“They're a rotten crowd,” I shouted across the lawn. “You're worth the whole damn bunch put together.”
I've always been glad I said that. It was the first compliment I ever gave him, because I had disapproved of him from beginning to end. First, he nodded politely, and then his face broke into that radiant and understanding smile, as if we'd been in ecstatic cahoots on that fact all the time. His gorgeous pink rag of a suit made a bright spot of color against the white steps, and I thought of when I first came to his ancestral home, three months before...
I thought of the hours passed since I had seen Gatsby, standing there in the Buchanans' yard, waiting for a sign of something that had never been going to happen. I thought of Tom and Daisy's quiet, conspiring intimacy I had seen in the stead of what Gatsby feared. I remembered my first missed train, fumbling in the darkness with him for light before dawn, and the fact that I had not wanted to leave him.
Gatsby's picturesque ease on the steps seemed less real to me, the longer I looked. I lingered there at the hedge for a moment too long, and it occurred to me that Gatsby would not leave his post until I had finally retreated out of view. I took one step back across the lawn. It gave way beneath my shoe with a softness that drew me in, as if this were the first right step I had taken all summer.
I saw Gatsby's gaze had fallen to the ground, to his shoes, in some intermediate action that might have taken my movement for leaving at last. This suspicion seemed confirmed when he started a little when I called out to him, now several weary bounds closer to him. Neither of us had slept, but I could not imagine sleep.
“Hey, Gatsby!” I called up to him.
All the ugliness and horror of the night before loomed in my mind, and there was some terrible sense of complicity that weighed down in my lungs like poison air. Still, I could not help but smile when I reached the bottom of those steps, breathless and invigorated with something newly realized.
“So,” I said, squinting a little up at him as he turned back toward me. His hands touched pockets on his suit in a way that made it clear that he had been taken off guard. He had not expected my continued company. “... about this pool of yours.”
And he smiled, a smaller and more youthful smile than that magnanimous grin that could move the world.
If I had known what was to follow those steps back into Gatsby's house, I do not know if I would have lost my nerve. All I knew was that I seemed to have lifted Gatsby's spirits, at least a little, when he had seemed resigned to their falling forevermore – like the autumn breath that had whispered in that morning. The trek back through Gatsby's house seemed familiar once more, and I realized anew how foreign the night before had made him and the world he'd built become.
I could hear his footsteps ahead of me. They echoed through halls that were once filled with riotous noise. I find that I prefer the silence. Even the absence of Daisy's promising, flattering voice came as something of a relief in the moment. It felt almost delightfully selfish.
“Never imagined I'd be arranging swimming clothes for two,” Gatsby announced, somehow pleasantly confirming my suspicions. After exhausted horror and disgust, I found myself still-complicit in the way I could not help but smile.
“Ah, well, I don't mean to put you to any trouble,” I told him. I found that I meant it. After all the myriad preparations I had witnessed that went into Gatsby's weekly open house, the silence and stillness around the great mansion afforded Gatsby some extended right to his space, his privacy, and his property in that moment.
Perhaps it was the lingering moral outrage, the sense I had that his freedom, after what had transpired, was jeopardized and fleeting. All for the love of my cousin Daisy. I tried to push the thought from my mind as I ascended the stairs after him in insistent denial of tragedy to come.
“Oh, you've never been any trouble, old sport,” Gatsby said as he fished open drawers and doors to survey the collection of clothes as if he needed to remind himself that all his costumes were still there. Somehow, the sound of the epithet he always used – 'old sport' – seemed tired and wearing thin, though it was as ever his own, worn in his mouth after it had faded from the world in another body.
“Do you think you could call me 'Nick' from time to time?” I asked him. At the time, I was not sure why it suddenly mattered. It felt like a change of course. Gatsby, until now, had seemed a figment, shimmering in and out of focus and reality. Now, I knew his truth – the whole, bared truth – and apparently I was not going away.
“Certainly, old sp—” Gatsby said, tone as tired as a dried out bike chain that he hadn't had the displeasure of dealing with in years. He looked at me then. His eyes were wearied, but when he smiled a little smile – faint crows feet wrinkles appearing charmingly as if they had finally caught up with his fairy-tale countenance – he was entirely obliging and there with me. “Nick,” he corrected.
I felt as if the room had gone still again as I watched Gatsby move, the strange dissonance only interrupted when he came nearer to me and offered me a rather garish, horizontally striped bathing suit of the kind worn in those days. I took it from him in spite of its rather alarming palette and admired it with my thumbs and fingers.
