Times are weird so I thought I’d do something extra weird for First Draft. In the late 1990’s, I wrote a novel set during my time as a student at Tulane Law. It’s a murder mystery with a title taken from the opening lines of a Neil Finn song:
I spent years trying to sell it. I got some very nice rejection letters and took any editorial suggestions offered including a title change from the more generic Hearsay. Eventually, I let Tongue In The Mail rest on my computer. I haven’t looked at it in many years. In 2020, it qualifies as a historical mystery since it was set, in part, during the Edwards-Duke governor’s race from hell.
I tried not to do too much rewriting. I’m pleased that it still reads well. The style is *close* to my current writing style as Adrastos, but there are fewer puns. One major difference is the use of exclamation points, which I left in because some people speak in them. I guess that makes me a reformed exclamation point sinner. Some of you will have a field day with this. I welcome your scorn.
I’m not sure if I’ll keep the experiment going, so please let me know either here, on social media or via email if I should. I’m trying to entertain the masses, not indulge in an exercise of Trumpian egomania. In fact, I’m nervous as hell about posting this.
The first chapter is set at a wedding. I stole the idea from The Godfather. When in doubt, steal from the best. It’s heavy on exposition, the action revs up in chapter 2.
The characters are composites of people I knew at the time, not ripped from the headlines. The narrator, however, bears more than a passing resemblance to a certain blogger.
Our story begins after the break.
TONGUE IN THE MAIL BY PETER ATHAS
“Seal my fate, I get your tongue in the mail.”
My last year of law school was like hell with homework. And things started going to hell on the sweltering August day that Diana Hiller married Thomas Bright.
The reception was thrown by Diana’s in-laws at their posh house on State Street. Most of the groom’s guests were the products of good breeding, inbreeding: the Uptown New Orleans elite. But many of Diana’s guests were her Tulane Law School cronies and we were a breed apart. Some of us were in our thirties or older. We’d gone out into the world, gotten bitten by reality, and gone to law school so that we could bite reality back. Others had dived into the law school mosh pit straight from college. And we all gravitated toward Diana, which made her the Class of ’92’s de facto weirdo magnet. That’s how I ended up at a high society wedding reception. I’m one of the weirdos.
Before law school, I played bass in a band called Tango Uniform back home in San Francisco. Sometimes I miss being a musician, but I quit because everyone else in the band was demented. I decided that it was time to do something saner and more practical, or so I thought. I never expected that my law school classmates would be crazier than my bandmates.
As I headed to the bar to get more champagne, I watched Diana making her bridal rounds. As always, she looked gorgeous. Diana was a tall, thin, graceful woman with high cheekbones and nearly waist-length blonde hair. She was one of the few people who didn’t go in for the vicious gossip that passed for conversation around Tulane Law. And I’m not talking about harmless gossip of the “who’s zoomin’ who” variety, but ugly gossip of the “so-and-so gave the whole Sixth fleet AIDS” variety.
After thanking the bartender, I felt two arms wrapping around my torso and a head nuzzling the back of my neck. It was like being scent marked by one of my cats. Then, a high, fluttery voice greeted me with a flurry of questions. “Mistah Pappas, how are you? Isn’t this a gorgeous house? Isn’t Diana simply the most divine bride you’ve ever seen?”
All the questions and the short, curly blonde hair nestled against my shoulder meant that it could only be one person, Sophia Kostecki. Sophia claimed to be 5 feet tall, but she was always prone to exaggeration. She had tiny features and looked a bit like one of those exquisite china dolls you see in antique shops. She was from Boston and her family had piles of money. New money. Even at twenty-four, Sophia was so high strung that I was sure that espresso flowed through her veins instead of blood.
I turned around, gave her a peck on the cheek and said, “Hi Sophia, you look very slinky today.”
Sophia threw her head back and tittered. “I was trying for a retro-flapper look, darling. Did I pull it off?”
“You look just like Clara Bow.”
“The It Girl?”
