Authors: Gordon Merrick
The Good Life
Gordon Merrick and Charles G. Hulse
With deep gratitude
for all the reasons they know
In the autumn of 1943, with the world at war, certain small circles in New York were rocked by the Lonergan-Burton murder case. The facts were simple: Patricia Burton Lonergan was brutally murdered in her New York apartment on a weekend when her estranged husband, Wayne Lonergan, happened to be in the city on a brief leave from the Canadian Air Force. But the case had the ingredients that are presumably dear to the hearts of the American public â violent crime, scandalous sex, money.
The press had a field day. It is said that Lonergan's trial for murder attracted wider coverage than any in more than a decade. Television was too young to be represented, but everybody else was there. To a limited number of New Yorkers, it was more of a family affair. The Lonergans were decorative figures in the city's nightlife. They were people one knew. When it was learned that the police had seized their address books and were going through them name by name, a number of familiar faces abruptly disappeared from view.
I knew Wayne slightly and had friends who knew him very well indeed. I remember him as a very attractive young man with something vaguely intimidating about him. Perhaps I was easily intimidated in those days.
I have invented a fictional character who obligingly does many of the things that Wayne Lonergan did. The pertinent facts from the public record of Wayne's life have been retained â
The New York Times
obituary is, with necessary name changes, as it appeared â but the intimate details are purely fictional, and even the well-covered trial left gaps in the record that I haven't hesitated to fill in with my own inventions.
This then is a work of fiction with a few well-publicized facts to point the way. There is no doubt that Wayne was married to Patricia and that she was murdered. Only conflicting motives emerged from the police investigation and the trial, but rumors circulating at the time couldn't be presented as evidence to provide a plausible explanation.
Something was definitely wrong. He couldn't pinpoint a specific pain. It was all through him, a painful lethargy like a straitjacket that impeded movement of every part of him. He wanted to go back to bed or ease himself into the nearby chair but remained on his feet and continued across the room, shuffling like an old man.
Was that what was the matter with him? Had old age crept up and struck him during the night? Was he about to die? He was suitably dressed for it in clean cotton pajamas and a light wool robe â not silk but no synthetics either. An easy job for an undertaker.
He didn't want to start thinking about death. There was nothing to think about â death was death, period â but for the last few years, ever since he had turned sixty, an acute consciousness of death had been growing in him. A strangely delayed reaction, considering that all his life after the age of twenty-five had been death-centered.
He wondered if he would still be newsworthy if he died. Would all the old headlines about the “Langham slaying” be dusted off and spread across the front pages again? He hoped not, for his son's sake, not that it could affect him much.
The flurry of publicity stirred up by his release from prison had appeared when the kid was in his mid twenties, a sensitive, impressionable age. The kid was past forty and had probably forgotten his father. Perry hoped the newspapers would leave it at that. If their only news was that he was dead, it would be a bit late for the meeting between the jailbird father and millionaire son that he sometimes let himself long for in weak and sentimental moments.
His shuffling progress carried him to the piano, a baby grand, where he stopped, supported against it with his hands resting on its gleaming surface, and waited for something definite to happen inside himself that would force him to call a doctor. He couldn't go on feeling like this before something snapped.
There had never been anything wrong with him. He'd been told about a slight irregularity in his heart, some sort of murmur, and he had a tendency to high blood pressure but nothing serious. No one dies of exhaustion, but that was all he felt â drained, spent, used up, as if every slight effort he made would be his last. He was breathing normally, and yet he felt as if he weren't getting any air in his lungs.
He glanced at the small collection of silver-framed photographs on the piano â Billy, Clifton Webb, Libby Holman, Tallulah, Cole Porter. And Bet, of course, looking her most glamorous in a studio portrait he'd taken himself with his new Hasselblad â the photo that had been blown up to fill the front pages of all the tabloids in October 1943. Mementos of past glory. An odd assortment perhaps but with something in common: They had all sucked his cock. There had been one of the Duchess of Windsor, but it had disappeared. And slightly apart from the others, Timmy in uniform â the perfect face, the perfect gentleman â who'd almost stolen his heart.
When he was being let out of prison, he didn't know the piano and these particular framed photographs would still be in his possession. Whoever had packed up Bet's house must have had orders to set them aside for him. He'd had a letter from some lawyers saying that the things were still being held for him after almost twenty-five years.
They were, mysteriously, all that he'd been allowed to keep from his marriage. He and Bet had bought the piano out of the lavish sums of money Bet inherited after they were married, when they were furnishing their first apartment. The frames had been presents to himself from himself, all from Tiffany's, all with the initials PL deeply engraved on them. A grand piano bearing a display of silver frames had been his idea of high style at the time.
There was an additional photograph that didn't match the others, smaller, framed in cheap leather, a color snapshot of a beautiful young girl: Bet at seventeen. She was stretched out on the deck of her father's yacht, the
, in the port of Saint-Tropez.
