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Crazy Night

  Crazy Night

  Tennessee Williams

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  Crazy Night

  Tennessee Williams

  It was the last night of the spring term and it was called Crazy Night because everyone cut loose on that night and had his last fling for the year. It was rather like New Year’s Eve except that it marked the end of something old without celebrating the beginning of anything new. And for that reason, though it was feverishly gay on the surface, it was really the saddest night of the year. Some of the students enjoyed it, I guess: some students enjoy anything that gives them a good excuse for getting drunk. But most of us got drunk and acted crazy because we were sad about the year being ended. Young people have a natural instinct for darkness when they’re sad, so the saddest of us drank the most on Crazy Night: the graduating seniors and the freshmen who had flunked out usually tried to get themselves blind drunk.

  The small, mid-western university town took on, for at least that one night, a carnival spirit. Restaurants and drug-stores remained open till two or three in the morning. The Campus Tea-Room, College Inn, Dining-Car, all the popular drinking and dancing places, were continuously jammed till train-time the next day when all students not staying for summer school met down at the old M. P. station, half of them taking the noon train east to Jack City, half of them taking the noon train west to St. Joseph, some of them still a little bit tipsy, and all of them more or less bleary-eyed from lack of sleep.

  This, incidentally, was during that Stygian period of American history between the economic crash of 1929 and the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, when students graduating or flunking out of college had practically every reason for getting drunk and little or nothing that was fit to drink. On this particular Crazy Night I remember that we drank corn whiskey secretly dispensed by a taxi-cab company and green beer that we had made in our own bath-tubs!

  I was a freshman who had flunked out. At least I thought that I had flunked out. For some reason which was quite obscure to me then but which was probably the birth-pains of a more adult philosophy, I had been unable to study for any of my finals. When the blue books were passed around that spring my mind had somehow refused to react normally to the white challenge of their blank, ruled lines. I had stared at them blindly while the oak-bound clocks ticked idiotically across the warm, sunny rooms and all the things that I had learned and thought of during the past year floated through my mind with the melancholy formlessness of ghosts.

  So when Crazy Night arrived I was feeling pretty low. I went into the phone booth of my fraternity house and called up Anna Jean. She was the girl I’d been dating all spring, and love being the usual prelude to wisdom in youth was probably responsible for what I thought was my intellectual decay. She belonged to one of those sororities that composed the “Demi-monde” of our campus social life. Girls from those sororities weren’t supposed to be invited to our dances or brought over for Sunday dinners when our guest lists appeared in the campus social columns. But on Crazy Night those girls became overwhelmingly popular because they were the fast babies of the campus, the ones that would drink and neck and stay out all night without expecting you to give them your pin.…

  I said: “Anna Jean, I’ve got to see you tonight. I can’t tell you why. I’ve just got to see you.”

  She said: “But, Phil, I told you that I’ve got a date with Harry tonight!”

  Anna Jean was a senior and so was Harry. He was a serious young fellow in the School of Business and Public Administration. Anna Jean didn’t like him much, she told me, but he had the distinct advantage of being a year older instead of two years younger than herself.

  I said: “You wouldn’t spend this last night with him, would you, when you know…”

  Anna Jean was in an hysterical state about something. Perhaps it was only the general tension of Crazy Night. She screamed: “I’ve made a fool of myself long enough over you! If you only knew all the razzing I’ve stood from the girls over here about dating a freshman! Hell, if I didn’t feel like I do about you, Phil, it would be different…”

  “I know how it is, Anna Jean,” I protested sadly, “But I…”

  “Sure, you know how it is! Sure you do!”

  Her voice softened a little. “Listen, Phil, if I can possibly get back from this beer party in time I’ll give you a ring. Of course I wanted to see you tonight if I possibly can. I want to tell you goodbye…”

  “You’re going out on a beer party with him?” I shouted furiously. “Well, go right ahead! Go ahead!”

  I hung up the receiver and went back down to the basement to do a little more solitary drinking.

  Our house-mother, Mrs. Fox, was stone deaf and everyone at the head table had shouted his head off during dinner in an effort to convince her that it would be perfectly safe to let us spend the year’s last night unchaperoned. We had finally gotten her off on the evening train.

  “You’ll be good boys?” she had begged from the train window as the train pulled out, and our house-president, smiling and waving his hat, had called back to her:

  “Thank God old Foxey’s gone!”

  That was just an hour ago. It was now eight o’clock. But already Crazy Night was beginning to hit its usual stride. There was a barrel of beer at each end of the basement and a tub of ice, soda, and ginger-ale in the middle. The floor had been waxed for dancing. We had brought the radio-victrola down from the parlor and there were already some girls in the basement, most of them well on the way.

  I looked around and wondered what to do with myself. At the back of my head there was a black cloud of incipient terror. Here I was at loose ends. School was the loom on which I had woven my life so far, and now I believed that loom to be destroyed.