I nodded. “Exactly.”
“Good! You look pretty damn hot yourself, Nicholas, darling.”
I shrugged, fishing for another compliment.
Sophia rolled her big blue eyes. “You’re a babe, Nick. You’ve got those sexy hazel eyes and eyelashes that any woman would kill for.” She batted her own much shorter lashes at me.
I pointed at my nose. “But what about this honker? And my high intellectual forehead?”
“Don’t be silly. I’ve got to pee,” she said, looking around the room. “Where’s a bathroom?”
I directed her upstairs.
Sophia polarized people at Tulane Law. You either loved her or hated her. I was crazy about her. I understood that being outrageous was just her shtick. One of her hobbies was trying to scandalize some of our stuffier classmates by telling them her fantasies, which seemed to revolve around sex with law professors, both male and female.
I was soon joined by Charles McConkey. Charles was a New Orleans native who prided himself on his contempt for the Uptown elite. Even in our eccentric crowd, he stood out like Shaquille O’Neal at a day care center. He cultivated an aura of quirkiness, which was accentuated by his looks. With his bushy red hair and long droopy mustache he resembled a Scottish hybrid of Zappa and Zapata.
“Interesting crowd, isn’t it?” began Charles. “It’s a weird mixture of Diana and Tom’s Bohemian friends and the most up-the-butt members of Uptown society. I bet that Tom’s parents gave him hell for marrying Diana because she’s not from here.”
“Really? That’s interesting. I hadn’t heard that his family gave him a hard time. Where did you hear that?”
He shrugged. “I just know their kind, Nicholas.”
“Oh, come on, Charles. Look around you, if the Brights were against the marriage why is the reception at their house?”
“It’s all for show. Diana’s still not one of them and that’s all that matters to those people.”
He cleared his throat and lectured me about the cultural folkways of the Uptown New Orleans elite. According to Charles, they’re an inbred group that intermarries within the same circle of families. He makes them sound like a cross between white trash and the British royal family.
I tuned him out and checked out the room. I’m always coming up with songs that provide the soundtrack of a situation and I’ve turned this quirk into a word game. It’s sort of the verbal equivalent of “Name That Tune.” Here’s how it works. Someone names an artist whose song fits the situation and you answer with the song title, or vice versa.
I nudged Charles with my elbow. “Warren Zevon,” I said, trying to divert his attention.
It worked. His eyes lit up. “Warren Zevon?
“But it’s not ‘Excitable Boy.’ Look to your right.” I pointed at the door.
I’d spotted Amalia Chavalas as she made a typically grand entrance. She was wearing a strapless red dress and she looked spectacular. She brushed back her thick, wildly curly shoulder length black hair and looked around the room with her big brown eyes, which lit on me.
“Oh my God,” he said. “Trouble Waiting To Happen.”
“You Got It,” I said.
I think that Amalia went to law school because she loved to argue. Her current dispute was with Sophia, who was suddenly within hissing range. Amalia and Sophia had once been roommates and best friends, but they’d had a falling out over money and men. Amalia had too little money and had slept with too many of Sophia’s men. I think they enjoyed their feud. It was more interesting than Tax Law, after all.
“Amalia’s waving at us,” I said. “Let’s go say hi.”
“Wow, look at that dress,” said Charles.
We met up in the living room and exchanged hugs and kisses. “I’ve missed you both so much,” Amalia said. “That D.C. law firm is trying to dine me to death!”
I winked at Charles and said, “They’re just fattening you up for the slaughter.”
I wasn’t eager to hear more about how she had been wined, dined, overpaid, and underworked. I steered the conversation to Amalia’s two favorite subjects; herself and the play she was writing about our classmates. “How’s the play coming?” I asked.
“Splendidly. It’s easy when you have a flighty bitch like that Sophia creature to write about.” She glanced nervously around the room. “Too bad that there’s no young Bette Davis or Joan Crawford around to play her.”
