I had learned from Walter Chase that day all I essentially needed. Gatsby was no romantic enigma, no fabulous mystery, and certainly not the mythic hero that Carraway displayed in his deplorable and deceptive book. He was precisely what I imagined all along, a common criminal ready to swindle innocent people simply to achieve his sleazy goals, one of which was to amass an ill-gained fortune and another to steal my wife. Perhaps he foolishly thought the only way to seduce Daisy was to amass the fortune. Daisy liked money—who doesn’t, really?—but she would never be content with money like that. She had made it clear to me about three weeks before I met Walter, after we left the only party of Gatsby’s we ever attended (even she found it distasteful), that she believed, or wanted to believe, that Gatsby’s fortune came from his enterprising chain of drug-stores. I wanted to investigate this preposterous claim. From what Walter hinted, I knew I could never interfere with Gatsby’s criminal activities but I now had what I needed to prevent him from destroying not only our marriage but Daisy’s life.
I had been suspicious of her behavior since that party. I could tell something was up. It wasn’t just her fox trotting with Gatsby and practically spending the entire evening in his company, but rather that she began to seem more dismissive of me than usual that summer. In the early years of our marriage she took that tone often, not so much in private but usually around her friends, pretending I was dense, or dull, or entirely dispensable as a husband. It disturbed me sometimes but lately because of Myrtle I usually let her go on and endured the ridicule as the only way she had of getting back. Daisy was an accomplished flirt and I knew she was no virgin when I married her but until the night of that party I never thought she could be unfaithful.
As Daisy and her friends well knew, I myself had been unfaithful on a number of occasions. My infidelity began during our honeymoon with a hotel chambermaid in Santa Barbara, a stupid and careless fling on my part that Daisy soon found out about. The girl was half-Mexican and a beauty and she wound up costing me quite a bit of money. There had been a few others before Myrtle—one back when we lived in Chicago and another, a would-be actress, that I ran across at Gatsby’s party. Daisy knew of Myrtle but not her full identity until I confessed all of it that terrible evening after Gatsby ran her down. It was then that Daisy and I finally had the heart-to-heart she said she always wanted and needed. We talked through the night and I told her about the Wilsons, the up-town apartment, and even the time I went there with Carraway, and all the while I could hear someone shuffling about on the gravel drive outside. After I confided all of this, and admitted I struck Myrtle for repeatedly shouting out her name (Carraway’s description of that drunken evening is fairly accurate) she put her hand over mine and told me through tears how Gatsby had taken her in Louisville when she was just eighteen.
He had vowed to marry her but then left for the war. He was twenty-seven, nearly ten years older, worldly, and with a determination she found appealing. He had deceived her and her family about his background, as he would continue to do with everyone he met. I long suspected she had given herself to one of the Camp Taylor officers but of course I had never heard of Gatsby until I saw him in Manhattan with Carraway and the unsavory Wolfsheim earlier that summer.
Daisy then broke down and confessed to their afternoons together for the past month.
“I’ll never see him again, Tom,” she sobbed, “never again. It was too cruel what he did to Walter. And then your…Mrs. Wilson. I begged him to stop and turn back but he sped up instead. I was terrified, Tom, it was terrifying…the whole evening…”
“I had the goods on him, Daisy. But I wasn’t sure when I’d confront him with it. I started to before lunch but your damned cousin got in the way. I was completely surprised Gatsby brought up Walter first. Did he mention it on the ride back?”
“He was enraged, at himself mostly. He beat his hands against the steering wheel and made no sense, assuring me he had nothing to do with Walter’s arrest and then saying how stupid it was of him to mention Walter. Kept repeating you tripped him up. Nothing he said was making sense—he was driving too fast.”
Daisy paused. “I’m glad you pressured him about Oxford, too. I now realize what a vicious liar he is.”
“He’s no Oxford man, Daisy.”
“No, I don’t mean that way. When he didn’t return to me right after the Armistice, I was devastated. I kept writing to him, growing more nervous by the day. He explained that he was frantic to see me but couldn’t come back because of certain complications and that he was under orders to go to Oxford. I tried to be patient but as the months passed I began to drift away. I went on dates with other officers at the camp–and, well, then I met you.”