“Is this—?” I began to ask, but he seemed overly eager to keep talking or to have read my mind.
“Not sure how that came to be among my things,” he admitted. “Perhaps the lost garment of one of my guests. I can assure you it has been thoroughly laundered, however,” he added quickly, as if he were embarrassed. “Is that alright with you?” he asked with another pause for my eyes.
With a somewhat reasonable amount of caution, I gave the garment an outstretched, more thorough glance for an instant. Then, I nodded.
“Of course. After all, I'm just an uninvited guest to your pool this morning,” I told him, not sure what I was searching for with my tone.
“You're more than welcome to stay, you know.” I thought I could hear a distinct tenor of anxiety in his voice.
It took a while to move from Gatsby's great wardrobe to other parts of his grand house. Before we took our leave, the previous day's tired, wrinkled, guilty clothes had been abandoned. We had both been military men, once, and in the moment it did not seem very strange at all to change at his side without ducking away to find the privacy or modesty of a washroom. Those were times filled with revelry, and there was no scandal to be found in such a simple act. Still, I felt some faint outline of envy, of realization, when I caught the sight of Gatsby pulling the bathing suit of his choosing up over his chest.
He caught my eyes and looked nearly bashful, and I thought of the youth he must have been, just before he spotted Dan Cody's yacht.
By two o'clock, we had made our way out to the pool with the pneumatic mattress Gatsby showed me with pride in the garage. There was the uncomfortable, momentary tension as he insisted that the yellow car not be sent out for repairs, but I fixed my eyes directly away from it. It was as if I could delay my moment of realization that whatever foolhardy, selfish courage I had found within me could never last – so long as I did not look at Gatsby's blood-stained yellow car.
In the cooler, fresher air across the gently flowing water, I found a sense of peace from curiosity for the first time that summer. I was sitting on the edge of the pool, simply watching as Gatsby leaned back against his floatation device. He looked at the sky, hands folded loosely across his chest, and I wondered if he could see the stars in broad daylight.
The pull of the water against my feet as I slowly moved them, combined with the temperature of the water compared to the air, lulled me into a momentarily chilly drowsiness. My eyelids hooded, and I remember the heaviness for what came after as much as for the feeling itself. I searched for something else to talk about, to ask Gatsby, but the anxiety and denial of it that had driven me until this point began to mull together until I felt I could almost find the sleep that had escaped me during the night.
I pulled my feet from the water and hoisted myself onto them, in search of a towel. I approached the house a little, nearing where I knew I would find one, when I realized the movement. It took a moment to realize that something was strange.
By the time I knew that we were not alone, poor, widowed Wilson had come into view. He held up his gun, indiscreetly and with a hand's steadiness that only seemed to be maintained by rage. The rest of him seemed to tremble, to convulse, to shudder and weep with the whole host of other emotions that his deadly hand kept at bay. I found myself – a little off to the side and watching, as a terrified spectator, as Wilson trudged toward Gatsby – blinded and helpless to the invisible stars above him.
“He-Hey!” I called out. Calling down a man whose grief and anger had reduced him to something like a rabid beast was, to say the least, unwise. Suddenly, the gun was brandished in my direction, but only for a wild, uncontrolled moment.
“Shut up!” Wilson ordered, and even in his sad, haggard state it was hard to believe that this man had ever been so direct in his life. “You shut up!” he reiterated, trying to make himself believe it.
“Stop. You don't... You don't know what you're doing—” I said, sparing a glance for Gatsby. He was sitting up, helpless and buoyed on the water. His eyes were wide with fear, surprise, but I could hardly imagine that this was his first time being threatened by a gun.
“I... I'm sure there's been some misunderstanding, Mister—” Gatsby offered, holding out a hand in a cautious gesture of peace.
I didn't want Gatsby talking to Wilson when he was like this. I knew what Wilson must think, and the only thing that kept Daisy's name off my tongue was Gatsby's love for her – for which she had returned uncertainty and murder.
“You killed her!” Wilson shouted, but in wheeling his gun and posture back around, the gun fired into the mattress Gatsby floated on in the water. The hole in it quickly leaked it of air and forced Gatsby into the water. It was hard to tell if that was actually safer. It did not matter, though.
Possessed of a recklessness I had never known, even in the midst of serving in war, I ran for Wilson. If Gatsby's disappointed longing for my cousin held my tongue about the truth, it could not hold the rest of me. Wilson must have seen me coming, because he turned to defend his crusade if not himself, to engage.