“No way. Sophia’s too sweet to be played by a bitch goddess type. How about the young Liza Minelli?” Charles said, baiting her by referring to Sophia’s favorite film, “Cabaret.” Sophia’s identification with Sally Bowles bordered on an obsession. She was known to walk around the law school wearing bright green nail polish and singing, “Money Makes The World Go Round.”
Amalia bristled. “I think that the blowzy, junkie Liza would be better casting!” As she glared daggers at Charles, I could see her mind hard at work looking for just the right insult. She found it. “Charles, you’re looking rather portly. Shouldn’t you drink less beer?”
Charles returned fire. “At least I can’t sharpen knives on my tongue.”
While they continued trading insults, I excused myself and fled into the next room to talk to Jack Goodfriend. I was relieved to get out of there alive; it was like escaping from a heavy metal concert and ending up at Carnegie Hall.
Jack was the token non-weirdo in our circle. He was so calm and logical that we called him Mr. Spock. Jack was average in both height and weight. He had short brown graying hair and wore thick wire rimmed glasses, which rested precariously on his long thin nose. But his full name was anything but average: C. Wellington Goodfriend. The C stood for Calvin and he didn’t remember where the nickname Jack came from, but it was an improvement on Cal.
“What did you think of the priest?” I said.
“Passable,” Jack said with the authority of a minister’s kid. “But he did go on. Why must all Episcopal services be so long winded?”
“The collection plate. The longer people are trapped inside a church, the more they’ll be willing to pay to escape.”
“Nicholas, I worry about the fate of your soul. Wouldn’t you rather join me in heaven than spend eternity complaining about the muzak in hell?”
I laughed and said: “Muzak is hell.”
My conversations with Jack were often duels worthy of the old swashbuckling movies that we both loved; especially our political debates, which sounded like a low-tech version of “Crossfire,” with me flapping the left wing and Jack the right.
“Bow tie, eh?” I said. “You steal it from George F. Will’s closet?”
“Certainly not, only the undeserving poor steal; we conservatives merely borrow.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Sophia bearing down on us. She hugged an unsuspecting Jack from behind. He whirled irritably around before quickly regaining his composure upon discovering Sophia beaming up at him.
“Uncle Jack, how are you? You look so handsome today! You’re so tense,” said Sophia as she trailed her finger up and around his spine. “You must learn how to relax!”
Jack frowned. “I was relaxed, Sophia, until you broke several of my ribs.”
“No, I really mean it, Jack. Loosen up, get drunk.” She giggled. “God, I can’t imagine you drunk! What are you like?”
“Just like I am right now,” he said. “Except, of course, for the lamp shade on my head.”
“Oh, Sophia,” I intervened. “I forgot to ask you. Did you have a good time in Barcelona this summer?”
“It was fine,” Sophia said.
“Is it true that Professor Maragall spends half his time crawling into bed with unsuspecting students?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
Salvador Maragall was one of the world’s leading experts on the law of obligations; that’s civil law-speak for contracts. Every summer, Maragall ran a law school program in his hometown of Barcelona, Spain.
“I guess if all the rumors were true, he’d never have time to bully and browbeat students,” I said. “Anyway, the man’s uglier than roadkill. Right, Sophia?”
“I suppose so, but Maragall’s no uglier than Henry Kissinger and Kissinger called power the ultimate aphrodisiac.” She seemed eager to change the subject to something less controversial, like abortion or affirmative action.
“Besides sleeping with students,” Jack said, disapprovingly, “rumor has it that sexual harassment is also part of his repertoire.”
Sophia looked uncomfortable. She was shifting her weight from one leg to the other; either her shoes were too tight, or she knew more about Maragall than she was letting on. It made me wonder if the rumors about Maragall were true. Had she slept with him? Anything was possible, but I was skeptical. In the past, Sophia had mooned over cute law professors, but she’d never once mentioned the leathery-skinned Maragall.