He moved his finger and touched the sweet, pointed breast pushing against the slick material of the one-piece bathing suit â they were one-piece then, way back in 1939. She had the wide-eyed look she'd had in their secret cove the first time she'd seen him naked. Not a shocked look but delightedly astonished.
He pressed his finger gently, half expecting the nipple to harden as it always did to his touch. The most beautiful breasts he'd ever seen â not showpieces but exquisite formations of tender flesh. He'd held his head against them that first time and moaned with pleasure.
That entire summer â the summer before the war â was pure pleasure. The most perfect time of his life; the happiest time. He'd fallen rapturously in love, and Bet had given herself to him with delicious innocence. They'd been enthralled with each other's bodies, and she'd invented games and positions that kept him delighted.
She was brilliant at elaborate cloak-and-dagger strategies to keep their affair secret from her father's watchful eye. Billy's vigilance was no match for her clever maneuvers. They'd had sex practically under his nose without his knowing. She was insatiable, and Perry found keeping both her and Billy satisfied a bit of a strain â a pleasurable strain.
He looked from the snapshot to the professional portrait. The snapshot was Bet; the portrait, Bettina. How could that innocent girl have turned so quickly into this manufactured product â a superficial and beautiful movie star? He blushed even now when he thought of the words â filthy and obscene â that the full, carefully made-up lips were capable of uttering.
He slowly drew his hand back and pulled himself upright against the comforting security of the piano before attempting the last leg of his strangely leaden journey across the modest room. He made it to the door and opened it.
The New York Times
lay on his doormat on the drab landing as usual. He looked down at it, trying to read the headlines upside down. He didn't think he was going to be able to pick it up. If he managed to lower himself to it, he would have to stay there. He would be found lying in the hall reading the
by the first person who came up the stairs.
He cautiously shoved the paper through the door with a slippered foot and closed it behind him. He leaned against the door breathing slowly, waiting to gather strength for the next move. He could lie down on his own floor if he wanted to.
He slowly lowered himself, propped against the door, and picked up the paper. The exertion left him feeling no better and no worse.
Using the doorjamb as a handhold, he pulled himself up again in intermittent stages until he was once more standing. Catastrophe had not yet overcome him, but he felt as if it had.
He held the front page up in front of him and ran his eyes over the headlines. Everybody was fighting everybody else. So many dead in Beirut. A tidy number in Punjab. An unspecified number in Nicaragua. Death was always good for a headline.
There was a report about AIDS at the bottom of the page. That was the one thing that wasn't likely to kill him. He wondered as usual if his life would have been transformed if AIDS had been prevalent forty-odd years ago. No Billy and hence no Bet? He doubted it. Rich older men were probably still picking up susceptible young men regardless of the threat.
He suddenly crumpled the paper between his hands and stared with bewilderment at the wrecked remains. What had brought that on? It fell from his hands.
Perry took a step into the room, and then it hit him, a pain so inconceivable that it took his mind another few seconds to encompass it. He couldn't localize it. It was all of him, tearing him apart, destroying him. It propelled his right arm up from his side as if he were trying to free himself.
His hand closed around a familiar heavy object. He could feel the irregularities and curves of the warm bronze cupid â the plump buttocks, the sharp tips of the wings that had torn his hands. It was the lamp. The bronze lamp in their bedroom. The hideous scene was replaying again in his mind as it had at least once a day for over forty years.
It was Bet who'd grabbed the lamp first. She'd wrenched it from its socket â she was crazed, wild â determined to commit violence. She swung the lamp above her head as he ducked and jumped out of her way. Then he lunged and wrested the lamp from her.
“I won't let you corrupt my son!” she shouted.
He'd been running from this horror since he was twenty-five years old. He had to make himself invisible.
Which of his changing identities did he have to escape from now? His Canadian Air Force uniform? His prison uniform? He clawed at his bathrobe but couldn't get it off. Death paralyzed him. Death more vivid than life, brighter than life.
A dark film descended over his eyes. Perhaps this pain meant it was finally over. For an instant he knew what death felt like and then in his turn was mercifully struck down. What a relief.
The headlines on January 10, 1986, announcing the sudden death at the age of sixty-seven of the convicted murderer Perry Langham, key figure in the sensational Langham case, didn't point out that his life had ended long before that on a sunny Sunday in October of 1943. He had been dead for more than forty years. That wasn't the story the newspapers told, of course. As he had expected, they raked up all the old scandals â the father, the daughter, the lover-husband â with scarcely a word about mitigating circumstances.
Fair enough. He had never told the whole truth.
NEW YORK CITY, OCTOBER 1943
Life in the Canadian Air Force suited Perry. So did the uniform. He'd never looked or felt better. The discipline and rigid training had toughened him and made it easier to face the separation from Bet.