My skin scraped along the poolside. There was a bloody, telegraphic code dotted along a knee and shin. My weight pressed down over Wilson, trying to keep him down, to protect Gatsby and Wilson from Wilson himself. He cried out like it was agony in itself. Near the edge of the water, there were many ways in which it might have ended – might have ended in even greater tragedy.
“Nick!” Gatsby cried through a splutter to clear his face after he'd abruptly been forced to begin treading water. There was little he could do without the drag of the water slowing him down. He could draw himself out of the pool, but I desperately didn't want him to. Wilson still had the gun, and I wanted it in my own hand, safely away.
“You liar!” Wilson bellowed. “You were... You were there!” he said, looking up into my face. And it was true. It was all true. I had been there. I had seen this happening and had done nothing to stop it. But now, I could – I had to. I struggled for the gun, ignoring the plainly true indictment.
I nearly had it. I felt the metal brush my fingers – cool to the touch but warmed by Wilson's feverish hand.
The world turned and our weight shifted, but for me the axis of everything still turned around the gun. I was on my back, struggling not to let Wilson escape onto his feet, grabbing for the gun.
Then, it happened.
The loud pop-crack-bang sound. The deafening sound. The pain. The realization that... the pain was not going away, or fading, or entirely sending my senses into black. The little volley of anger and hope that made me able to move grabbed for the gun again. The ground was wetter and warmer beneath me.
Distantly, I heard the roaring splash as Gatsby hauled himself from the water and approached. I wanted to tell him to stay back, but the next thing I did was send the gun skidding the short distance between Wilson, myself, and the pool. It fell down into the water, ruining the powder inside.
Wilson cried out again, with agony, rage, but he knew he had been defeated. He looked down, seemed to notice that there was blood on the ground – my blood – and that his gun was out of reach. He began to tremble. He began to groan again, less anguished than he had been about his torn-open wife, but with the same fearsome chorus.
“Oh my God,” he said. He sat back away from me, sliding back a little, and holding his head in his hands. He seemed like he wanted to sob, but all he could do was tremble and wail.
I wondered how it was that I had been shot and seemed so quite well-aware, even after I had found it in me to dispose of the weapon meant to take Gatsby's life. Then he was above me. He knelt down, still dripping with water from his bathing suit and from created tips of strands of hair. The water was cool, and my blood was not.
“Nick—” Gatsby was saying, but by that time I felt some almost blinding edge of pain and a smile come across my lips.
“You remembered,” I said to him.
“... Yes,” Gatsby allowed as he looked down. To my surprise, his lips turned upward a little, too. Perhaps after this terrible summer, he had accepted the inevitability that he would be left standing – alone. Then, he was scrambling a little again. He seemed to consider drawing my head from the hard ground, but he thought better of it with a staying gesture of his hands. “I need to phone a doctor,” he told me, his eyes moving quickly right and left.
Wilson wailed more loudly but made no room to run. It was as if the realization that it would not simply end here had filtered through into his consciousness, and he could not bear it. Even if he had fired a gun which had wounded me, I could not find it in myself to hate him. My pity for him, as well as all those I had seen like him, outweighed it, even then.
“Stay,” I said, distracted from all else but Gatsby. “... Stay with me,” I said, articulating a want that had ebbed in my mind since I had met my enigmatic, magnificent neighbor – Jay Gatsby.
“You'll be alright,” he assured me.
A certain doubt persuaded me to grab with a loose grip of my fingers for the sodden material of his bathing suit.
“Don't lie to me,” I told him, not considering whether or not this held much tact. After all, Gatsby was a man made of hopeful lies.
“I'm not, ol—Nick,” he said, correcting himself again, and this time I believed his smile. I could never entirely resist believing his smile. “... You'll be alright if I get the doctor,” he said, “and we stop the bleeding,” he continued. I remembered that he had done quite well for himself in the military, and I longed to trust him. He left me there, but he soon returned with something to press against the wound, to slow the bleeding. I made a sound of displeasure as he situated the dry, reddening white towel against my hip. “I've seen many a man survive a shot to...” He trailed off. I thought James Gatz, or Gatsby the officer, might have had a word for it. This Jay Gatsby, lost as he'd become, did not.
“To the ass?” I asked. It seemed to embarrass him into action and he called out for the gardener, for anyone, to bring to his assistance when he was on his feet. Still, I'd seen the look on his face, and I could not help, through the pain, but laugh.