Sophia looked across the hall. “Oh, look, there’s Diana. I was so late that I haven’t seen her yet. I must go and congratulate her. Excuse me.” She kissed Jack, winked at me, and skittered across the room.
After we walked over to the bar to get some more champagne, I couldn’t resist teasing Jack. “That was quite a greeting you got from Hurricane Sophia,” I said. “Maybe you’re her next victim; she goes for older men, you know.”
“Well, I don’t go for her type,” Jack said, rolling his eyes. “It’s odd but that nervous energy of hers reminds me a little of my mother.”
“Your mother?” I hooted. Before I had a chance to ask him why, I heard Diana calling to us. “Jack, can I steal Nicholas for a few minutes?”
With her wedding dress train noisily rustling behind her, Diana led me into the next room where we found a pair of empty armchairs and sat down. “Thank God,” she said, hitching up her train. “This is the first chance I’ve had to sit down in hours. No wonder you only wear wedding dresses once, they’re so fucking uncomfortable.”
“Is that any kind of language for a blushing bride to use?”
Diana laughed. “I haven’t blushed since I was a teenybopper.” Then, she pursed her lips, placed her hand on mine and shot me a soulful look. “Nicholas, Nick, Nicky, I’ll love you forever if you’ll do me a favor,” she sighed.
“I can refuse you nothing on your wedding day,” I said in my best Brando mumble.
She paused for a second. “It’s Sophia and Amalia.” She shook her head. “I can’t bear the thought of those two making a scene, and you know what they’re capable of…”
“Big trouble. I’ll keep an eye on them,” I promised. “But it is possible that they’ll behave themselves.”
“I know, but please humor me.” She stood up, straightened her dress, and fixed a bridal smile on her face. “Excuse me. Time to go and be fawned over by the guests.”
I wouldn’t have agreed to be Sophia and Amalia’s keeper for anyone else, but Diana had me wrapped. I needed another drink and grabbed a glass off the tray of a passing waiter, then walked outside. The caterer had pitched a large tent in the backyard. It looked like a mini Super Dome out there, but the astro-turf carpet was used for dancing, not tackling. A brass band was playing “Ain’t She Sweet” and I saw Amalia cutting the ersatz rug with Sophia’s ex-boyfriend, Bob Benjamin.
Reassured, I wandered back inside and joined Jack and our friend and classmate, Susan, at the bar. Susan Wright was a tiny woman who radiated poise. She had piercing dark eyes and curly hair that had settled years ago into a permanent gray-brown Afro. She’d been a frustrated would-be attorney for years and had focused her energy on social issues: family planning and children’s rights. Once her youngest son hit puberty, she went to law school. For many of the younger students, she acted as a mom away from mom; everyone she met seemed to like and trust her. I know that I did.
Susan also had a mischievous streak and enjoyed mocking her Super Mom image. She was certainly no saint; she was a major gossip, non-malicious division. She was giving me the lowdown on some of the guests when Sophia sneaked up and planted a big wet kiss on my cheek. Jack retreated, figuring he was next in line for a lipstick tattooing. Sophia ignored him and pulled me aside. “See that couple over there? Look at that tight butt. Hunk city. Susan, tell Nick what Amalia said to you in the bathroom.”
Susan cleared her throat, then sipped her champagne. “Gossip? Me? Never.”
“And you’re never sarcastic either,” I interjected.
“Well, if you insist, Nicholas.” Susan winked at me and went on, “The butt Sophia fancies belongs to an artist named Clive who’s being kept in a studio in the warehouse district by Diana’s college roommate.”
Sophia was impatient. She ran her hand through her short blonde hair and then nodded her head like an out-of-control marionette. “Get to the juicy part, Susan,” she said.
“Relax, dear.” Susan lowered her voice. “I was upstairs in the bathroom with Amalia and she told me that she intended to fuck Clive’s eyes out before she went back to D.C.”
Sophia, who had never taken her eyes off Amalia, noticed that the kept artist was headed in Amalia’s direction. “Look, that predatory bitch is in action again! She’s got a lot of nerve,” she said, far too loudly for the taste of her reluctant keeper.