  The beer was green. Two glasses made me feel rather sick. But I determinedly filled up a third.

  Charlie came up to me and said: “Have you heard about the big shipment of broads from Saint Joe? Yeah, a whole car-load of them just came in for Crazy Night! They’re down at the Lion’s Head Tavern and Buck says we can bring a couple out to the House if we keep it on the Q.T. The Delts and the Sigmas already have three of them operating at their Houses, and the Alphas have gone to get theirs. We’d better hurry or they’ll all be taken…”

  I said: “Good Lord, I never heard of anything so rotten! Buck was drunk or he’d never’ve said you could do it! Even if it is Crazy Night the Dean’d have us padlocked all next year if he found out a thing like that!”

  Then I remembered that next year I wouldn’t be here. I would be God knows where! So I shrugged my shoulders and started drinking down the third glass of green beer though my stomach was already shaking itself just like a wet cat.

  About fifteen minutes later the girls had arrived and were established on the third floor. The boys were lined up outside their base of operations. The boys were mostly freshmen who’d never done it before and wanted to see what it was like. It was handled in a very business-like manner, almost like vaccination the first day of school, each boy being allowed about five minutes, going in sort of white and trembling and coming out very loud and excited or with a sheepish look on his face—indicating quite plainly the difference between
an initial success or failure in the sexual skirmish.

  I stood at the head of the stairs and watched for a while, hardly knowing whether to feel envious or disgusted.

  “I never heard of anything so rotten!” I kept repeating. But when a door was opened and one of the girls came out and walked into the bathroom I looked after her delectably wobbling flanks with eyes that must have expressed something more than conscientious disapproval.

  I went back down to the basement. It was now almost as bad down there. One of the seniors had imported a hot party from his hometown. She had on nothing but a white satin evening dress. The boys cut in on her every two or three steps. She was just swinging from one to another all the way around the basement. I watched for a while from the foot of the stairs, and then the ways that she moved her body got under my skin and I cut in, too. I knew at once why the boys were all so excited. After that I cut in as often as I could. But the competition steadily thickened. The girl lost one of her slippers. A boy grabbed it. He ran upstairs with it to the chaperone’s room. The girl followed him. She chased him into the room and the door was slammed and locked behind them.

  The party went on in the basement, but now it was hopelessly dull. I went back upstairs. I wandered aimlessly about the entrance hall, library, card-room and lounge. They were deserted. The pale stucco walls, rich tapestries and carpets, massive furniture and wine-red upholstery, emptied of their usual sprawling life and lighted dimly by a single chandelier, had an unfamiliar, depressing air. There was an alarming tightness in my throat. I walked quickly over to the large oak doors and pulled them open. The night air came in cool and sweet, faintly scented with a flowering vine. This was unendurable. I slammed the doors shut and ran over to the telephone booth and dialed Anna Jean’s number. Of course she hadn’t come back from her date with Harry. It was only nine o’clock…

  “She won’t be in at all!” I groaned, “The whole thing’s washed up!”

  Another freshman had entered the hall and was hanging tipsily to the newel post.

  “Have a drink,” he suggested. I took a long drag from his bottle of corn. This was Jerry. He had the Byronic complex. He was the poet and philosopher of the House and was chiefly known to the campus for his precious manners and eccentric style of dress. Tonight he was hardly recognizable. His face was flushed, his hair tousled, and there was a mad, rapturous look in his pale eyes. I suspected this was the first time that he had ever gotten drunk.

  “What’s got into you?” I asked sarcastically, “Have you made some new discovery regarding Life?”

  Usually he was offended by remarks of this sort. He usually took himself pretty seriously. But tonight he only laughed and took another drink from his pint. It was half gone. Clutching my arm to support himself he sank down on the bottom step of the stairs.

  “When one has unlearned his last belief,” he whispered excitedly, “There is a certain feeling of… of redemption!”

  “God! That’s nonsense!” I scoffed. But I sank down on the stair beside him and was secretly hoping that he would go on. For the first time in my life I felt a definite need of philosophy.

  “When one has unlearned his last belief he stands…”

  “All right, where does he stand?” I asked impatiently.

  A secretive look came suddenly into Jerry’s eyes. He took another drink from his pint of corn. Then he grinned at me mockingly and got up from the stair.

  “He doesn’t stand at all,” said Jerry, “He sits on his ass!”

  I looked after him with hate as he sauntered over to the davenport and lay down with the bottle clasped between his knees. I was sure that he had found something out, something that I was needing tonight, but wouldn’t tell me because I had always made fun of him for being a philosopher.

  “I’ll find it out for myself,” I muttered drunkenly. “I don’t need that bastard to tell me!”

  I opened the oak doors of the House again and stood looking up at the stars in the ancient gesture of young men thinking of Life. But the stars had lost their usual fixity. They were shooting all over the sky as though they had just been exploded from some gigantic cracker. I was badly frightened. But at the same time rather relieved. If this were indeed the millennium, the uncertainty of my own future was less important.

