Largo’s official historian and insisted on finishing the job of knotting my tie. So tightly, I figured he didn’t like me or people like me too much.
And then he led me back downstairs, through a cavernous, cluttered, theatrical living room which featured a sky-high copy of the Thousand-Wing Ceiling in the Accademia in Venice — a bling thing with panels depicting a golden sunburst at the center of radiating pairs of gold leaf feathered wings about which he croaked proudly: “Ms. Post has used so much gold-leaf decorating the living room she created a national shortage,”
He counted out seven 16th-century Flemish silk tapestries in heavy gold frames that had once adorned a Venetian palace. They hung ceiling to floor in between seven large archways lit by seven sparkling gold plated Spanish lanterns. Two enormous golden stemmed Bristol chandeliers wept crystal tears above us.
There was only one fireplace, but it was tall enough to stand under, wide enough to sleep in, and certified as a storm shelter.
Its vast, semicircular, gold-rope-ribbed-hood was decorated with the Kunt coat of arms in golden bas-relief and a row of golden African, heads, about which the butler had a lot to whisper:
“I call the heads Obamas after our last pus-headed President, who should have been taken out by our military and shot or better yet decapitated like his bother here as an enemy agent in his first term! INSTEAD HE WAS RE-ELECTED AND ALMOST DESTROYED THE AMERICA WE ALL KNOW AND LOVE! Now comes James Alexander Kunt, having vanquished the Cunt and the Commie, to put an end to the corruption in government! The so-called elite, who are nothing, but common dog turds are shaking in their boots because there is a new sheriff in town! One that will build a wall along our southern border to keep the animals out. One that will put America first and make America great again!
Kunt immediately related the song to his own rape and pillage life experience: “It’s my favorite song you know, because I’ve had all these tremendous successes and then I’m off to the next one. And sometimes I look back at the great things I’ve achieved, and they seem disappointing, a let-down, like, Oh, is that all there is?”
And then he shrugged and joined Sam for the chorus:
“You know —-,” he said pulling me towards the northwest diagonal corner wall of the room and the entrance to the Library Bar, “Leiber and Stoller, the song composers, got the inspiration for the song’s lyrics from the German novelist Thomas Mann’s short story Enttäuschung, WHICH MEANS DISAPPOINTMENT IN ENGLISH. Peggy Lee describes parts of her life that should’ve been fulfilling, but she always ends up asking to herself, is that all there is?”
Kunt stopped at the entrance to the bar to ponder further on the meaning of the song and life and to narrate the song’s dark finale: “So I dream and wait for death. Ah, how well I know it already, death, that last disappointment! At my last moment I shall be saying to myself: ‘So this is the great experience --- well, and what of it? What is it after all?’”
And then a parallel popped into his mind and cheered him right up. It was like that when I shut down the government to persuade the Democrats to fund my wall. It felt good and right when I was doing it, but afterwards it felt- blah, like is that all there is? It’s the same as this library, paneled with centuries-old British oak and filled with rare first-edition books that no one ever reads — so I turned it into a fucking bar.”
I got his point, so I smiled and riffed on is that all there is?
Which he appreciated. I could tell because he brushed his quiff back a few more times.
The library bar was about as chilled as a dry Sancerre and decorated with mediocre paintings by the modern art gods Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline that were borrowed from great-museums who loaned them reluctantly.
An enormous photograph of a golden toilet hung at the middle of the north wall, which Kunt explained: “We asked the Guggenheim Museum to borrow Van Gogh’s ‘Landscape With Snow,’ but they offered us a gold toilet instead, so I asked my curator, Donna Hayashi Smith, to blow-up the photograph the Guggenheim sent of the golden crapper as big as it would go, and hang it here to tell the snobs to fuck off and because –
“Is that all there is?” I riffed again having gotten the gist of his banter a sunset ago.
At the back of the bar was a drawing of a dark-brown trapeze artist, being hoisted into the air by the rope she clutched between her teeth — by the skin of her teeth. The rope was attached to a sinister piece of hooked machinery that she held in her mouth. She had one arm reaching for the gods, while the other reached for the ground. Her head was pulled back by the rope throwing her dark curly hair back over her obtusely angled neck. From my perspective Miss La La looked like she was being lynched.
The drawing was not quite straight; as if it had been hung hurriedly. So, I assumed it had been hung especially for me.
Flattered. I was flattered.
Kunt cleared his throat like I was smoke, pollen or some other irritant. I’d known where he was going to start as soon as I’d seen the drawing and wasn’t to be disappointed.
“Louisiana must be respected by all her children,” he announced with a spiteful little grin.
“And I am almost one of them,” I replied, finishing off his quote.
“You know the picture?” he asked admiring it, as if for the first time.
“It’s a preparatory drawing for Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando, by Edgar Degas.”
“Very good,” he responded, like he was as pleased as punch.
“I’m guessing you already know that Mami hung a print of it over our fireplace to remind me that while I might not have a father, I had a noble family name.”
“Oh, I see,” he said teasingly. “So, you and Edgar are related?”
I rolled my eyes and sunk back into a bottle-green club couch. He perched himself on the corner of the desk nearest to me.
“Do you always ask questions you know the answers to, or are you doing it especially for me?” I asked impatiently.
He leaned his stare into me but did not acknowledge the question. He had an agenda. He was going to stick to it, come what may.
“Tell me Degas — when you look at Miss La La, are you aroused by the pussy first view or appalled by the rope.”
He pronounced Degas \De-gas\, like a red-neck tackles African-American, when those two words are laid side by side — without enthusiasm. I presumed the slight was intended. But I took it on the chin because you can always throw a flurry of punches at the end.
“It’s a picture,” I offered, knowing that it wasn’t nearly enough.
“Picture blahh. Come on De-gas, don’t sit in my house and insult my fucking intelligence. It’s a precious blueprint for a great painting and a fantastic mystery --- Edgar had just come back from New Orleans where he’d come face to face with his creole roots for the first time, including his mother’s first cousin, the chemical engineer Norbert Rillieux, a brilliant but dark-skinned, free-quadroon. Was he just another mixed up, mixed race, delinquent, wrestling with the ambiguities and injustices of life because he couldn’t embrace where his genes had been, or a fucked-up pornographer with a thing for dusky bitches? Did he want to fuck her, save her, or did he just slip in a circus performer on a day he got tired of looking at ballet dancers? Was he celebrating the African Princess, pitying her or was he burying his mother? You share the name and a few of his genetic disadvantages, the rendering is yours, but ‘Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando’ is not just another picture. It’s a statement of fact.”
It wasn’t about art at all, it was about creating your own offense, and it was as subtle as a flying mallet. My head was all bad-tempered steel and so it bounced right off.
“She looks like a girl with a bit between her teeth to me, and you look like you wish it was yours and that your toadstool was bigger. You brought me in here to tell me that though we share the same gene-pool, yours are of a higher quality, purer. I suppose your thought is $25,000,000 is a lot of money to pay a mongrel and that it will keep me at bay. But that’s not all there is! Born of extreme violence, robbed of my birthright, I’m the bastard that’s going to take you down and save us from ourselves — when the fuck is dinner?”