An Exclusive Excerpt From James M. Cain’s Lost Last Novel, ‘The Cocktail Waitress’

The late ‘Mildred Pierce’ and ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’ author’s final novel apparently moldered for decades in his deceased agent’s old files before a crime-books editor tracked it down. Exciting! Also, apparently true. The novel, which tells the story of a beautiful young widow who’s “forced to take a job serving drinks in a cocktail lounge to make ends meet” comes out next week. Here’s some of it. Note: it gets a little racy.

The Wigwam looked normal enough on the outside, just a double door with a sign over it, which Tom pushed open as though he’d been there before. But inside, it seemed different from any club I’d been in, though of course I hadn’t been in too many. Instead of the bright, somewhat noisy atmosphere you would expect, it was twilight dark, a large room with a tall leather wigwam at one end and booths all around, with heavy curtains drawn close, shutting them off. And the girls were oddly dressed, if you could call them dressed at all. The hostess, a girl Tom called Rhoda, had on a buckskin coat with fringed bottom, which of course was decent enough, but the waitresses, who Rhoda spoke of as “Pocahontases,” were practically naked — they were topless, and except for a skimpy swimsuit bottom in the French bikini style, bottomless too. Each of them also wore a feather, caught in a lock on top, and lopped down over one ear in a coquettish way. By looking at them, I knew those girls were for sale, and I guess I didn’t mind much, as I knew that such things went on and, from talking with Liz, that women I might like and respect could do them; and yet I began to feel nervous, and sick at the stomach somehow — or if not exactly sick, a bit queasy, as they say. I felt I had my foot in something. But I didn’t want to show it — I wanted to come off as a woman of the world, not a waitress. So I maintained an unruffled demeanor, smiled though my narrowed lips, and tightened my grip on Tom’s arm.

Rhoda called us a Pocahontas, then took us to a booth, pulling the curtain open and sliding the table out, so we could slip in behind. But the table didn’t have seats on three sides, as crosswise booth tables have, but rather just one seat on the far side, and a very long seat at that. It must have been six feet long, with an upholstered pad on it, and a pillow at one end. I slipped in, and Rhoda asked: “Can I take your coat?”

I hesitated for a moment before giving it to her, and she nodded appraisingly when she saw my uniform beneath it. I found myself feeling grateful for the darkness of the room. She put my coat on a hanger that was there, on the rail the curtain ran on. Then she asked what we wanted to drink, and Tom said seltzer, somewhat to my relief, and I said ginger ale. Rhoda didn’t seem much surprised, and as she left us, said: “Amy will be by to serve you in a minute.”

Then she left, and we sat there, very self-conscious, not saying much. Somewhere, a recorded orchestra played Three O’clock in the Morning, and Tom said it was one of the great waltzes of all time. It never had hit me that way, but I said: “Yes, isn’t it?” as though I really loved it. Then one of the girls came with our drinks. She put them down, and said: “Now, when I go I’ll close your curtain, and won’t bother you after that — fact of the matter, nobody will. You want your candle out just blow it, and there’s matches, to light it again, you want to. You want me, I mean you want service, like more drinks or something, there’s your light, that button there.” She showed us a fixture on the table, beside the candle. “Just press it, it puts on the light in front, and pretty soon, I’ll come. Or if not me, some girl. Like, with me, I could be tied up, you know what I mean? I might be more or less busy, but if I am, one of the girls will come, just give her a minute or two. What I mean, don’t get antsy too quick. Take it easy, and one of the girls will come.”

“…You could be busy, you say?” asked Tom. “Doing what, like?”

“Well the customer, he can get lonely.”

“And you keep him company?”

“Something along that line.”

I didn’t much care for her, and couldn’t resist the temptation to ask her: “Still wearing that bikini bottom? Or do you take it off?”

“It all depends.”

