By Charles McNamara
The concierge, Earl Wattenberg, greeted Randolph Carter and showed him to a table in the elegant Tea Room of the Brown Palace Hotel. The ornate Tea Room was illuminated by a kaleidoscope of light from the stained-glass atrium eight stories above them.
Wattenberg thought Carter’s cowboyish gait was at odds with his Brooks Brothers suit. There was a casualness to him that didn’t quite fit with cloth so crisp. When he’d first met Carter, he expected to see a holstered pistol and a gray felt Stetson.
Carter smiled at Wattenberg. Like a long-lost brother, he shook Wattenberg’s hand warmly with a perfect squeeze and eye contact that invited friendship. He was a regular guest.
Carter’s usual tea selection was Fleur de Geisha a refined Japanese green tea delicately flavored with cherry blossom.
The waitress set a three-level tray of scones and finger sandwiches on his table. Devonshire cream sat in a cup in the middle of the tray. Carter knew the clotted cream was shipped directly from England. He loved it on his scones. The soft sounds of a pianist floated through the afternoon atrium light.
The Tea Room was a place for lovers. Every possible place to sit was taken by couples gazing into one another’s eyes or laughing. Carter, who was always alone, sat statuelike, his face clean-shaven and serious. Yet he hoped to meet a woman who would enjoy tea. He sat in the Tea Room every afternoon whenever he was back in The Mile High City.
The Fleur de Geisha was created as a tribute to Kyoto’s secretive geisha culture. Carter had spent four years posing as a correspondent for The Denver Post in Japan during The Great War but, in fact, was a military attaché writing in-depth narratives on Japan’s role in the war. His photography of Japanese soldiers, their weapons, and arms factories made him invaluable to the U.S. Army.
In his spare time, though, he’d made many portraits of the geisha: their painted porcelain faces, red lipstick emphasizing their mouths and the blackness of their elaborate hairdos. He was captivated.
To him, the geisha were mysterious, rather than simply beautiful. He saw something different in each face.
He now worked as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration based in Denver. His job since 1930 was documenting life on western rural farms. Every month he drove his government-issued Ford sedan hundreds of miles across barren, dusty high plains dirt roads, stopping to photograph the struggles of dryland farmers in eastern Colorado, western Kansas, and the panhandle region of north Texas and western Oklahoma.
When he returned to Denver, he went directly to the basement of the Navarre building where he’d rented space for a darkroom. The Navarre was a brothel, but he never entered those areas. It was part of the Broadway architectural trifecta made up of the Trinity United Methodist, Denver’s oldest church; the old brownstone Brown Palace Hotel; and the four-story red brick Navarre, all facing each other.
In the dark, he unloaded the four-by-five sheet film from their holders and dipped them in the row of chemical baths.
The first wave of the Dust Bowl had just blown in. He was anxious to view his work from the trip. The next day, when the negatives were dry, he printed two sets of contact sheets. Before mailing the negatives and a contact sheet to his boss in Washington D.C., he enlarged the best images for himself. The work required many late nights in the darkroom.
The image that kept him working late that night was a portrait of a somber woman standing alone next to a shack in Cheyenne Wells, Colorado. She didn’t smile. Her eyes were vacant.
He took the print to show Wattenberg, who lived vicariously through Carter’s photographs.
On his free days, Carter usually strolled along Broadway or Grant Street, toward the state capitol, or sat in Civic Center Park, or sat in the hotel lobby and listened to the conversations of the guests. Today’s conversations revolved around the 1935 World Heavyweight Championship winner, Jim Braddock.
He’d thought about asking a woman to tea, but didn’t know anyone. Concierges in Kyoto’s five-star hotels were able to set up evenings for those who wanted to experience geisha entertainment at a Kyoto restaurant so he inquired with Wattenberg.
“Perhaps a prostitute?” Wattenberg said.
“I’m not interested in quick sex,” Carter said. “I miss the refined geisha entertainment performing the ancient traditions of art, dance, and singing.
“I’d like to find a pleasant woman, a companion, a hostess if you will. We could have tea together.”
Wattenberg thought about the women he’d met at the Navarre as a starting place.
When Carter checked into the Brown Palace on his next trip back to Denver, Wattenberg greeted him at the front desk. “I think I’ve found someone special. She can meet you today for tea if you like.”
Wattenberg watched for Carter’s reaction. His mouth twitched. Wattenberg was pretty sure he was fighting a smile.
The woman who strode across the Team Room on Wattenberg’s arm could have graced any magazine cover. There was a shyness to her, a hesitation in her body movements. Her cream suit had a tailored look that was bold against her vibrant skin. She wore red lipstick.
She was introduced to Carter simply as Maddy, no last name. Long black hair flowed across her ears and down her neck.
A bottle of Veuve Clicquot was brought to the table on ice. Carter poured a bubbling glass for them. He looked toward the front desk and raised his glass to Wattenberg acknowledging his thoughtfulness.