I tried to defuse the situation and draped my arm around Sophia’s shoulders, hoping to calm her. “Sophia, please keep it down,” I said. “He’s not yours. Why do you care?”
“He’s right, Sophia.” Susan was stern. “You shouldn’t let Amalia spoil Diana’s wedding day by making a scene.”
Susan had used a favorite ploy of mothers everywhere: divide and conquer. It worked. “Come on Sophia, let’s get something to eat.” Susan took her arm and steered her into the dining room.
Jack came back and handed me a glass of champagne. “Thanks,” I said. “Did you hear Sophia ranting about Amalia?”
“Did I hear her?” he said, arching an eyebrow. “Predatory bitch? Sounds accurate to me. Are you hungry? I’m ready for another pass at the buffet.”
We loaded up our plates with Shrimp Creole and other delicacies and returned to the living room. Susan was sitting alone on a sofa, picking at her food, and wearing a disgusted look on her face.
I was worried. “What’s wrong, Susan? Is it Sophia? Did you lose her?”
Susan nodded. “When I took Sophia into the dining room she’d finally calmed down. Then, Charles whipped her up again.”
“What happened?” I said, edgily.
“Charles went on and on about how hot Amalia looked. Sophia lost it again and I’m afraid she went looking for Amalia.”
I looked across the hall and saw Sophia and Amalia standing nose to nose, blocking the doorway to the backyard. While the two women screamed insults at each other all other activity skidded to a halt.
Sophia drew first blood. “You are so tacky, Amalia! I can believe that you tried to seduce another woman’s lover, but why at Diana’s wedding? How could you? Have you no decency?”
“You’ve no right lecturing anyone about decency,” retorted Amalia. “You have the morals of a slut and the manners of a sow!”
It reminded me of watching a drive-by shooting in slow motion. I couldn’t watch for long; I had a promise to keep and went to find Diana. But, like everyone else in Orleans Parish, I could still hear the fight.
“Sow? Slut? How dare you! You owe me money! Where’s my money?” Sophia demanded. “I’ll sue your ass off, you thief!”
“Imbecile! Spoiled rotten little princess! All your Daddy’s money can’t make a lady out of you!”
“Liar! I’ll make you pay! Bitch!”
Diana and I converged in the next room. She’d heard the whole thing and was furious. We rushed into the middle of the fray. Diana restrained Amalia and I grabbed Sophia by the arms and dragged her away. Diana was so angry that it looked like she might strangle Amalia with her train. It would have been justifiable homicide.
“Please stop it!” Diana whispered loudly. “You’re ruining everything! Leave now, both of you!”
Sophia suddenly looked conscience stricken. “Sorry, Diana. I don’t know what got into me,” she said. “But it’s not my fault.”
Amalia was indignant. “My fault? No way! Blame her,” she said, pointing at Sophia. “She started it!”
Sophia tried again to apologize and explain, but Diana didn’t want to hear any excuses. “I don’t care whose fault it is! Just go! Now! Get out,” she ordered.
Amalia remained furious and stomped toward the front door. Charles took her arm. “Come on, I’ll give you a ride,” he said.
Sophia looked small and forlorn. A thin trail of tears rolled down her face. I felt a twinge of pity and walked her to the door. “Need a ride?” I asked.
“No thanks, I rented a car,” she said in a frail, reedy voice, which sounded like the last gasp of a bent tin whistle.
“Sure, you can drive?”
“Yeah, I think so. I need to be alone.”
I looked over at Diana. She looked mortified as she checked out the silent room and assessed the damage. She was too angry to cry but too hurt not to have to fight off tears. I looked out in the backyard and saw her mother-in-law coming to the rescue by ordering the band to lead a second line dance through the house. The party resumed, but I had the feeling it would be the last time that any of Diana’s law school friends would be invited to her in-law’s house.
©2020 by Peter Athas.