Then, looking me straight in the eye: “Like, for a guy with a girl- friend that don’t put out and he wants some help of me, I take it off — it unhooks easy as pie. See?” She unhooked it, to give Tom a glimpse of fuzz, and then, continuing to me: “So, if you want me to help you out, put your light on, just press the button once, and I’ll do what I can. Something else you want to know?”

“No — beat it.”

That was Tom, and she said: “On my way,” and left.

“Well,” I said, “that was making it plain.”

“Drumming up trade, I’d say.”

“Though, I have to admit she’s pretty.”

“I didn’t notice.”

He was quite solemn as he said it, and I guess I made a face. He didn’t say anything, but suddenly blew out the candle. Once more, we could hear the waltz going. Pretty soon, in the half dark, he said: “…Well? Where were we?”

“I wouldn’t know,” I said. “Were we anywhere?”

“Yeah, we were somewhere. I recall your making me apologize for it. Maybe we can begin where we left off.” And with that, first putting his arm around me, he slid his other hand right where he’d put it that night, and I locked my legs, in exactly the selfsame way. But he kept sliding his hand higher, up, up, up, stroking with his index finger as he went — until his hand was inside my hot pants, and then working its way across. And then, almost before I knew it, it was in a woman’s most intimate spot, and I was turning to water. Instead of clamping tight to resist, I was quite limp, and have to admit, enchanted his hand was there. It had been a time, not just since Ron’s death but for nearly a year before, and I forgot how much I missed it. Sitting there with Tom’s strong hands on me, I felt like my ribs might crack from the force of my heart’s pounding behind them. Then he suddenly took his hand away, and began unbuttoning my pants, at the placket on one side, and I was wriggling to help, to shuffle them off. My blouse came next, and his shirt, and then he was pushing me back, back against the pillow, his weight pressing down on me, his bare chest against mine.

Then, then at last, I thought of Mr. White, and how important the plans were that I’d made for him, and how it could all go in the soup if I let this thing happen with Tom. And I thought of Ethel, and her charge that I was doing with my customers exactly what I was about to do; and of Private Church, who’d been blessedly silent for weeks, but might not remain so if he got wind of this, a lover after all, even if it wasn’t Joe Pennington. I thought of all of them, and fighting every instinct I had I got my hands clear and pushed, pushed Tom up and away. He fought me, playfully, and I fought him, to mean it, and at last bit him on the cheek. He began to growl, and I pushed some more, until I could sit up. My pushing reached the table, and suddenly it toppled over into the curtain. I jumped up, banging him in the face accidentally with my knee, got clear, slipped around, grabbed my coat, and raced through the nightclub, out the door, and over the lot to my car. I’d left my pants and blouse in the booth; I ran in just my panties, clutching my coat haphazardly in front of my breasts. Then I remembered my bag — and found it under my arm, how it got there I don’t know, I don’t remember grabbing it. Then into my car, snapping the safety catch down and winding the window up. In the bag I found my car key, but by that time Tom was there, shirt hanging loose, belt unbuckled, banging on the window and grunting: “Goddam it, Joan, open that door!”

I didn’t open. I turned the key, stepped on the pedal, and when the motor spoke went into gear and backed. But to get off the lot, I had to turn and go forward. He raced to block me off, standing in front of the car and holding his hands up, like some kind of traffic cop. I ran straight at him, so he jumped up on the bumper and sprawled on the hood as I kept right on. Then I suddenly stopped so he toppled off. I swerved to miss driving over him and then kept right on, going straight home, the coat fallen into my lap, my body exposed by each passing streetlight so that anyone looking in might have seen. But I didn’t stop so I could put the coat on; I didn’t even slow down. I just said a silent prayer that no one would see me, and as far as I could tell, no one did.

When I turned in my drive, the dash clock said three o’clock in the morning. “One of the great waltzes,” I thought, climbing out, unlocking the door, and going in.

‘The Cocktail Waitress,’ out September 18, also comes with a 4,000 word feature on how Hard Case Crime editor Charles Ardai found it.