“Here’s to you and here’s to me,” Carter said raising his glass once again in her direction. “Friends may we always be.”
Maddy replied with her own toast. “May you have the hindsight to know where you’ve been, the foresight to know where you’re going, and the insight to know when you’ve gone too far.”
She clinked his glass and lowered her eyes self-consciously. Carter was fascinated.
“The concierge told me you are looking for someone to share tea with,” Maddy said.
“Yes, a companion, not a courtesan.”
“What do you do for a living?”
“I’m a photographer.”
“Really?” She raised her eyebrows and rolled her eyes. “Honestly?” Her accent was tinged with a midwestern skepticism.
“I can show you my work if you like.”
“I’d look forward to that,” she said.
“Your perfume is lovely,” Carter said. “May I ask what it is?”
“Bellodgia Caron, from Paris,” Maddy said.
He nodded approvingly. “I like it. Will you wear it next time?”
“For tea, right?”
“Yes. Always for tea. Nothing else.”
“How refreshing.” She paused and looked into his eyes. Her gaze was alluring.
Carter felt he was in the wrong place, as if such comfort was meant for someone else. He could lose himself in the depth of her eyes. He wanted to move closer and smell her hair but he remained still, tempted but paralyzed.
“What have you been photographing?”
“The Dust Bowl just started east of here. I have a mysterious photo of a car being chased by a towering black blizzard of sand.”
“Good heavens,” Maddy said.
“I made another image standing ankle-deep in the fine dirt blown into a tall dune. Trees stuck out of the sand, stripped of their leaves.
“I also made a portrait of a somber woman standing alone next to a shack over in Cheyenne Wells.”
“What did she look like?” Maddy asked.
“She didn’t smile. Her eyes were vacant. Her hair was pulled behind her head, exposing large ears. Her worn calico dress revealed she had nothing. Her face was impenetrable. The ground around her was covered with silt.
“Just before I clicked the shutter, she touched her lips with her fingers. As the image emerged in the developer, I knew I’d captured her desolation,” Carter said.
“You aren’t like most men I know. You have a deep respect for your subjects and a cheerful enthusiasm like you’ve just been on an inspiring hike in the mountains. Being near you is like taking a vacation from my world.”
“What is your world, may I ask?” Carter said.
Maddy grimaced as though she was in pain. She looked down, unable to look into his eyes.
Carter could see her ears turning red. He changed the subject.
“Do you enjoy dancing?” Carter asked.
“I love dancing,” she said looking up at him.
“Perhaps you will join me here for the next tea dance.”
“I will. Those dances seem to be reserved for the genteel guests from out of town.”
“I can arrange an invitation for the two of us.”
A week later, Carter asked the concierge to invite Maddy to join him at the tea dance in the ballroom.
Without being escorted, she strolled across the ballroom dressed in an ankle-length ruffle wrap dress with a textured floral jacquard of white mums on a red background.
“You remind me of a Japanese geisha,” Carter said, standing to hold her chair.
“The concierge told me how much you enjoyed the geisha. I hope this pleases you.”
Her dress hugged her curves with a deep scoop neckline and feminine cap sleeves. The dress was tight around the smallest part of her waist and flared around her hips.
It had a frilly, curvy femininity that emphasized her bosom. He knew all eyes would be on her on the dance floor.
“Yes, it’s perfect,” he said.
Carter wore black pants and a white shirt. A simple red flower adorned his black vest.
Lalo Guerrero and his orchestra played songs of Benny Goodman, Django Reinhart and Stéphane Grappelli, and Glen Miller. Latin songs were included to please the pachucos and pachucas in the audience.
Carter was pleased that she followed him so effortlessly. His hand barely touched her waist and her arm only brushed his shoulder. Her eyes rarely left his face.
When the orchestra played Latin songs, Maddy stepped back and raised her arms over her head swaying to the rhythm.
Carter told her. “You are an exquisite dancer. You have a rhythm in your soul.”
“You are very kind to say that,” she said, “but I am far from a perfect woman.”
They danced until the orchestra was finished for the evening. It was after dark.
“May I walk you home?”
“No thanks. I don’t live far.”
“Until next time then.” He kissed her hand.
He never saw Maddy again. Wattenberg inquired at the Navarre. They knew only she’d moved out.
Carter continued his travels documenting the Dust Bowl. When he returned, he watched couples laugh and hold hands from his corner of the Tea Room. How could they be happy when he felt so lost? He wanted them to feel his pain so he wouldn’t be so lonely, but part of him was glad they couldn’t. It was private after all.
He was sick at heart when he thought of them dancing, touching the small of her back, seeing her reactions to his photos, smelling her hair, small things he knew they would now never share.
Months passed until Wattenberg spoke of her again. He asked Carter if he missed her. Carter simply smiled, lost in a pleasant memory he wasn’t about to share. All he said was, “Pretty, wasn’t she?”