  “Come here!” I shouted to Jerry, “The stars have got loose!”

  “The stars are as tight as you are!” he answered soberly from the davenport.

  Ah, yes, I remembered, I’ve gotten myself pretty drunk!

  Just then Buck Stewart, the chapter-president, came dashing up the front walk. He was all out of breath. He ran into the hall and rang the bells on every floor.

  “The Federal agents are back in town,” he shrieked from the bottom of the stairs, “and you’ve got to get all the alky out of the House! We’ve got a tip that they’ll be on the war-path in half an hour and it’s a cinch that they’ll come here first!”

  For several minutes “pandemonium ensued.” Everyone was running up and down the stairs with their bottles and flasks. The freshmen struggled upstairs from the basement with the two barrels. Everything was taken out to the vacant lot in back of the house where the weeds grew tall, offering a sanctuary in which the House wasn’t strictly involved. Blankets and pillows were scattered around the lot and one of the boys whose father owned a local grocery store drove the delivery truck out there. He put a cot in the truck and charged fifty cents admission. For a while one of the Saint Joe floozies continued her operations from that base. But Buck had sobered up slightly. He sent her back to the hotel with a parting kick in the rump and all the boys who’d been with her or the other two Pros were herded down to the corner drug store to buy the necessary precautions.

  When this excitement had passed I wandered back into the House. It was a quarter past ten and the House was dead quiet. I walked up and down the empty corridors, hearing only the sound of my own footsteps. Here and there were discarded soda bottles. I gathered them up and threw them out the back windows. I didn’t care about the Feds or about the House anymore. I was past all caring. But this activity gave me an illusion of purpose.

  Finally I wandered into the second-floor bathroom. There I discovered a freshman lying on the floor with his face in a steadily widening pool of vomit. I picked him up and set him on one of the johnnies and washed off his face with some wet tissue paper. He was mumbling, with his head between his knees, about one of the Saint Joseph broads.

  “She said that I was too drunk, she said that l was too drunk!”

  “Perhaps she was just too sober!” I suggested.

  “She said that I was too drunk, she said that I was too drunk!”

  There was something horrible about this toneless croaking, like a phonograph needle caught in the crack of a record and repeating over and over one phrase which stood alone with such an ugly insistence that you began to doubt the fluidity of all things.

  “She said that I was too drunk, she said that I was too drunk!”

  “You need some fresh air.” I remarked.

  But it was I who most needed fresh air. I went over to the window and pushed it all the way up. We were on the third floor and directly beneath this window was the concrete drive. I sat on the sill and almost wished that I would fall out. My head was still slightly whirling. But the cool air and the placid look of the starry sky and all the sounds of drunken jubilation from below quickly sobered me up. I thought of the year that was behind me. It was like a gorgeous kaleidoscope till right at the end when everything had filmed mysteriously over and turned black. I tried to think of the years that were in front of me. But I couldn’t. This night had an awful finality. There was really nothing beyond it.

  The phone was ringing in the hall.

  “Tell her I’m not drunk,” groaned the freshman. “Tell her I’m perfectly sober now!”

  He had fallen down to the floor again and was crawling like a half-squashed insect frantically toward the door.

  “God!” I thought,
But it’s a crazy sort of a night!”

  I went to answer the phone. My heart skipped a beat. It was actually Anna Jean…

  “Hello, Phil!” she yelled, “I’m coming right over!”

  I stood out on the front steps and waited for her. In a minute I saw her darting out of the sorority house across the street. I ran to meet her. We came together in the middle of the street. I don’t know whether it was I or Anna Jean—but all of a sudden our arms were around each other and our lips were pressing together as though each of us were dying and drinking life from the other.

  When this first embrace had burnt itself out we started slowly across the street and went into the House.

  “My God, how quiet it is!” she gasped.

  “Yeah, they’ve all cleared out,” I told her, “There’s a rumor that the Feds are back in town!”

  “It gives me the jitters!” she whispered. “Say, have you got anything to drink?”

  I ran upstairs and took out of my chiffonier the pint of corn that I had been saving for her. She was lying on the sofa when I came back down. She was crying like a baby, one arm hanging lifelessly over the sofa’s edge. She raised the arm toward me as I approached with the bottle, seized it, and tilted it straight up from her mouth. When she took it down again a fourth of it was gone. I took as long a gulp as my gorge would allow.

  Coughing a little, she whispered: “It’s our last night!”

  She sighed like a child, smiled a little, and folded her hands under one cheek.

  “Isn’t it a crazy sort of a night?” I asked.

  She closed her eyes, smiling slightly, as my hand touched her shoulder.

  “Yes, everything’s sort of breaking up. I’ve been up here four years now, and this is the very last night of all.”

  “It’s the last night for me, too,” I said, “I’m sure I must’ve flunked out.”

  “Maybe you didn’t,” she suggested without much interest. “But anyway, that’s no worse than graduating out.”

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