She was trying to stifle deep sobs. “I did love him once, Tom—it’s true what I said at the hotel. But tonight, after you questioned him, his story changed. I didn’t put it together right away—I was so angry with you at that moment—but to you he says he was at Oxford because he took advantage of an opportunity they were offering officers. He never said that in his letters. I brought this up on the ride back and called him a pathetic liar. He tried to explain his way out of these stories by making up another one about Oxford. And then… Mrs. Wilson ran into the road. He was in the middle of another lie just as he struck her.”
“Tom, why did you insist I drive back with him? After what happened in that room? “
“I’m not sure, Daisy. I was playing by instinct, like on the football field. Maybe because after his admission I knew you would have no more to do with him and I wanted you to see him fully for what he is—an imposter, a crook, a complete Nobody. Everything about him is a lie. I had no idea he was a coward as well. He killed Myrtle, just as he probably murdered others who got in his way.”
“How did you know about the drug-stores?”
“I had a long talk with Walter yesterday afternoon and he told me about that scheme and hinted that there’s much more going on. Walter was crazy to get involved with these people but he was desperate, he’s flat broke. Now he’s frightened of what Gatsby and Gatsby’s associates might do—you’ve never met Meyer Wolfsheim, I hope….”
Daisy shuddered. “Jay would talk to him on the telephone.” She said she was aware that Gatsby’s new butler was one of his people: “A vile character.”
It was dawn when we finished talking. I embraced Daisy tenderly and she kissed me softly on the lips. She went into her room, and turned off the light. I never slept. I thought of going into Daisy’s bedroom to comfort her but all I could picture was Myrtle’s battered body lying on that filthy work-table in George Wilson’s garage and his pitiful, wailing moans. I felt like a heel but I also felt keenly the loss of her heavy intimacy and I despised Gatsby for what he did to both my marriage and my love affair. I lay in bed and seriously considered slipping out into the dawn, breaking into his gaudy mansion, and firing six shots into his dastardly head.
Later that morning, Daisy suggested it would be a good idea if we visited her family in Louisville for a few weeks. As we were upstairs packing, a disheveled and wild-eyed George Wilson forced his way into the house. I warned Daisy to stay in her room and went down to confront him. He had a gun and he threatened to kill me if I didn’t tell him who killed Myrtle and where he lived. At first I tried to calm him down and talk him out of it and said I was certain the police would find the driver soon enough. But he was crazed and dangerously incoherent so I simply told him the truth. Knowing Wilson, I did not think he would have the guts to pull it off. I’ve come to believe that this mad, determined act may have been the finest moment of George Wilson’s unhappy life.
I don’t think Wilson suspected me of being Myrtle’s lover. Had he confronted me about that I would have confessed and taken my chances. But he kept insisting he wanted to find the man who ran Myrtle down—he well knew from the night before that I was not the one–so I merely gave him what he asked for. I have never regretted that. Wilson, bless his soul, did what I should have done.
I heard that hardly a soul attended Gatsby’s burial. At the conclusion of his memoir, Carraway makes it appear as though all his friends deserted him. But the truth is that Gatsby had no friends. When Daisy and I returned two weeks later, Myrtle’s sister Catherine called me to say that the funeral for George and Myrtle was well attended and that after they were buried in adjoining plots Wilson’s friend Michaelis threw a nice reception for all the guests at his Greek coffee counter. Catherine mentioned that she’d been to the 158th Street apartment and rescued the pup I’d bought Myrtle back in July, that Sunday afternoon I brought Carraway into town to meet her. I had forgotten all about the poor dog. I thanked her.
“The Greek and I are going to be married soon, in November. I know Myrtle would have considered him beneath me but I’m not getting any younger, Tom, and the Greek was always so nice to George. So maybe something good has come of this.”
I congratulated her. “We have the silver leash you bought Myrtle for the puppy,” she added tentatively. I said they could keep it.
Robert Atwan is the founder and series editor of The Best American Essays. He lives in New York City and was always intrigued by what Fitzgerald wrote about Tom Buchanan: “I suppose he’s the best character I’ve ever done.”
See part five here.