Williams was wearing gray slacks and a blue cotton shirt turned up at the sleeves. His heavy black shoes and thick rubber soles were oddly out of place in the elegance of Mercer House, but practical; Williams spent several hours a day on his feet restoring antique furniture in his basement workshop. His hands were raw and callused, but they had been scrubbed clean of stains and grease.
"If there's a single trait common to all Savannahians," he was saying, "it's their love of money and their unwillingness to spend it."
"Then who buys those high-priced antiques I just saw in your shop?" I asked.
"That's exactly my point," he said. "People from out town. Atlanta, New Orleans, New York. That's where I most of my business. When I find an especially fine piece furniture I send a photograph of it to a New York dealer. don't waste time trying to sell it here in Savannah. It's not that people in Savannah aren't rich enough. It's just that they're very cheap. I'll give you an example.
"There's a woman here, a grande dame at the very apex of society and one of the richest people in the Southeast, let alone Savannah. She owns a copper mine. She built a big house in an exclusive part of town, a replica of a famous Louisiana plantation house with huge white columns and curved stairs. You can see it from the water. Everybody goes, 'Oooo, look!' when they pass by it. I adore her. She's been like a mother to me. But she's the cheapest woman who ever lived! Some years ago she ordered a pair of iron gates for her house. They were designed and built especially for her. But when they were delivered she pitched a fit, said they were horrible, said they were filth. 'Take them away,' she said, 'I never want to see them again!' Then she tore up the bill, which was for $1,400 - a fair amount of money in those days.
"The foundry took the gates back, but they didn't know what to do with them. After all, there wasn't much demand for a pair of ornamental gates exactly that size. The only thing they could do was to sell the iron for its scrap value. So they cut the price from $1,400 to $190. Naturally, the following day the woman sent a man over to the foundry with $190, and today those gates are hanging on her gateposts where they were originally designed to go. That's pure Savannah. And that's what I mean by cheap. You mustn't be taken in by the moonlight and magnolias. There's more to Savannah than that. Things can get very murky." Williams stroked his cat and tapped another ash into the ashtray.
"We had a judge back in the nineteen-thirties, a member of one of the city's leading families. He lived one square over from here in a big house with tall white columns. His older son was going around town with a gangster's girlfriend. The gangster warned him to stop, but the judge's son kept right at it. One night the doorbell rang and when the judge opened the door, he found his son lying on the porch bleeding to death with his private parts tucked under his lapel. The doctors sewed his genitals back on, but the body rejected them and he died. The next day, the headline in the paper read FALL FROM PORCH PROVES FATAL. Most members of that family still deny the murder ever happened, but the victim's sister tells me it's true.
"It doesn't end there. The same judge had another son. This one lived in a house on Whitaker Street. He and his wife used to fight. I mean really go at it, throw each other across rooms and that sort of thing. During one of those fights, their three-year-old daughter came downstairs unnoticed, just when the husband was getting ready to fling his wife into a marble-topped table. When the woman hit the table, it overturned and crushed the little girl. They didn't find out about it until an hour later when they were picking up the debris from the fight. As far as the family is concerned, that incident never happened either."
Williams picked up the decanter of Madeira And refilled our glasses. "Drinking Madeira is a great Savannah ritual, you know," he said. "It's a celebration of failure, actually. The British sent whole shiploads of grapevines over from Madeira in the eighteenth century in hopes of turning Georgia into a wine-producing colony. Savannah's on the same latitude as Madeira. Well, the vines died, but Savannah never lost its taste for Madeira. Or any other kind of liquor for that matter. Prohibition didn't even slow things down here. Everybody had a way of getting liquor, even little old ladies. Especially the old ladies. A bunch of them bought a Cuban rumrunner and ran it back and forth between here and Cuba."
Excerpted from Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. Copyright© 1994 by John Berendt. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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